While many of us may not typically consider a police officer to be a presence in a community beyond our day-to-day jobs, there are some that stick out. It’s partially a result of a police force that has become more focused on drug busts and bringing down crime statistics than on building relationships with communities. It doesn’t help that many police officers don’t live in the same areas they operate in. Throughout history, there are some that have become heroes, not just for their apprehending criminals or saving someone’s life, but for their willingness to challenge the status quo of the institution they represented. They saw that something was indeed wrong with the system and did not fear taking it on in order to right a wrong. Shelby Lanier was one of those storied few.
In the early 1970s, the Louisville Police Department had been rife with racial discrimination. Notably, many black applicants would frequently be passed over in favor of white applicants. Qualified black officers eligible for promotion would be ignored in favor of white officers. In 1977 for example, only 1 black officer was accepted into the department, vs 38 white officers. Racial discrimination came in other forms as well. Lanier had often spoken about how casually white officers would throw around racial slurs, and how he would often find notes written to him and would be harassed and badgered by his command because of his outspokenness and his activist nature. In 1972, he wrote a letter to the mayor of Louisville, accusing the police of acting as “judge and executioner” in black neighborhoods, and was suspended and demoted in rank.
Alongside his outspoken nature, he was also a prolific organizer. In the early 1970s, Shelby founded both the Louisville Black Police Officers Organization and the National Black Police Officers Association. Both of these organizations were dedicated to combating police brutality and forming better relations between the police and the black community. These organizations became instrumental when in 1974, he and a number of other black officers organized under the NBPOA filed a class-action lawsuit against the Louisville Police Department in federal court alleging that the department routinely discriminated against Black police officers in their hiring, promoting, and firing practices. As a result of Lanier’s lawsuit, a federal court ordered the Louisville Police Department to enter a consent decree and hire one Black officer for every two white officers, in an attempt to rebalance the number of white and black police officers within the department. A later lawsuit in 1987 would result in 96 black applicants receiving a $4.7 million dollar settlement. He would receive harsh and public retaliation for his efforts to bring change to the department.
A high profile version of that backlash came when in 1977, after giving a speech and a Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration, he was lambasted by the then Chief of Police during an interview with a local news station, calling Shelby “one of the worst racists in the history of the Louisville Division of police.” Not long after that interview, Lanier would be fired and would win a defamation suit, and get his job back 10 years later. He would then be suspended again after speaking out against racism by white police officers, calling it “a legitimate threat to the black community”.
Even outside of his police career he was known for being a strong activist. He would often show up at school board meetings and challenge many of the members on what they were doing to improve education in black communities. As president of the local NAACP chapter, he led a push for Black representation on a task force formed to make changes to the state school system. He was also involved in protesting U of L’s participation in the 1990 Fiesta Bowl in Arizona because the state had refused to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a holiday.
His career and his activism are something modern police departments can learn from. In particular, the rank and file police officers can learn an important lesson in speaking out and calling for reform. It is my hope that in the next few years more police come out and call for reforms within their departments, and take the necessary actions to make them happen. It’s one of the few ways we will be able to truly see some change take place. In light of the continuing deaths that have occurred at the hands of the police, many have understandably taken on the view that the system of policing itself is in need of a complete reconstruction. In order to accomplish that reconstruction, we have to find the Shelby Laniers within these departments, encourage them to take action, and construct a vision for what we want public safety to be. As Shelby Lanier once said during a 1994 MLK commemoration speech, “you have to have a vision while you’re awake to accomplish things.”