My Life as an African-American Law Enforcement Professional

Stand With Honor

Richard Oakley
Assistant Special Agent in Charge, US Justice/Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)


My name is Richard T. Oakley. I grew up in Somerville, New Jersey, and had befriended a couple of members of my hometown police department. I was drawn to law enforcement and I had very positive experiences with the police officers I encountered! In September of 1967, I joined the New Brunswick, (NJ) Police Department at the age of twenty-four. My county did not have a police academy, so I was sent to the New Jersey State Police Academy at Sea Girt, NJ.

Me standing next to my 1968 Ford Cruiser! Notice the bubble gum machine on top!The academy training was rigorous and rewarding! During my tenure with the police department, I was assigned to the patrol division. I spent a year in patrol, and was promoted to the rank of detective. As a detective, I was assigned to the Narcotics and Homicide Division. Homicide turned out to be the most challenging of my assignments, and the most costly, emotionally! I had several significant homicide investigations. Homicide Detectives were also required to attend the autopsy of the deceased to record the cause of death. I wish I had space to discuss some of the cases! I would like to add that my starting salary with the police department was $5,000, per year! Policing in 1967 was very difficult! The Black Community felt that you had betrayed them. Many police departments resisted hiring Black Police Officers. It was not unusual to hear racial slurs over the radio, or find racial notes placed on your locker. You also had to submit a photo with your application. This was one way to weed out applicants. This practice would later become unconstitutional. We had many anti-police groups during that time frame. We had riots, but no riot gear!

In 1972, I left the New Brunswick Police Department to join the Union County (NJ) Prosecutors Office. I had the title of Narcotics Investigator, assigned to the Narcotic Strike Force, located in West Field, NJ. I worked undercover in several major narcotics investigations. During my tenure with the prosecutors office, I was assigned to the Newark, NJ Division of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), to assist them in a major narcotics investigation. At that time, DEA did not have any Black Agents in the area. I worked the DEA Investigation for several months and brought it to a successful conclusion. At the end of the investigation, a White DEA Agent handed me an application for employment with the DEA. I was happy where I was, but took the application. I did eventually send the application off. Several months later, I received a letter from DEA, requesting me to report the the DEA, New York, NY Field Division for an interview. Needless to say, I was very nervous! The interview lasted the entire day, and there were several other applicants. Several months later, I received a letter from DEA, offering a position of Special Agent! I accepted the position contingent on a full field background investigation which is necessary to obtain a Top Secret Clearance. I started my basic agent training in January of 1974, in Washington, DC, and Quantico, Virginia. The training lasted 15 weeks, and most of my instructors were former United States Marines. We had to dive off the diving board at the Marine Corps base pool, and go through their obstacle courses and ranges. The Marines were very helpful. Upon completing my training, I was assigned to the New York Field Division. I stayed in New York for about a year, at which time, I was reassigned to the Newark, New Jersey Field Division.

During my tenure in Newark, I was assigned to the State and Local DEA Task Force. I later went on to become the Division Training Coordinator. With this position, I was able to sponsor DEA Two-Week State and Local Drug Schools. This was very rewarding. I got the itch and decided that I wanted to return to the field. At this time, DEA was given a mandate to investigate major heroin dealers in the state, as the heroin problem was out of control. I started working undercover in two heroin organizations in separate parts of Newark. On June 26, 1980, one of the organizations that I had infiltrated found out that I was a DEA Agent and planned an assassination attempt on my life! This particular group was selling $40,000 worth of heroin a day! Their plan was to provide me with a free sample of new heroin that they had just received. They instructed me to meet them at a bar which was their base of operation. I pulled together my surveillance team and briefed them. We drove to the bar and the defendant was waiting outside. He walked over and got into my undercover car and proceeded to give me directions to the location where the sample would be. As I am driving, the defendant was asking me about quality of the heroin he had sold me on several occasions. I later determined that he was making sure he had the right agent, by confirming the previous sale locations. We were driving on Frelinghuysen Ave., he told me to make a left turn into a public park. I was watching my surveillance teams movement in the side view mirror. My team which consisted of seasoned Newark Narcotics Detectives knew the area and lay back. Once we got into the park, he told me to park the vehicle and he got out. He returned in a few minutes, and I could see that his hands were dirty. I asked him, “What’s going on? You got people here? What’s up?” He said no, follow me. He was headed down an embankment. He thought that I was behind him, but I had stopped at the top of the embankment. He turned and I could see a Rohm, Nickel Plated, brake open 22 caliber pistol in his hand! He fired the first shot which went past my ear! The second shot misfired! I did not have a weapon on me, so I turned and started to run with him behind me still shooting! I ran in a zig-zag pattern! Not one of his shots struck me! We later found out that he thought he had killed me.

We apprehended him several days later and arrested him. He was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years in Danbury Federal Prison. At the time of this incident there was no federal statute for attempted murder of a federal agent. The charge was assault on a federal agent which carried a 10-year maximum sentence. Congress subsequently changed the law. In November of 1987, I was promoted to Supervisory Special Agent, and transferred to the San Francisco (CA) Field Division, where I would supervise a team of twelve agents. I spent four and one-half years in San Francisco, and in fact, was there for the Quake of 1989!

After my tour in San Francisco, I was transferred to our headquarters in Arlington, VA. While in headquarters, I held several management positions: Chief of the Policy and Procedure Unit, Special Assistant to the Deputy Administrator for Operations, Special Assistant to the Administrator of DEA, and finally, Secretary of the DEA Career Board. I had a very fulfilling and rewarding career in law enforcement! I met and befriended many great people! The one thing that disappointed me over the years was the dwindling of camaraderie. It seems to be more prevalent today than ever. My advice to anyone contemplating a career in law enforcement is to go into it with the right mindset. Understand that some people will resist your commands, but you should remain the professional that you are and resist the temptation to be pulled in the fray. Understand the laws that you are upholding. Make sure you fully understand the use of deadly force. Understand that the person you are today will change. I wish my mind could forget what my eyes have seen! Good luck!

Be safe and stay vigilant!

God Bless,

Richard

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