Production Team: C
Interview Date: May 23, 1989
Camera Rolls: 3105-3106
Sound Rolls: 347
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Richard Jensen, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on May 23, 1989, for Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965 to 1985. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of Eyes on the Prize.
You became a policeman in 1966. What was it like being an Oakland policeman in 1966?
Well, it was a real honor being a policeman. Like I say, it was a hard, ah, hard thing to get to be a policeman, only one or two out of a hundred applicants got to be, I was very proud of being an Oakland policeman. I was born and raised in Oakland, and, ah, I tell you, we had a lot of problems in those days however. We had, ah, a lot of militancy going on with the, with the formation of the Black Panther Party and also the, the Hell's Angels were the same kind of a thing only it was another kind of a group. But, a, a lot of problems, we had riots at the different universities and--
One second, if you would look at me, just straight ahead. What was it like being a policeman in 1966?
Well, it was, ah, an interesting job. I, we had a variety of things to do. It, it was a, ha, ha, what was it like? It was fun for me. I enjoyed it.
Could you talk a little bit about your rookie class, where people were from, where the other guys were from that were in your group?
Yeah, I was in a rookie class. There was maybe 17 of us, ah, ah, from all parts of the country. Maybe five or six people in the class from Florida and a couple from Michigan that I recall and, ah, a couple of fellows from Baltimore, only a couple from the Bay Area. I was one of the two people from Oakland.
Why do you think they recruited from other parts of the country?
They wanted to get the best people possible.
OK, make sure you refer to who you're talking about. Why did the Police Department refer, why did the Police Department recruit from other parts of the country?
Well, you have a better choice of applicants when you go all over the United States. You know, there, there was a, they were recruiting from all over the United States. The Oakland Police personnel they went, they went into all these different college campuses, Michigan State and, and Florida in particular. They went down and, ah, actively recruited candidates for the Oakland Police Department. You know we, we got paid more in those days than they did back East. So the people from back East liked to come out here. They could get better pay.
Who were the Black Panthers? Who did you see them as?
A group of militant young Black people who were--
I'm sorry, if you could rephrase the question, like "The Black Panthers were."
Yeah, the Black Panthers were a group of young Black militants who were unhappy with, ah, ah, the system the way it was in those days. They didn't like, ah, ah, the Police Department in particular, the way the Police Department was run and they didn't like the, ah, the way the economics of the city in general was run. They, they thought that, ah, ah, the policemen were blocking the way for the Black people's progress. That's what they advocate in their newspapers and the things that they said.
When they acted on things like going up to the State House in Sacramento, what was your feeling?
Well, I didn't have any particular, it was unusual to see people speaking out so, ah, so, ah, openly and carrying guns and, ah, ammunition belts and stuff, looking militant and walking into the state capital carrying that kind of stuff. You know, it was a little unusual to see that, you know. It was, ah, I didn't have any particular feeling about it. I, we, we were familiar that these people were capable, capable of carrying guns.
We were talking earlier about the fact that, you know, here are these guys calling policemen pigs. What was that like?
Well, that was unusual. I wasn't used to that myself and--
Again, if you could rephrase the question.
Yeah, well when someone calls you a pig for no particular reason other than you're, you're wearing a blue uniform. You know you didn't do anything to them. It, it kind of hurts you, you know. I didn't like it. I didn't particularly do anything about it either but I didn't like it. I didn't do anything to deserve that title. It hurt my feelings. I didn't like to be called pig.
What did it mean to you that this group of Black men were taking to weapons? What did that mean to you?
Well, it means that you might run into, have a confrontation with them at any time, you know. They were, they were out looking at what the police were doing. We had officers stopping a car and then we would have a carload full of these Black Panther people pull up behind him and watch them and see what they were doing, you know. They were, they were looking at what the police were doing. So that, ah, you know, not too comforting to have a, some people who, you know, actually they didn't have weapons on them but, ah, in, when they were out there, you know, illegal for them to carry weapons and they didn't really have them that we could see. If we did of course they would have been arrested but they were out watching to see what the police were doing**.
Could you cut for a second?
Could you tell us what happened that night on April 6, 1968, two days after Martin Luther King?
Yeah, I had been, we were all working 12-hour shifts in Oakland, ah, all on alert to come in and not have days off, were cancelled and I was working my day off, a 12-hour day, with a, in an area of Oakland I wasn't familiar with. The, the regular beat officer, I was working with him, so we were working a two-man unit. And, ah, along about 9 o'clock at night, just as it started to get dark, we were driving down, Union, 28th and Union and, ah, we saw a car parked in the middle of the street, a light blue '53 Ford, the, the lights were on, the car doors, both doors were opened, and, ah, the car appeared to be empty but it was parked on street with the lights on, doors open. Then, as we drove up behind it we saw a young Black man take a look at us. He was standing by an open car door and he ran, ran towards the houses and, ah, we pulled up behind the car. I reached for the microphone to run the plate, it was a Florida plate on the car and just as I was reaching, ah, I got shot, ah, in my arm and back, all kind of bullets, just, ah, like the 4th of July firecrackers going off. I must have been hit four or five times and slumped to the seat of the car and then the bullet, the firing just continued, ah, bullets just flying all over, glass flying everywhere. My head and arms and everything is all full of glass and my partner got out of the other side of the car and, ah, returned a couple of shots with his .38. Came back in the car to get to the radio, to tell other units where we were and what was happening and he did do that. And, ah, of course once the, ah, other units heard where we are, what was happening, you know, then, then you hear all these sirens coming. You know that help was coming. The next thing I remember was, was being lifted out of the car by some people, ah, a couple of who were crying, some police sergeants I used to work for and they thought I was dead. I had the bullets in my back and my arm and my leg. I had been shot maybe nine different times with bullets going in and out in certain places. I had a lot of bullet holes that night and they, they thought I was dead. I, I wasn't but the bull--the firing continued. It was like a, it was like a war going on, you know. They, we found out later there was 13 people shooting at us. Our car, our Black and White car, had later on, they counted 157 holes in our car, that don't, I don't know how many missed or how many went through the windows but 157 of them hit our car. Several of them hit me. My partner was grazed.
You were working the nights of the draft riots in Berkeley and in Oakland.
There were some draft riots at the draft board in Oakland early in the morning, yeah, at 5 in the morning, yeah.
Could you tell me about the first day, the day you said the police won and then the second day.?
Yeah, we had two different, ah, there were demonstrations at the draft board, ah, opposing the war in Vietnam. And, and, ah, the first day of these riots were, were very well prepared. The police were, we knew exactly what we were going to do. We knew which way we were going to move the crowd. We knew what areas we were to keep clear. You know, we were very well run and organized and, ah, when we confronted the demonstrators, ah, we soon moved the demonstrators out and cleared a path for the people coming into the draft board and, ah. There was just no problems in Oakland that day especially for the police. You know, there was a well run unit and we didn't have any problems. The, ah, the, the, crowd was disorganized and didn't know what to do and they finally left. The police, had a lot of police and they were well, we knew what we were doing that day.
Then the second time.
The second day, ah, wasn't the same. We, we had a, our police chief came back to town. The first day, ah, things was run by the, our, deputy chief named Ray Brown who was a former military man, he knew, competent man. The next day we had Charlie Gain come back to town who was a, a chief of police and he didn't like the way, the thing went the first day. Evidently the police were involved in some violence that he didn't think was necessary. So the second day of these draft board demonstrations we stayed in, in a parking lot, several hundred of us and watched these people, ah, turn over vehicles and block intersections and light the cars on fires and the city was a mess the second day. The police didn't do much. There was two different days.
How did you feel to see this destruction?
Very frustrated the second day. Sit there and watch people, ah, ah, destroy property, ah, which you're sworn to protect. You know you're supposed to protect life and property and we weren't. Very frustrating, very frustrating.
Talk a little bit about John Frey and what type of man.
I knew John Frey, John Frey is an officer, a young, blond, blue-eyed officer who, who confronted Huey Newton one night, the leader of the Panther Party, maybe 3 or 4 in the morning down on a lonely dark street. Ah, he stopped his car and, ah, the two struggled and shot each other. Frey was killed. Both Newton and Frey were, were similar type people. They were, ah, ah, aggressive, cocky young people. And, ah, that, they had, a Newton got convicted later on of manslaughter, served some time, a year or so and then he got out. I, I really don't know. You know, I wasn't there that night.
Again, was police brutality a major concern of the police hierarchy in Oakland? And when there were complaints, how was it dealt with?
Well police brutality was read in the headlines. The administration was very concerned about police brutality and when a complaint was lodged against an officer, ah, they took statements and investigated the claim thoroughly like they do a crime. And, ah, in those days a policeman, we were required to take lie detector tests you know. But since then, that's been ruled invalid, illegal. But in those days you were on the hot seat and if you did something wrong it was thoroughly investigated and like I say if they couldn't get to the bottom of it you were put on a lie detector test. You went over to San Francisco, have a FBI man administer your lie detector. I know many of my friend, ah, three or four people that, ah, got fired for brutality and, ah, ah, several of them forced to resign over it. They investigated it, ah, like a crime.
Were there many incidences?
Well, in, in a department of 6 or 7 hundred officers you always had the same 30 or 40 officers caused the problems. And, ah, ah, the same 30 or 40 officers, almost every time they were involved in, in an arrest, it involved some kind of physical contact. You see they were just aggressive, that's all. It's--
Did you see the struggle? The Panther said that their struggle was part of a liberation struggle. In any way did you see the struggle for self-defense, the carrying guns and law books, did you see that as being part of a civil rights struggle at all?
Ah, I, I couldn't see that the justification they had for the displaying the weapons and then, and shooting at police officers. Myself, the only experience I had was they shot at me and I had never had a complaint or, or even knew of them, never had a confrontation with any of them. You know, I couldn't understand why they would shoot me. Ah, but, they were unhappy with the system. They were trying to change the system and, ah, what they did may well have, ah, helped change it. It did change. The system did change.
Once again, you were talking about your rookie class. Could you talk about where the recruits were from?
Yeah, all from different parts of the United States.
Once again if you could rephrase it.
Yeah, the rookie class I was in, ah, there were 17 of us and only 2 of us that I can recall were from the Bay Area. I was from Oakland and, ah, so was another kid. The three or four officers from Florida, three or four from Michigan, ah, Baltimore, a couple from Baltimore, Maryland and New Jersey and, ah, officers from all over the United States. In those days Oakland recruited nationally.
Were you ever aware of any sort of policy coming down on you from the FBI or the federal government based on how to deal with the Black Panthers?
Oh, no, there, there was, if the FBI ever would say anything, ah, it wouldn't be the uni--never to the uniformed policeman. They may have talked to our intelligence unit. I have no idea but, never gave us any instruction on what to do. You know we, We were advised by our, sergeants and lieutenants and captains that, ah, the Panthers were armed and violent and, ah, ah, were going to be aggressive in their behavior towards us. We were advised to be aware of that, you know**. And naturally we were, we knew who the Panthers were and then what the, you know, that they were going to confront you physically. That was just something to be aware of, that's all.
The question is, were you ever afraid?
Well, when you first get to be a policeman and you're working at night out there by yourself. Yes, you're afraid, right away, but, ah, as soon as you jump in the water then you find out that the water is OK at night and ah, and ah, then being a policeman you get used to it. Sure, you're afraid. But later on, you're not afraid. And ah, ah, you're around so many, so many men that, ah, that had been through different wars. I worked with veterans of the Second World War and the, and the Korean War. You know, you're surrounded by brave men and, and, and before long you're a brave man, you know. Give me some men that were brave, stout-hearted men, soon give you ten thousand more. And it, you know, just, you're strong because they're strong.
What about after you were shot?
Well, when I was shot, you, it's a, it didn't bother me. It didn't bother me at all. I'll tell you the truth, it turned out to be one of the things that happened to me in my life that worked out for the best. I gained a certain amount of notoriety. Ah, people knew who I was. I got elected to the police union. I, I made sergeant after that. Ah, when I got back to work I was able to work, ah, nice shifts. I had to work days with week-ends off. They were treating me nice after I got shot.
Were you afraid of the Panthers?
No, no, no, no. No, I wasn't afraid of them, no. That didn't bother me, that kind of stuff. You know I knew another officer that got shot by Huey Newton. John Frey wasn't the only one. Cliff Haines, ah, we had another officer and he reacted a bit differently than I did about it. He got, ah, he was, he was, ah, ah, I don't know. He just didn't take it the same, didn't take in stride, ah, ah, thought about it too much, you know. I, I, it didn't bother me. I didn't think about it. They weren't after me in particular. They just, ah, they were just after policemen. I happened to be there, that's all. That's what happened. No, no, no fear. None of that kind of stuff. You get over that right away. And no hostility either, I wasn't really mad at them or anything. I, I, just couldn't believe that they happened to shoot me, that's all.
Even until the, the, mid 70s, we, we had, ah, a variety of, ah, things, you know, the, the Black Panthers, the Hell's Angeles, the demonstrations and the riots at, at the college campuses and draft boards. It was, it was a time of upheaval and, ah, and, and change in America, change in Oakland in particular.