By Mercedes Guzman, Media Relations Staff
When now-retired Port Authority Police Superintendent Henry DeGeneste first came on the job as a young recruit, he joined a police force that was predominantly male and white. As he moved up through the ranks, DeGeneste made it his mission to change the department’s hiring practices to promote diversity.
“The best way to challenge an institution is by working from the inside and being extra vigilant to change attitudes. Be the change you want to see,’’ he said in a recent interview from his home in Florida, where he continues to serve as president of his own security consulting firm.
DeGeneste recognized from his earliest days at the PAPD that his job was to help build a more professional and diverse police force. His own career began against the turbulent backdrop of the civil rights movement. As black communities protested segregation throughout the country and faced violent responses from some police forces, it became clear that convincing African Americans to become cops was going to be a tough sell.
So DeGeneste went on the road. He excited young African American college students about becoming a PAPD officer, even going south to historically black colleges like Howard University and Morehouse College. He sat down with frontline civil rights leaders from the NAACP and the Urban League and discussed opportunities for employment that the Port Authority offered.
His efforts paid off. Although more work remains to be done, today, the 1,700-member PAPD has a far greater number of minority and women officers than when DeGeneste was appointed superintendent.
Born in Newark, N.J., he grew up wanting to be a police officer and graduated from the Port Authority Police Academy in 1967 at the top of his class.
Former Chief John Rakowski, his commanding officer at the Police Academy told him, “I believe you will go far. You are smart, full of energy and personable. I believe you can become the superintendent.” DeGeneste couldn’t know then how accurate this statement would be. Not only did he become the first African American PAPD police superintendent, he was the youngest and the last superintendent to ever rise through the ranks instead of being appointed from the outside.
Following his graduation, he was assigned briefly to the city of Newark to assist Newark and New Jersey State Police departments during the riots that took place that summer. It pained him to return to his hometown as a police officer during such a chaotic time, he recalled.
In 1981, he advised London police during the Brixton riots on how to recruit minority officers among ethnic minorities in a racially charged atmosphere over issues of social injustice.
Towards the end of his 23-year career with PAPD, he was a top candidate for police commissioner in New York, a position that eventually went to the former police chief of Houston. At that point, DeGeneste pursued a different route and became senior vice president of global security at Prudential Financial.
He also spent more than a decade teaching courses on criminal justice, security, and public policing at John Jay College, where he developed a course on transportation policing. Impressed by one of his students, he offered John P. Sullivan an opportunity to co-author his textbook “Policing Transportation Facilities,” published in 1994. The textbook was included on college reading lists and used as an influential guide for policing.
When asked what advice he would give today, he said, “minority officers have an obligation to vigorously challenge what they see as discriminatory which delays the growth and understanding of society and how it affects law enforcement.”