By Dan Campana
Fifty years after Robert Phifer joined the Northern Illinois University Police and Public Safety Department to become DeKalb County’s first black police officer, the university has created a lasting tribute to his history making career.
On Feb. 2, the department honored Phifer and his 25 years of service to the campus community by renaming its roll call room to be formally known as the Robert Phifer Roll Call Room. NIU Police Chief Tom Phillips first learned about Phifer – who is recovering from a stroke he suffered a week after the ceremony – while assembling historical information about the university’s police department.
In that process, Phillips found out Phifer, now 72, still lived near campus even though he had retired in 1993. Phillips met with Phifer, who showed off his mint condition retirement card.
“When I met Bob, I found out he had never gotten a retirement badge … we had a ceremony last year to remedy that,” Phillips, who was hired in 2013, recently said.
Officials said Phifer grew up in North Carolina and, in 1964, joined the Army where he eventually served as a military police officer in Vietnam until 1966. After the Army, he moved to DeKalb to be near an aunt who lived in the area.
“Because of his MP experience, he applied for an opening at the NIU police department and was hired,” Phillips explained. “I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be the first African-American officer in the county.”
Phifer’s career was nearly cut short after a 1973 encounter with a man acting erratically at the university’s Stevenson Hall. Phifer and other officers were attempting to control the man when he grabbed one officer’s gun and fired it. Shrapnel from the bullet struck Phifer in an eye, which caused permanent blindness on one side.
The Daily Chronicle, DeKalb’s local newspaper, featured a front-page headline on Feb. 5, 1973, stating “Injured NIU officer avoids worry.” Sure enough, Phifer went on to work another 20 years after the incident.
(Photo courtesy of Northern Illinois University)