Pioneering Female Police Officer Repaired Bonds Through Talent Shows
“Our uniforms were completely different from the men’s uniforms,” recalls Yvonne Bechet, one of the first female officers in the New Orleans Police Department. “We wore skirts. We wore one-inch heels. We wore the cutest little sailor hats, but it didn’t stay on. And we carried our weapons in a purse."
I think we were probably the best-dressed female police officers in the country, but our uniforms were a hindrance.
In 1968, Bechet was one of the first seven women to enter the Police Academy. Five came out. Up until then, most officers were white men.
“So they used the African American women to integrated the cars so that they would keep down the… well, the complaints from the officers,” Bechet told me.
“Like chivalry would trump racism?” I ask.
“Yes, it did too.”
It soon became clear Bechet had extraordinary instincts about what people needed to get along. Very early in her police career, Bechet was assigned to the second district, Uptown. She arrived on a Sunday morning to find only one officer there. The others had called in sick.
“Because they knew I was an African American,” explains Bechet.
Her boss was ready to suspend the whole lot of them. He called Bechet in.
“And he asked me what I thought,” Bechet recalls. “I said these officers have families to support; they can’t afford to be suspended for a bad choice. So he asked me what I thought should be their punishment, and I said an apology, which I received. And everybody went back to work.”
During her 22 years on the force, Bechet was also a very successful undercover narcotics officer – a job once considered too dangerous for women. She remembers how New Orleans’ hot, humid summers worked against the outfit for thisjob too. Because drug dealers had particular requests.
“They like for you to use drugs with them,” Bechet explains, “and I had to wear long sleeve blouses in the summer to hide the fact that I had no needle marks in my arm. I distinctly remember what I had on the first buy I made. It was a pair of yellow pants and a yellow shirt and an afro wig. When I went to court, I passed right by the defendant and his entourage, and he didn’t recognize me until I got on the stand.”
Bechet’s most enduring legacy came after she was promoted to Commander of the Community Relations Division after just two years on the force.
Like community-relations officers across the nation, Bechet oversaw a federally funded program called Officer Friendly, which sent officers into elementary schools armed with coloring books and stickers. But the crowning achievement of Bechet’s Community Relations Division were summer talent shows, held each week in the city’s 11 housing projects.
“Chocolate Milk was our volunteer band,” explains Bechet, “and each week we would go to a different housing project. They’d sign the kids up. They’d get on stage and perform. It was just a miraculous thing to see those kids perform in front of a large crowd because they whole project would come out to see.”
“They take this big out ‘ol, long huge courtyard, right, and you’d get over 500 people each week,” recalls Alfred Marshall, who is 58 years old now, but was 13 and living in the Calliope Projects when the police talent shows started up.
“People are hollering, people are screaming,” Marshall remembers. “You got different performers, and it was all about love.”
“It was just positives vibes, and it made you proud of everybody who performed,” recalls Ruby Brown Davis, who grew up in the Magnolia Projects back in the early 70’s. Davis’s little brother, Ruben Brown, was one of those performers. He was 15 at the time, and part of a duo called the Fantastic Two.
“It was me and Elbert Chinn,” recalls Ruben Brown. “Elbert was a dancer, you know: he could listen to the music and put any kind of steps together. He was dancing like James Brown. Like when I fall on my knees, he would throw the cape on me and he would split.”
“I get a lot of my dance moves off of how the person was singing the song,” remembers Ruben’s partner, Elbert Chinn. Elbert was inspired by groups like the O-Jays and Temptations, but he came up with his own dance moves for their routines to Jackson Five numbers.
“I would sing while he danced,” says Brown.
These talent shows were particularly remarkable, considering the civil unrest in New Orleans in the early 1970s.
“At that time, it was a very difficult time for police officers,” explains Bechet. “We had been attacked by a sniper from a large high-rise building.”
That sniper, 24-year-old Mark Essex, targeted white people and police, killing four civilians and five NOPD officers, including the department’s deputy chief, Sgt. Louis Sirgo, a hero of Bechet’s. Sirgo had been credited for keeping the peace during a tense, six-day standoff in the Desire housing project between Black Panthers and 250 white policemen armed with riot guns and a tank.
In the poorest parts of the city, the Black Panthers ran social programs, feeding breakfast to kids and warning them about brutality within the NOPD. So when Bechet’s officers began recruiting for talent shows, some public-housing residents were a little skeptical.
Bechet says the talent shows helped mend these relationships.
“The people trusted the police, and the police then trusted the people,” Bechet explains. “It made it easier for say a detective who was trying to solve a burglary. Did you see anybody? You’d be surprised at how many people would surround that detective and give him answers. We don’t have that relationship today.”
“Are the days gone when policemen and people in politics had relationships with people in community, where they knew who to talk to? Asks Oliver Thomas, a former New Orleans City Council member. He recently raised this question on his morning call-in radio show on WBOK.
“Is there that level of disconnect now?” asks Thomas.
In fact, there is no community relations department anymore. And in 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice found that, “within the NOPD, the concept of community policing is poorly understood and implemented only superficially.”
Under a federal consent decree, the department’s community ratings have been improving; today, every officer is trained to engage the community, says Lieutenant Jonette Williams.
“You know it’s not just crime fighting; it’s community policing,” says Williams. “Even if it’s as small as I’m in a store, and I’m in uniform, and I’m interacting with someone, to just give them that humanistic approach because that’s really how we get people to recognize that hey, we’re just regular people; we just wear a different uniform.”
Bechet spent 22 years on the police force and worked her way up to Deputy Superintendent. Today, her legacy lives on in the NOPD, where nearly one quarter of Police Officers are women. Among younger officers, Bechet and her talent shows are still legendary.
“She’s a pioneer in the field, a great role model,” says Lieutenant Jonette Williams. “My only regret is I wish could have been here to see her in action.
People who grew up in public housing remember those talent shows too. All the Michael Jackson covers and crooners singing like Marvin Gaye. But they also remember a relationship with police based less on patrolling and more on cultivating the good in people.
“For them to come in and do something like that was heroic to me,” says Alfred Marshall. “It was exciting to me.”
At the end of each summer, the top acts from each project competed at an annual citywide talent show. In 1972, several thousand people gathered in City Park Stadium to watch. Ruben Brown and Elbert Chinn, the winners from the Magnolia Project, went there to compete.
“We wore some black and red checkered pants with a black shirt,” recalls Ruben Brown.
“I remember walking into the stadium,” says Brown’s sister, Ruby Brown Davis. “It was just a beautiful, warm night. Stars in the sky.”
“We got this, that’s the way I felt,” says Brown.
“Everybody was screaming and hollering. Everybody,” says Davis. “I probably scream the loudest.”
“Well when I got down to the end of my song --- I, I, I love you – like that, I wipe my face and throw the towel into the audience,” recalls Brown, “and the girls they all scream and cry -- fight over the little towel.”
“You know everybody was clapping,” says Davis. they was rooting for him and they was calling him out the winner.”
“As a matter of fact,” says Brown’s onetime partner, Elbert Chinn, “the lady that you all are talking about, I was sitting on her lap – police officer lap.”
“Yvonne Bechet?” I ask. “You were sitting on her lap?”
“I was sitting on her lap, yes ma’am,” says Chinn, “and when they said our name, I think I jumped up and I think she jumped up, and we ran to the stage.”
Chinn says, when the announcers called out his group’s name, The Fantastic Two, he jumped up, Yvonne Bechet jumped up, and they both ran to the stage.
Elbert Chin and Ruben Brown were handed a trophy for first place along with a check for $100. And after five hours of listening, the audience hollered for, “MORE!”
Yvonne Bechet became a police officer because she wanted to make a difference in her community. She knows she helped show thousands of young New Orleanians that police officers could be their allies.
She’s 84 years old now, and long gone are Bechet’s struggles with awkward police uniforms, but one wardrobe problem remains.
“I’m a fan of clothing,” Bechet explains. “I love colorful clothing. My closet door keeps coming off the track because I have so many clothes in there, and the maintenance person here, every time he comes in he says, Ms. Yvonne you have too much clothes. I said: I don’t think that’s for you to decide.”