On Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Police Commissioner James O’Neill and top police officials celebrated the dedication of Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward Memorial Library. The room is named after the department’s first African American police commissioner, who led the NYPD from 1984 to 1989.
A native of Weeksville in Brooklyn, Ward also served as the first black officer at the 80th Precinct in Crown Heights, first black executive director of the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), and the second black commissioner of the Department of Corrections.
“By achieving these lofty roles, Ben opened the door of opportunity to countless other New Yorkers,” O’Neill said, “and changed many other people’s perceptions of what those positions could mean for others.”
O’Neill said Ward’s legacy includes greatly increasing the percentage of women and ethnic minorities in the NYPD, and elevating the importance of the education for police officers.
But Ward was also known as one of the country’s first proponents of community policing, an initiative that has become the defining initiative of O’Neill’s tenure as top cop.
“It is my sincere hope that as future generations of young police recruits pass through the doors of this institution and step into this room,” he said, “they will learn much of his story and realize there are truly no limits to where the finest police department can take you.”
De Blasio said Ward broke some of the biggest and most important barriers, and in doing so changed the way people think about opportunities available to all.
“When our police leadership reflects our whole society, it says something is working, something is good,” he said. “Ben Ward was person who helped to make that a reality, the first person who made that big change for this city.”
De Blasio said Ward not only “got the ball rolling” on what is now an “extraordinarily diverse police force and police leadership,” but also a policing philosophy that bridges police and community.
The mayor noted that community policing was initially derided as not focused on crime fighting, but is now an important tool.
“Let’s face it, trailblazers often get criticism,” de Blasio said. “Now, as we know through our community policing initiative, the deep connection between police and community is inherent to effective crime fighting.”
The NYPD’s First Deputy Commissioner Benjamin Tucker has a more personal relationship with Ward. He recalled meeting Ward in 1971 when Tucker was just a trainee.
“He was an inspiration to me from the beginning,” he said. “In large part, I stand here because of him.”
Tucker said during Ward’s journey from patrolman to commissioner, he attended Brooklyn College and Brooklyn Law School, where he graduated with top honors. He said Ward believed in a professionalized and educated police force, a trait he embodied personally.
Jeremy Travis, a former law enforcement official and president emeritus at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, called Ward a “giant in his time,” whose legacy still reverberates today. He said Ward, whom he considered a mentor, recommended creating a police cadet corps and a police management institute.
He also wanted high-ranking police officials to have college degrees. According to Travis, Ward first suggested to then-mayor Ed Koch building the police academy, which was originally slated for the Bronx and finally completed in College Point under the de Blasio administration.
“To him, education was the way to social reform and individual progress,” Travis said. “What a difference these recommendations have made on this city.”
The ceremony’s final speaker shed light not about his police career, but about his personality. Mary Ward-Markane, his daughter, said her father was the 10th of 11 children, and spoke German, Yiddish and some Spanish.
While a soldier in World War II, Ward was assigned to guard German POWs, and through his language abilities, earned a promotion.
“The diversity in his early life was an impetus for him wanting to increase the diversity of the New York Police Department during his tenure, as well as the role of women in leadership positions,” she said.
She said her father was “hooked” on policing after winning an essay contest in 1939 at the age of 13. He spent a day with the police commissioner then, which inspired his lifelong dreams.
“From that point, he knew what he wanted to do,” she said.
Ward-Markane said her father loved books and consumed them “voraciously.” He was also a fan of Road Runner cartoon, the show “Love Connection” and gingersnap cookies. She said he also started working at a young age as a shoeshine boy, and never stopped working until the day he died.
“My father would’ve been humbled by this occasion,” she said. “This is truly an honor for my family.”