Justice For All

Alumni Award winner Joe Lomax celebrated for his stellar career in criminal justice

Jeanne Nagle | Profiles | August 24, 2021

In theory, as the classic sightless lady holding scales is meant to personify, justice is supposed to be blind. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. In practice, even those who have sworn to uphold the law are not immune to the vagaries of prejudice and preconceived notions.

Case in point is University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point 2021 Alumni Award winner Joe Lomax ’63, who knows a thing or two about enduring bias and being held to a different standard. As the first black police officer in the City of Beloit, Wisconsin, Lomax came up against a number of race-based challenges while on the job—issued by the general populace as well as fellow officers and others on up the chain of command.

Armed with dual associate degrees (building and trades/education) from Trinidad State College in Colorado, Lomax came to Wisconsin State College-Stevens Point to study history and social science. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1963, he applied to join his hometown police force in Beloit.

“At that time, the police department consisted of approximately 65 predominately Catholic white officers, only two of whom had college degrees,” he recalls. “Many had been hired because of their military experience. “

After passing several exams and undergoing an extra-thorough background check, Lomax was summoned to the chief’s office.

“At the meeting, the chief slapped my file down on his desk and asked a few questions about people who were used as references,” he recalls. “Then he said, ‘Either you’re a good guy or these are a bunch of damn good liars, because I couldn’t find anything wrong with you.’”

Lomax says he left the meeting convinced that the rumors he’d heard were true. Allegedly the chief had sworn that no black officer would ever serve in the department as long as he was in charge. Fortunately, that supposition was never put to the test as the man retired soon thereafter, and Chief Howard Bjorkland was hired in his place. Bjorkland assured Lomax that the rookie officer would be given full arrest powers, and not be held back because of race. That good news was offset by Lomax also being told that his probation period was to be extended from the usual six months to a full year.

Despite the prejudice apparent at the center of this change in procedure, Lomax says he was bound and determined to reach his goal of becoming a police officer. He would not be deterred by slights and outright hostility, from officers refusing to be paired with him to enduring stares and catcalls from the general public. Some of the white citizens of Beloit even threw copper pennies, which he says signified bullets, at him.

After four years with the Beloit PD, Lomax earned the rank of sergeant and was promoted to traffic and community service supervisor. He recalls that his promotion “did not sit well within the department.” As a result of being made supervisor, at least two officers resigned, and others vowed not to take orders from him. Once again Chief Bjorkland smoothed the waters. Even so, he couldn’t completely remove all resentment and prejudice toward Lomax coming from within his ranks.

Two years later, Lomax was offered the chance to tackle issues related to law enforcement from a different angle. He was approached by UW-Platteville to develop and head a new criminal justice program at the university. Sweetening the deal, administrators also offered him the chance to pursue an advanced degree; Lomax earned his MA in teaching in 1972.

“After accepting the position, I researched and worked toward establishing a quality program that would be acceptable nationwide,” he says.

Over the course of nearly 40 years at Platteville—18 of those serving as department chair—Lomax initiated and oversaw the creation of the university’s undergraduate, graduate and online criminal justice programs. In addition to guiding course development, he was heavily involved in the establishment of outreach and career placement opportunities within the program. To this end, Lomax had a hand in establishing a Criminal Justice Career Day, an internship program and the department’s Employment Search Workshop.

Through travel and personal contacts, Lomax established relationships with local, state, and federal criminal justice agencies, informing them “about the value of employing college graduates with the acquired knowledge and insight necessary to resolve the variety and complexity of criminal justice related issues occurring in society,” he says.

His other accomplishments while at Platteville include formation of the Criminal Justice Advisory Board and the university’s Law Enforcement Training Academy. He is also understandably proud of having served on the Racial Disparity in Criminal Justice and Education Task Force, and as adviser to the student Criminal Justice Association.

Honors Lomax has garnered from UW-Platteville include the Outstanding Academic Adviser Award, the College of Liberal Arts and Education’s Outstanding Teaching and University Service Award and recognition for outstanding leadership as chair of the criminal justice department. Following his retirement in 2012, a criminal justice scholarship was established in his name, and in 2013 he received the Distinguished Alumni Award, bestowed upon him by the UW-Platteville Alumni Association. Lomax was inducted into the university’s Arts and Letters Hall of Fame in 2018.

Despite his long-lived involvement in law enforcement and many contributions to the study of criminal justice, Lomax remains a profoundly humble man.

“I cannot tell you I have had everything in life planned in advance,” he notes. “My ability to advance has been based on family support, religion, friends, neighbors, educators, trust, training, hard work, helpful people, good fortune and luck.

“My greatest accomplishment is seeing the students I have taught return as successful agents in their career fields.”

Material for this story was compiled from various sources, including Lomax’s “Memories of the First Black Police Officer in Beloit” and articles written for other publications.


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