Ward, Benjamin

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Benjamin Ward


Police commissioner

Benjamin Ward was the first African-American police commissioner and the first African-American corrections commissioner in New York City. After a string of service jobs that took him from traffic cop to commissioner in 1983, Ward served in a city dominated by a spike in crime related to the rise of crack cocaine. He gained national attention for his adherence to the idea that police officers must become social service agents in addition to enforcing the law. After his retirement, Ward remained involved with the legal system as a member of citizens' groups and as an adjunct professor at Brooklyn Law School.

Ward was born in the Weeksville neighborhood of Brooklyn, which was one of the first African-American areas in the city established prior to the Civil War. He was one of eleven children born to Edward and Loretta Ward. His father, a white man who was seventy-eight years old when Ward was born, died shortly thereafter, and Ward's mother, a black woman, was left to raise her children on her own. Of his siblings, six died from childhood illnesses. Ward's mother worked as a domestic servant and taught him Yiddish, a language she learned from working in Jewish households and a skill that helped Ward when working as a police officer.

Ward attended Brooklyn High School of Automotive Trades, where he studied to be a mechanic. After high school he was drafted into the U.S. Army and spent two years in Europe during and after World War II, serving in the military police and rising to the rank of staff sergeant. His time with the military police was the first time Ward was involved in law enforcement, and it was a position that he had never imagined for himself. "As a young man, I tended to cross the street when I saw a policeman," Ward said in a 1983 interview in the New York Times. "I never went into a police station for any reason in my life until I became a police officer."

When he returned to the United States, Ward spent a short stint as a truck driver before taking the civil service examination. He got a job with the Sanitation Department and then decided to take the police department exam. Ward joined the department in 1951, placing third in his examination out of a group of 78,000 applicants.

Rose through the Police Ranks

Ward began his police career as a traffic officer and spent approximately two weeks directing cars on First Avenue. He was then assigned to walk a beat in the 80th precinct, at the edges of Crown Heights and Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. Ward was the first African-American police officer in the precinct, and he reported later that he was the victim of incidents of racism and prejudice, including being the only officer who was not assigned a locker and was therefore forced to dress at home and ride the subway in his uniform. In addition, for three years Ward was never assigned to a radio car except in one instance when he was asked to guard a corpse on its way to the morgue.

Though his treatment was sometimes humiliating, Ward suffered it as a type of hazing. "I thought that these low-ranking officers were doing what they thought was a proper way of initiating me into their club," Ward later said, as quoted by Roger Abel in The Black Shields, "and if it took me three years to get into their club, which was okay with me, I didn't like radio cars anyway. I didn't complain, I knew I was good."

Ward spent seven years in the 80th precinct and eventually decided to enhance his potential for advancement by taking college courses on nights and weekends at Brooklyn College. Ward earned an associate degree in police science in 1958 and went on to complete a bachelor's degree in 1960, graduating magna cum laude. Ward's academic achievements helped him to get an assignment with the Juvenile Aid Bureau's Detective Division and, in 1966, promotion to the rank of sergeant with a transfer to the 32nd precinct to lead the Youth Investigation Unit.

Ward continued his education at Brooklyn Law School, where he graduated in 1965 with a bachelor of laws. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1968 and was transferred to the Police Commissioner's Office as an aide, serving for only a single year before he was promoted to executive director of the Civilian Complaint Review Board. During his tenure with the review board, Ward familiarized himself with many of the common issues between police and the populace, and this training helped him in his later positions.

In 1970 Ward became the first African American to be promoted to deputy commissioner and was placed in charge of the community affairs division. One of Ward's major initiatives was to start a Neighborhood Block Watch system. In 1972 Ward was involved and criticized for his part in a controversial incident in which officer Philip Cardillo was shot while attempting to enter a Black Muslim mosque in Harlem. Ward apologized to Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan for violating an agreement wherein police refrained from entering mosques, which some saw as favoritism towards the black organization.

At a Glance …

Born Benjamin F. Ward on August 10, 1926, in New York, NY; son of Loretta and Edward Ward; married Olivia Tucker (an educator and vocalist); children: Benjamin, Jacquelyn Ward-Shepherd, Gregory, Margie Lewis, Mary I. Littles. Military service: United States Army, staff sergeant, 1945-46. Religion: Catholic. Education: Brooklyn College, AAS, 1957, BS (magna cum laude), 1960; Brooklyn Law School, LLB, 1965.

Career: New York City Police Department, 80th Precinct, officer, 1951-58, Juvenile Aid Bureau, detective, 1958-66, Youth Investigation Unit, sergeant, 1966-68, lieutenant, 1968-69, Police Commissioner's Office, aide, 1969-70; deputy commissioner of community affairs, 1970-73; New York State Department of Correctional Services, commissioner, 1975-78; New York City Housing Authority, police chief, 1979; New York City Department of Corrections, commissioner, 1979-83; New York City Police Department, police commissioner, 1983-89; Brooklyn Law School, adjunct professor.

Memberships: Police Athletic League, board member, 1972-2002; Crime Control Planning Board, member, 1980-85; St. Joseph's College, board of directors, 1984; Police Foundation, board member.

Awards: August Volmer Award, American Society of Criminology, 1984; achievement award, National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, 1984.

Despite controversy, Ward was widely respected as an administrator, and in 1975 Governor Hugh Carey asked him to serve as state correctional commissioner. Ward was the first African American to serve in that capacity and distinguished himself in the role, which included enacting a new law aimed at preventing prison violence by prohibiting members of the Ku Klux Klan from serving as prison guards. In 1978 he was appointed to serve as commissioner of housing police, where he made news by radically restructuring the 1,700-member department, which had been divided between 200 substations, into nine precincts. The following year Mayor Ed Koch appointed Ward to serve as city corrections commissioner, which made him the highest-ranking African American in the police administrative structure.

Served as City Police Commissioner

In 1983, after a number of distinguished years with the department of corrections, Ward achieved another historic post when he became the first African-American police commissioner of New York City. Ward was the highest-ranking official in the city's police structure, with authority over the three metropolitan police departments: traffic, housing, and city. "I know my blackness was a factor in my selection," Ward said, as reported by Abel, "but I think I'm qualified beyond that." Some groups, including the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association objected to Ward's promotion, bringing up issues such as the controversial 1972 police shooting as evidence of Ward's unsuitability.

Despite objections, Ward's promotion was approved, and he immediately began an aggressive campaign against "quality of life" crimes, including drug trafficking and prostitution. Ward inherited control of the city during a time when an increase in the use and sale of crack cocaine led to a sharp rise in drug-related crimes. Under Operation Pressure Point and Operation Close Down, Ward directed his officers to a course of action that led to 6,000 arrests for such crimes as gambling, prostitution, and drug dealing within his first five months in his new post. He also created a new Special Enforcement Narcotics Unit, to combat the city's growing drug problems and established funding initiatives to increase the number of undercover agents working in the city.

Because education had been instrumental in his own success, Ward instituted policies that encouraged police department employees to pursue higher education. He established college credit requirements for higher-ranking officers from sergeant to captain, requiring at least sixty-five hours of college credit for sergeants, ninety-six credit hours for lieutenants, and a full four-year degree for anyone wanting to achieve captain's rank. Ward also worked to strengthen the requirements for entering the force. "We have been struggling for many years in this city to attempt to raise the educational level of the Police Department," Ward explained to John McQuiston in the New York Times in 1988. Ward said at the time that the new policies would not be an impediment to racial diversity, adding that "blacks have more college education than any other subgroup that we have. Hispanics follow, and whites are last."

Another of Ward's achievements was his work to redefine standards of conduct regarding firearms. One of the key incidents prompting Ward's actions was the 1984 shooting of Eleanor Bumpurs, a sixty-five-year-old grandmother who was violently resisting eviction. Though the police followed standard procedures regarding the use of deadly force, Ward's reaction to the incident was to promote the use of alternative force, such as water cannons, electric shock weapons, and restraining nets. After his retirement, Ward said of the Bumpurs incident in a 1989 interview with the New York Times, "I would not have killed that woman," whom Ward also said reminded him of his own mother.

Ward's appointment to the highest post in New York City law enforcement was a proud moment for many in the black community who saw it as a significant breakthrough in African-American achievement. The National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives awarded Ward their first achievement award in 1984. Ward continued making drastic and sometimes controversial administrative decisions during his time as commissioner, including asking a number of deputy commissioners and other executives to resign for failure to meet the parameters of their jobs. Ward also successfully, though quietly, increased diversity throughout the administration, including appointing the first Chinese deputy commissioner in the city's history. When he retired in 1989, Ward cited increasing racial diversity as one of his proudest achievements. "We've changed this Police Department," Ward told the New York Times in 1989, "without a lot of noise, without a lot of legislated or judicially imposed affirmative action programs—by increasing the number of black officers by 17 percent, Hispanic officers by 60 percent and females by an astonishing 85 percent."

Remained Involved in Civil Service

After his retirement as commissioner, Ward remained involved in civic issues and stayed in frequent contact with the police department. He also began teaching as an adjunct professor at Brooklyn Law School. Ward suffered from chronic asthma during his life, and on June 10, 2002, he suffered a severe attack and was found unconscious at his home. Ward was taken to Queen's Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Throughout the course of his life, Ward symbolized the changing character of the New York police department, not only in terms of racial diversity but also in terms of professionalism. His educational achievements set him apart from many of his fellow officers, but he used his intelligence to help change the department in ways that positively affected both the officers and the citizenry they were sworn to protect. Ward's community approach to police work was noted for adding an element of social work to patrol duty. In his obituary in the New York Times, Ward's career was summarized as a "study in focused ambition." He was survived by his wife, Olivia, five children, and nine grandchildren.



Abel, Roger L., The Black Shields, Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2006.


Jet, July 8, 2002.

New York Times, March 17, 1988; August 11, 1988; September 27, 1989; April 2, 2001; June 11, 2002.

—Micah L. Issitt