Mr. Speaker. There was no question in my mind regarding I should speak about for this year’s Black History Month – Officer Irving Comer, the Arlington County Police Department’s first African-American police officer. This body regularly demonstrates its great respect for first responders and law enforcement, and Officer Irving Comer was one of the finest. I’m sorry to have to say that Officer Comer passed away just a few months ago on Thursday, November 23, 2017.
Mr. Speaker, Irving Comer was born on December 30, 1942 right here in Richmond, the oldest of seven siblings. From an early age, his intelligence and leadership shown bright – he was a member of the National Honor Society and President of the Student Council at Armstrong High School, where he graduated as Salutatorian in a class of 455. He received a full scholarship to Virginia State College, but left after two years to help raise his brothers and sisters.
That was just the start of his record of service. He served in the Marines from 1963 to 1967, where he was eventually promoted to the rank of Sergeant.
Lucky for Arlington, Mr. Speaker, Irving applied in 1967 to be a communications clerk with the County’s Police Department. As Irving described it, he had had negative encounters with the police as a teenager in Richmond, so he was wary of working for law enforcement. Plus, he would be the first ever black person ever hired by the Department. His dedication to service prevailed, however, and he took the job. Irving performed so well that after just three months the Chief of Police asked him to consider joining the force as an officer.
Irving initially rejected the offer. He was concerned that he would be limited to exclusively policing minority neighborhoods. It was only after the Chief assured him that he would be able to serve the entire community of Arlington that Irving agreed to be promoted from administrative clerk to police officer. Irving Comer made history as Arlington County’s first black policeman.
It was December 1967, Mr. Speaker, and Irving was just 25 years old. The Washington Post even ran a headline; “Arlington Hires Former Marine As County’s 1st Negro Policeman.” For context, Fairfax County had just one black officer. The Virginia State Police had none.
Little did Arlington know how much young Officer Comer was about to change the county for the better.
Mr. Speaker, Officer Comer changed policing in Arlington for the better. Irving created the first ever ride-along program in the county and became an instructor at the Northern Virginia Criminal Justice Training Academy. He ultimately served the Arlington County Police Department for 24 years.
Officer Comer changed Arlington public schools for the better. In 1969, Officer Comer became a school resource officer at Thomas Jefferson Junior High just as racial integration in schools was beginning, despite lawsuits and opposition from white Arlingtonians. At Thomas Jefferson, Irving took initiative by creating the Juvenile Delinquency Prevention Program, sponsored the Student Law Enforcement Club, and the Student’s Day at the Court Program. Officer Comer was so successful as a school resource officer that the Arlington County School Board decided that SROs should be assigned to high schools as well. Irving even served as a public school teacher late in his career.
Officer Comer changed our colleges for the better. While serving the Police Department, Officer Comer returned to higher education nearly a decade after leaving to support his family. He received his Bachelor of Science degree from American University, and then his Master of Science degree in 1975 from Southern Illinois University. Typical of Irving Comer, he then gave back to the academic field as a part-time professor at the Northern Virginia Community College and Germanna Community College.
In one of the most important parts of his legacy, Mr. Speaker, Officer Comer changed the lives of African-American Arlingtonians for the better. He understood that with his unprecedented position in the Department came the power to influence how the police interacted with racial minorities and how racial minorities could, and should, be represented in the police force. For example, he led a federally-funded initiative as the Director of Minority Recruitment, successfully bringing African-Americans into the law enforcement field and increasing much-needed diversity in our police force.
In 1983, with 15 years as a police officer under his belt, and despite the trails he had blazed, Officer Comer risked his career to publicly stand up against still stubborn discrimination in the Arlington County Police Department. He led a group of seven black policemen, dubbed “the Magnificent Seven,” in a lawsuit filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The seven officers’ suit revealed a longstanding pattern of racial discrimination in the Department that had prevented black officers from reaching the supervisor level. Their claim also included the ugly truth that, in their words, “traditionally and to the present, white supervisory and line officers alike have engaged in the use of racial slurs, epithets, and comments. These actions have been open and notorious.” The Magnificent Seven were successful – Arlington County agreed to increase promotions for minorities and women.
Finally, Mr. Speaker, Officer Comer also changed our community for the better by fathering two smart and successful daughters, Pamela, who works in the medical administration field, and Angela, who is now a First Sergeant with the Arlington County Police Department. They are here with us today in the gallery, as are many members of the Comer family.
Mr. Speaker, Officer Comer didn’t just believe in the law, he believed in justice. And he acted to strengthen both. Irving Comer will be deeply missed, but his important work in Arlington, and the Commonwealth, will never be forgotten. Please join me in welcoming Pamela, Angela, and the Comer family to the House today as we recognize Irving Comer.
Thank you Mr. Speaker.