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'Systemic racism, prejudice': 50 years later VPD's first black officer reflects what's changed, hasn't

Summary

Sgt. Bruce Clarke was the first black police officer on the VPD

He says a lot has changed in 50 years, but ongoing demonstrations reflect tension between black communities and police

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — Bruce Clarke made history in 1969 by becoming the first black police officer for the Vancouver Police Department. Now, the former sergeant is following the current clashes against police brutality.

While he says much has changed over the last 50 years, protests across the United States and Canada are a reflection of the ongoing tensions between black communities and police forces.

“There was systemic racism and prejudice at that time,” he says.

Before joining the force, Clarke says he had been just been looking for a job that paid at least $400 a month.

“The starting salary in the police was $535. So I thought, ‘Okay why not?'” he says. “Plus, I knew I would sort of be making history in my own little way.”

He became the first black officer at the VPD at 22 years old.

Bruce Clarke at 22 on his graduation day with his mother and wife.

But paving the way wasn’t easy.

Clarke explains he faced disproportionate criticism as he moved through the ranks at the police department.

“They wouldn’t promote me,” he says.

Clarke did eventually work his way up to becoming a sergeant for the VPD, though it wasn’t without a struggle.

“I did have to work harder than everybody else to receive equal treatment,” he says.

While off-duty, the former Sergeant remembers being treated differently at times by police, recalling one instance where he was pulled over while driving his motorcycle.

“A police officer pulls me over at gunpoint. Now, there was no reason for him to have his gun out, other than the fact he was alone, I was black, [and] I was tall,” he tells CityNews.

‘Personally, I was disgusted’

It’s been 20 years since Clarke retired off the frontlines of protests, but he says he’s been following the fallout of the killing of George Floyd – an unarmed black man who died as a former Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for several minutes.

“Personally, I was disgusted. There’s absolutely no excuse for that. There’s no need for it,” Clarke says.

However, he also feels for the police officers in the line of duty amid ongoing demonstrations against racism and police brutality.

“My empathy lies with the police. The reason being that police are in a no-win situation. If they do nothing, they’re going to be blamed for all the damage, the violence, the injuries that will occur,” he says. “And yet, these officers are standing out there having rocks thrown at them, having bottles thrown at them, even shot in the United States.”

“Personally, I think that education is the answer, not only [for] the police. Yes, we have diversity programs in the department, but it has to work with the public as well.”

Considering the challenging times, he hopes everyone remembers our shared humanity.

“I think it all boils down to how you treat people.”