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Meet the man who escaped slavery and became an Indianapolis police detective

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Posted at 8:02 AM, Jun 20, 2024

INDIANAPOLIS — Juneteenth celebrations wrapped up across Central Indiana Wednesday. It's a day to honor freedom for all and Black history, including a man who escaped slavery and made history as an Indianapolis Detective.

A trailblazer, a leader, and a barrier breaker are all words to describe Benjamin Tobias Thornton.

“He was the first black detective in Indiana, not just Indianapolis,” said Patrick Pearsey, an archivist with IMPD.

Thornton was born a slave in Virginia in 1849, but escaped when he was 12.

He made his way to Indiana and eventually joined the Indianapolis Police Department.

“He had applied, but he didn't get admitted with the first six black men on May 13, 1876, he was appointed May 24 as a jailer of the Indianapolis Police Department, the turnkey,” said Pearsey. “In 1886 the chief called him in and told him he wanted to put him in plainclothes the next Monday.

Pearsey is passionate about telling Thornton’s story.

He wrote a book called “Benjamin Thornton: Fly Detective of Indianapolis.”

Thornton is credited for taking down an entire lynch mob by himself, bravery that helped him become a beat officer.

He’s recognized as a successful detective during his time on the force.

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“He also captured murderers, robbers, solid jewelry thefts that were high level. He sold the bank robbery of $25,000 on Meridian Street, which made him pretty famous at the time," Pearsey said.

He died from Pneumonia in 1900 after a stakeout to catch a murder suspect accused of killing an Ohio police officer.

The next Black detective on the force was not hired until 1918.

However, his passing wasn’t considered a line of duty death at the time.

“It took a while because not of what he did or who he was, it was just the line of duty deaths were considered you needed to be shot or you needed to, you know, stabbing. something more critical” said retired IMPD Sergeant Jo Ann Moore.

It’s recognition that’s important to Moore who lost her own son David in the line of duty.

She worked with Pearsey, who did a lot of the research, Commander Ida Williams, and former Police Chief Randal Taylor to make the change happen.

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More than 100 years later Thornton’s death was formally recognized as a line of duty death in February at the department’s Black History Month Brunch.

 He was also awarded the Purple Heart for his sacrifice.

"We had 911 deaths. We had COVID-19 deaths, and that kind of opened the door for sickness in the line of duty,” said Moore. “It means a lot to the department. It means a lot to the nation. A person who gives their life for their community.” 

Thornton's name was also added this year to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorialin Washington D.C. this year during National Police Week in May.

Commander Williams was there in May to be a part of that history. 

"It's been 124 years since Benjamin Thornton lost his life in the line of duty. He is the first African American to have done so for IPD and so for me, it's just a historical moment,” Williams said.

"He deserves to be remembered, and he deserves to be on the wall. He stood for everything that a good police officer wants to stand for,” said Moore. 

Detective Thornton spent 24 years with the Indianapolis Police Department.

According to the Indiana Law Enforcement Memorial, he's buried at Crown Hill Cemetery.