Marguerite P. Justice dies at 88; first black woman to serve on L.A. Police Commission

Mayor Sam Yorty appointed Marguerite Justice, known to friends as "Mama J," to the L.A. Police Commission in 1971. At the time she said that women could bring greater sensitivity to police oversight.
(Los Angeles Times)

Marguerite P. Justice, who was hailed as the first black woman to serve as a police commissioner in the United States when she stepped into that role in 1971 in Los Angeles, has died. She was 88.

Justice, a longtime community activist who was fondly referred to as “Mama J,” died Sept. 17 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles after a long illness, her family said.

When then-Mayor Sam Yorty appointed Justice to the Los Angeles Police Commission, she was only the second woman to sit on the five-member board.

The first, Agnes Albro, died in 1950 during her fourth year on the panel.

On the eve of her two-year term, Justice proffered that a woman could bring greater sensitivity to police oversight, telling The Times that “women think also with their hearts.”

Asked how she hoped to attune her own sensitivities to law-and-order problems particular to minority communities, Justice answered: “I’m black. Therefore my sensitivities already extend to minorities. I’m not rich and so my sensitivities also extend to the poor and oppressed.”

Pointing out that accused criminals come in all colors, she said, “I know what’s happening at a grass-root level but the sensitivity I refer to should be for all people.”

An episode of the TV series “Adam-12" was patterned after her experiences as a black female police commissioner, said Glynn Martin, executive director of the nonprofit Los Angeles Police Historical Society.

Ron Brown, a retired LAPD lieutenant, said Justice was “affectionately called ‘Mama J’ for her outreach effort to bring about change within the Police Department. She was really instrumental in helping . . . all minority officers.”

In a statement, City Councilman Bernard C. Parks, a former police chief, called her a “pioneer” who broke ground as “the first black female” police commissioner. He praised her “grass-roots work” in the community and dedicated support of LAPD officers as “outstanding.”

During the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Justice and the Southwest Sweethearts -- a service group she founded in 1969 to support the LAPD’s Southwest Division -- set up a round-the-clock hospitality house for police officers a mile west of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

As many as 800 officers a day stopped by to participate in a Thanksgiving-worthy feast, grab a shower or have their uniform sent out for cleaning. Merchants, service clubs and the Sweethearts picked up the tab.

“The Sweethearts are like this all the time,” Gordon Harrison, then a commanding officer at the Newton Division, told The Times in 1984. “And Mama J is one very compassionate human being.”

She was born Marguerite P. Lecesne in July 1921 in New Orleans, the youngest of three children of Albert and Louise Lecesne.

In 1945, Justice moved to Los Angeles to work as a seamstress. By the early 1950s, she was an assistant to Linda Darnell, an actress who starred in the 1947 film “Forever Amber.”

Justice credited the actress with shattering Hollywood traditions by hiring a black private secretary, The Times reported in 1971.

With Darnell, she traveled the globe but gave up the job to marry William H. Justice in 1954. The couple met at church.

“I’m fortunate to be married to a fine man who has provided me with leisure time for community work,” Justice said in the 1971 Times article, which called her husband a “data-processing expert” at Northrop. He died at 75 in 1999.

For much of her life, she lived in southwest Los Angeles, building an extensive resume of volunteering that included serving on the Community Redevelopment Agency and being appointed to the Bicentennial Commission for the U.S. Constitution in 1984 by Gov. George Deukmejian.

She had long been associated with the youth fellowship program at St. Mark United Methodist Church, once saying that “since I’m not a teacher or a parent, I communicate with the kids as a friend.”

In 2004, she received the Police Historical Society’s Jack Webb Award for her sustained commitment to law enforcement.

With her support, the society remodeled its historic exhibit of LAPD uniforms last year. It is now known as the Marguerite Justice Gallery.

Proof of the LAPD’s enduring admiration for Justice was secretly affixed to her car during a police-related function, Parks said, when officers replaced her license plate with one that read “Mama J.”

Justice is survived by many nieces and nephews.

Services will be held at 10 a.m. Friday at St. Mark United Methodist Church, 8305 S. Gramercy Place, Los Angeles.