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Benjamin Ward, 75; Oversaw New York City Police

June 11, 2002|From Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Benjamin Ward, a street cop who broke down racial barriers to become New York's first black police commissioner, died Monday. He was 75.

Ward was found unconscious Friday at his home and died at New York Hospital Center. The cause of death was not immediately known, Det. Madelyne Galindo said. He had chronic asthma, which forced his resignation from the police department in 1989.

Ward, who became commissioner in 1984, oversaw the nation's largest police department at a time when crime and murder rates spiraled upward, largely because of the crack cocaine epidemic. In 1989, the city reported more than 1,900 homicides--an increase of nearly 40% in four years.

It was also a period of racial unrest, marked by the shooting of four black youths in a subway car by Bernhard Goetz, who is white; the police shooting of an elderly black woman; and the death of a black man chased by a white gang in the neighborhood of Howard Beach in the New York borough of Queens.

Before becoming the city's commissioner, Ward had worked as the first black officer in Brooklyn's 80th Precinct and had been named the state's first black corrections commissioner.

At the 80th Precinct, he faced resentment from both white residents and white officers. Ward wasn't assigned a locker at the precinct, forcing him to dress at home and ride the subway to work in his uniform for three years.

He eventually returned to college and earned a law degree, sparking his rise through the department.

When Mayor Edward I. Koch selected him as police commissioner, Ward played down his race. "Smartness has been more important than my blackness," Ward said.

Koch called the news of Ward's death "painful."

"He was a marvelous person, a very good friend and a superb police commissioner," the former mayor said Monday. "I'm proud I appointed him."

Ward is survived by his wife, Olivia Tucker, and their five children.

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