For 25 years as a police officer at Northern Illinois University, Bob Phifer protected hundreds of thousands of people, most of whom never knew that he was a pioneer.
When Phifer, now 72, joined the force in 1968, he became the first black police officer in DeKalb County. To honor him for his service, and for his role as a trailblazer, the NIU Police and Public Safety Department renamed the room where officers start every shift “The Robert Phifer Roll Call Room.” The announcement was made in February as part of an annual ceremony honoring officers for anniversaries, promotions and other accomplishments.
Current Police Chief Tom Phillips said that when he left the University of Chicago police force to take the NIU job in 2013, he was surprised to find very little commemoration of the force’s past achievements.
“I wanted to engage with former officers and become better connected with our history,” Phillips said. He learned that the department’s first African-American officer had retired in 1993 but still lived just blocks from the campus. So he gave Phifer a call.
Phillips just wanted to collect some memories and maybe a photo to display. “But when I met Bob, I found out he had never gotten a retirement badge.” Many police departments give such badges to their departing personnel.
“Bob pulled out his retirement ID card and it was in mint condition. So I said I’d like to give him a retirement badge. After locating one other former officer who also had never received a retirement badge, we had a ceremony last year and remedied that situation.”
Phifer grew up in North Carolina during the era of segregation and civil rights protests. In 1964, he joined the Army, trained as a military policeman and served in Vietnam from 1964 to 1966.
“When he left the Army, he moved to DeKalb to be near an aunt who lived here,” Phillips said. “Because of his MP experience, he applied for an opening at the NIU police department and was hired.
“I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Bob to be the first African-American officer in the county,” Phillips said, noting that today NIU is proud to have the most diverse police force in DeKalb County.
Phifer was seriously wounded in the line of duty in 1973 when he answered a call about a man acting erratically in Stevenson Hall. As he and other officers fought to subdue the intruder, the man grabbed one of the officers’ guns and fired it. A piece of shrapnel from the bullet hit Phifer in one eye, permanently blinding him on that side. Phifer continued working at NIU for two more decades.
Sadly, just a week after the roll-call room was named for Phifer, he suffered a stroke. But Phillips said Phifer is undergoing rehabilitation and is expected to recover.