First black woman promoted to police lieutenant

By Daniel Silliman


Above the printed list of names, the bold heading reads, "Highly Qualified for Promotion to Lt."

Rebecca Brown's name is scratched off the list, with a black line drawn through it repeatedly until only the tops of the letters "R," "b" and "B" show through the pen scratching.

Her name wasn't marked off because she isn't highly qualified for promotion, however, but because she was awarded a lieutenant's spot at the Clayton County Police Department last week.

Brown is the first black female ever promoted that high in the department.

It's been a long struggle to climb the ranks of the police department. The 44-year-old passed the sergeant's exam with high marks five times before she finally received the promotion. Brown has quietly fought against racism and sexism, over the years, but said she believes her 17 years of determination, prayer, family support and a positive attitude have helped her succeed.

"If I had to do it over again, I would," Brown said. "If I had to choose a police department, in hindsight, I would choose this one. I would. I don't give up easily. I've endured the whole 17 years. I'm not one who easily gives up and I always wanted to be a police officer. I never wanted to be somebody else."

Police Chief Jeff Turner, the department's first black chief, who was appointed by unanimous vote of the County Commission in March, said he was impressed by Brown's determination. "She's always been a hard worker, and a go-getter,"he said.

When Brown came to the force in 1990, she was the third black woman to join it. The two before her had left the police department by the time she arrived.

Brown, a recently divorced, single mother of two girls, ages 5 and 2, was a clerk at the Internal Revenue Service. She had been dreaming of a job as a police officer since she was a child. "I wanted to be Christie Love, from 'Get Christie Love' on TV," Brown said. "She was a detective. I was going to clean the world up of bad people, so people could be safe and not have to be in fear."

Brown tried to apply at the Atlanta Police Department, but the clerk wouldn't give her an application, saying the department didn't hire people who wore glasses. She applied at the Clayton Police Department, though, and was sent to the police academy.

The police chief and hiring board at the time believed she could do the job, but others were more skeptical.

"My mom thought I was joking," said Brown, who was born in Atlanta. "She called and me and said, 'What you doing,' and I said, 'I'm studying,'" Brown recalls. "'What you studying?' [Brown's mother said]. 'Mom, I told you, I'm in the police academy.' My mom was like, 'Oh my Lord, I thought you were joking.'"

She wasn't. Brown graduated from the academy, spent six months serving with the National Guard in Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait, and came back to Clayton County to patrol with evening watch on the northside.

Like her mother feared, it was dangerous.

One night, Brown recalls, she and another officer were chasing two armed men on foot and Brown ran after them into a wooded area, only to find her partner wasn't anywhere around. "As soon as we started running, there was a pole sticking up and he ran into the pole," she said. "The suspects threw their guns down, but we didn't know that until after the fact. [The other officer] never told me he wasn't with me. I never told my mom that story."

Brown went on to work as a School Resource Officer at Mt. Zion High School for three years, return to the road with morning watch, and then with day watch. In 2003, she was promoted to sergeant after being urged to take the application test for a fifth time. As a sergeant, she was put in charge of the records department. She worked undercover with the Special Operations Department during a prostitution sting, and in 2007, helped form the new Community Affairs unit for Chief Turner.

Through the years, she was regularly made to prove herself. One sergeant, she said, would always tell her training classes were filled, and rejected her application. An officer once picked her up from behind, holding her in the air and asking how she thought she could fight crime.

"Because you're a female, people think you shouldn't be there," Brown said. "They think you'll get hurt, or you'll get in fights. But guys get hurt, guys get in fights. I never let it deter me."

Turner, who battled racism when he joined the department, said Brown had an especially tough battle because she was African American and a woman.

"There are still a number of law enforcement agencies -- some, not many -- that feel that law enforcement is not female work," Turner said.

In addition to working at the police department full time for 17 years, Brown also raised two daughters, earned a religion degree at Spelman College, and was ordained as an evangelist.

Turner said Brown always has been working to better herself, has worked within the department's promotional system, and merited her recent rank elevation.

"For her to be able to have done that -- especially getting a degree while working and with a family at home -- I commend her. I don't think I would have been able to do it," Turner said.

Brown, for her part, is proud that she didn't get the promotion based on her race. She said the chief hasn't tried to undo the department's history, but has just acted fairly and promoted people based on their qualifications and work ethic.

On Nov. 19, Brown was once again assigned to evening watch patrol on the north side of the county. She is working the same shift and the same district as she did when she started, nearly two decades ago, but now she's the supervising lieutenant.

"Where I am now is my greatest accomplishment," Brown said, from her North Precinct office. "I just feel like, this is a precedent, and those behind me can look at me and say, 'OK, there's this one person. She stayed. She made it. I can make it, too.'"