Nova Scotia

Retired black Halifax police officer opens up about racism on the force

African Heritage Month at the Halifax Central Library allowed four retired black police officers to share their experiences with racism on the force.

Rick Smith was with the force for 30 years and heard white officers use the n-word daily

Rick Smith was one of four retired black police officers sharing his experiences at a panel at the Halifax Central Library Sunday. (Paul Palmeter/CBC)

When Rick Smith remembers his 30 years with the Halifax Police Department (as it was known prior to amalgamation in 1996), he can't help but think of all the racism he encountered. He joined the force in 1968 when he was 18 and was one of only two black officers at the time.

"When I first joined and there was a big poster on my locker: 'We don't want n--gers here on the police department,' Smith said.

Smith was one of four retired black police officers who shared their stories Sunday afternoon at the Halifax Central Library as an African Heritage Month event. 

'Pretty lonesome'

The panel was organized by RCMP Sgt. Craig Smith, who is a cousin of Rick Smith.

"It's a pretty lonesome road when you're in there by yourself. And so they really never had the opportunity to talk publicly about what it was like," Craig Smith said.

He said race relations in the police force is "always a work in progress."

"I think part of the challenges that black police face are being thought of, number one, that you're only in the force because you're black," he said.

Smith hoped people in the audience would listen to the retired officers and be inspired and would "get some honesty" about the experience — especially if they're considering a job in the force.

Regular n-word use by white colleagues

Before speaking on the panel, Rick Smith said he wouldn't sugar coat any of his experiences.

The n-word, he said, was used daily by his white colleagues.

"I went by an office one night and the only people in those offices at that particular time when they do the briefings would be sergeants, inspectors, staff sergeants," Smith recalled.

"And I heard somebody say — and I don't know who it was, I never did find out — 'What are we going to do with those n--gers up on Creighton Street?'"

In the early '70s, Smith said, he was discouraged when he applied to be promoted to sergeant because "they do not want a black officer being made a sergeant that's going to tell white officers what to do."

'I made a lot of good friends'

There were times when Smith considered quitting, but he stayed.

"Don't get me wrong, not all the guys I worked with were racist. I made a lot of good friends down there and to this day I still have them as friends. If anything was going on, they would tell me," he said.

Although recent data suggests Halifax Regional Police has more diversity among its officers relative to the population than any other city in Canada — with 12.1 per cent of officers being either Indigenous or a visible minority — Smith said Halifax could have more black officers.

"There's no doubt about that. But trying to get people to come down and join up, that's the other hard problem," he said.

With files from Allison Devereaux