Napoleon, Benny N. 1956(?)–
Benny N. Napoleon 1956(?)–
Veteran police officer, Benny Napoleon, was named the Detroit’s chief of police in July of 1998 by Mayor Dennis Archer. He is one of the youngest bosses of a major urban police force in the United States. Napoleon, a lifelong Detroiter, succeeded his mentor, outgoing police chief Isaiah McKinnon.
When the promotion was announced, many of Napoleon’s friends, family, and colleagues admitted to reporters that he had long harbored an ambition to be Detroit’s police chief. Napoleon was the son of a Baptist minister and one of seven children who grew up on the city’s west side. After graduating from Cass Technical High School in 1973, Napoleon landed a job as a shoe salesman in downtown Detroit. When a police recruiting van parked near the store one day, he decided to get information about careers in law enforcement. Napoleon passed the entrance examination, entered the academy, and graduated in 1975. He was sworn in as a Detroit police officer on June 24, 1975.
Napoleon began his law enforcement career as a patrolman, and quickly gained a variety of experience through his transfers around various departments and units. He spent several years in the Tactical Services Section, and enrolled at Detroit’s Mercy College to earn a degree in criminal justice in 1982. One year later, Napoleon was promoted to sergeant in the gang squad and youth crime units. This was an especially difficult assignment because the city of Detroit, like other major urban centers, was struggling to contain well-organized and heavily-armed drug gangs during the mid-1980s.
Napoleon was quickly promoted to lieutenant, and attended law school during his off-duty hours. After graduating with a law degree from the Detroit College of Law in 1986, he divided his energies between police duties and his own private practice. In the early 1990s Napoleon served as commander of an east-side precinct, and was asked to become an advisor to mayoral candidate Dennis Archer. After Archer was elected mayor in 1993, Napoleon’s longtime friend and mentor, Isaiah McKinnon, was named the city’s new chief of police. McKinnon, who had first met Napoleon when both men played in the police basketball league, had
At a Glance…
Born c. 1956, in Detroit, MI; son of Harry (a minister) and Betty Napoleon; children: Tiffani, Education: Mercy College, BA, 1982; Detroit College of Law, J.D., 1986; also graduated from the National Academy of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Religion: Baptist.
Career: Detroit Police Department, began as patrolman, 1975, promoted to sergeant, 1983, named assistant chief of staff to deputy chief of eastern operations, mid-1980s, promoted to lieutenant, named inspector in Special Crimes (gang squad), commander of 9th Precinct, until 1994, assistant chief of police, 1994-98, chief of police, 1998-.
Addresses; Office —City of Detroit Police Headquarters, 1300 Beaubien, Detroit, MI 48226.
encouraged Napoleon to further his education and pursue promotions in rank.
In January of 1994, ice skater Nancy Kerrigan was injured at the U.S. figure skating championships in Detroit. An assailant had struck Kerrigan’s knee with a pipe as she exited the ice, and then quickly vanished. The incident was viewed as another public relations disaster for the city of Detroit, which had a negative reputation as a place of violence and lawlessness. Napoleon, as deputy chief, appeared frequently at press conferences to brief members of the media on his department’s efforts to find Kerrigan’s attacker, and their cooperative efforts with other law-enforcement agencies. Two days later, a woman from another state telephoned Detroit police headquarters, and specifically requested to speak with Napoleon. She supplied Napoleon with information which led to the arrest of the attacker, who was an associate of Kerrigan’s competitor, Tonya Harding.
In his tenure as deputy chief during the mid-1990s, Napoleon oversaw the Detroit police department’s homicide, narcotics, and armed robbery units, among several others. He also continued to serve as the police department’s media spokesperson. His frequent television appearances had made Napoleon a local celebrity, and he received large quantities of fan mail from female admirers. Jeffrey S. Ghannam, a reporter for the Detroit Free Press, described Napoleon as “young, smart and smooth—a 90s Eliot Ness in Italian suits.” During these years, Napoleon was considered a viable candidate for police chief in both New Orleans and Atlanta. In his article, Ghannam also noted that Napoleon’s polished, executive image did not endear him to some of Detroit’s rank-and-file officers. Because Napoleon had little experience patrolling the streets, many of these officers did not believe that he was qualified to serve as chief of police.
After McKinnon announced his plans to retire, Mayor Dennis Archer quickly promoted Napoleon to police chief. The announcement was made in July of 1998 at a news conference/church service at Tennessee National Baptist Church, the Detroit church headed by the Reverend Harry Napoleon. Napoleon addressed the assembled crowd of friends, family, and media, and was clearly overwhelmed that he had attained this longtime goal. “The people I know and love live in this city and to fix the everyday problems of Detroiters you need an everyday police chief,” Napoleon told the Detroit Free Press.
During his first year as chief of police, Napoleon made an effort to step up the war on gangs and drugs in Detroit. He also worked toward improving community relations and reducing the number of stolen cars. He also led a force of 4,200 officers and oversaw an annual budget of $335 million. Napoleon also ordered the creation of more community block patrols, and vowed to reduce the response rate between the moment a call is received by Detroit’s 911 emergency services and the arrival of officers at the scene.
The population of the city of Detroit is approximately 75 percent African American, and the police force is 62 percent African American. Because of this, Detroit experiences relatively few accusations of “racial profiling,” the term used to describe a police force’s tendency to pull over and question more African Americans than whites. Such occurrences are more common in Detroit’s predominantly white suburbs, and even happened to Napoleon on one occasion. “I was a sergeant,” Napoleon recalled in an interview with the Detroit Free Press. “And, believe me, I was pretty hot about it. I had a police officer stick a gun in my face and kept it there after he knew I was a Detroit police officer and a sergeant. And I am standing at the intersection…, my hands in the air, looking down the barrel of a big, big gun…. He had my identification in his hand. And I am standing there looking at him, asking him, why do you have this gun in my face? I told you I am a police officer. I told you I have a gun. Why are you still pointing a gun in my face? And the guy isn’t saying anything to me.”
The officers told Napoleon that there had been a robbery in the area that evening. Fortunately, two Detroit officers happened to drive by the intersection, recognized Napoleon, and stopped. Napoleon told them to be sure to stay and observe, in case any trouble occurred. “The stop itself didn’t bother me because people get stopped by the police all the time,” Napoleon said in the Detroit Free Press interview. “He could have said I was speeding. I didn’t think I was. The stop wasn’t the problem. The problem was what happened after the stop. After he knew that I was a police officer and armed, he decided to keep this gun in my face.”
Napoleon is single, but is the father of one daughter. He is a graduate of the National Academy of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and has taught as an adjunct professor at local colleges. Napoleon’s brother, Hilton, is a Detroit police sergeant. As chief of police, Napoleon believes that he has a personal stake in the welfare of Detroit and its citizens. “With the exception of one sister everybody in my immediate family, mother and father, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, they all live in the city of Detroit,” Napoleon told the Detroit Free Press in a 1999 interview. “They are living in the neighborhoods. I have aunts and uncles, close friends and people who raised me as if I was their child. And they are living in the neighborhoods. And don’t think these people don’t call me. And don’t think these people don’t call my mother.”
Detroit Free Press, February 4, 1994, p. 1A; July 15, 1998, p. 1A; July 26, 1999, p. 9A.
Ebony, October, 1998, pp. 100-108.
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