Downtown Miami

Miami’s first black police chief recalls climbing the ladder

In the heart of Overtown, the Historic Black Police Precinct, Courthouse and Museum celebrates some of the local accomplishments of black people in law enforcement.

“It was a long road,” said Clarence Dickson, 82, the city of Miami’s first black police chief. “It is kind of hard to put that in to perspective. It was a natural transition for me. The way I was working and the positions that I held … I was not surprise when I made chief. I really expected to climb that ladder after I became a lieutenant. When I reached the rank of lieutenant, I realized then that I could be chief.”

A family portrait of former Miami Police Chief Clarence Dickson and his wife, Gwendolyn. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

When Dickson joined the police force, he was in the first class to integrate the department. He served with Miami Police from 1960 to 1989 and became chief in 1985.

In addition to Dickson, the museum honors black patrolmen, clerks and commanders who served the city. The museum building was a police precinct for black officers from 1944 to 1963, during the time of segregation in Miami.

Dickson’s influence greatly impacted the careers of colleagues. Cori Zywotow Rice, a former public information officer for Miami, said that under his leadership, Dickson proved himself to be a good boss and teacher.

“I have been blessed with incredible bosses in my career, each of whom shaped my life in some way. Clarence Dickson was absolutely one of them,” she said. “Chief Dickson was kind, inclusive, open and honest. He understood communication. As a high-ranking public servant he totally endorsed and embraced the notion that he had an obligation to communicate to the media, the public and all of his constituencies. It was an era of openness and integrity at the highest level.”

In the Dickson household, the chief is not the only one with a law enforcement background. His wife, Gwendolyn Dickson, a former dispatcher for the Miami Beach Police Department, said that she is proud of her husband’s accomplishments and is happy to have supported him during his rise to top cop.

“I thought that was awesome, I was really excited,” she said reminiscing on her husband’s achievements. “I used to actually attempt, I repeat, attempt to help him study for his promotional exams because I was with him when he made sergeant and then lieutenant. I was a dispatcher and I would sometimes take his books to work at night just to read them and see what he was supposed to be studying.

“He did a lot of studying and he studied alone. Some of the guys had groups they would study with, he studied all by himself. I was just happy that he kept the passion, but I never expected for him to become chief. It was not even in my thoughts.”

If you go

The Historic Black Police Precinct, Courthouse and Museum is located at 480 NW 11th St., Miami. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays throught Saturdays. Admission $15 per person. Call 305-329-2513 or 305-329-2547 for details.