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By Lomi Kriel
The San Antonio Express-News

SAN ANTONIO, Texas - When James Robinson joined the San Antonio Police Department in 1964, it was less than a decade after policies favoring white officers were abolished.
Yet Robinson managed to rise through the department, becoming the first black officer to hold a rank higher than sergeant and eventually serving as the police chief's second-in-command, before later retiring as a captain.
Lauded for being a trailblazer for black officers, Robinson, 64, died Tuesday after suffering from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, his family said.
"It didn't feel like he had any limitations," said his daughter, Michelle Gregory.
Robinson's successes certainly didn't come easily. In 1974, 10 years after Robinson joined the department, there were only 20 African-Americans on the force, and the highest rank any of them held was sergeant. By contrast in 2006, there were 114 black police officers, including one assistant chief.
That assistant chief, Jerry Pittman, who has since retired, said Robinson was "an inspiration in my life and a mentor to me. He was a role model."
Robinson, he said, "motivated others, not just minorities. Any officer who worked underneath him found himself to be motivated. He tried to inspire them to make rank as well."
Charles Clack Jr., who in 1964 was one of the few black officers with the Bexar County Sheriff's Office, said he and Robinson "were both sort of the first in a long time." The two quickly became fast friends and remained close throughout the decades.
Robinson, he said, was a "very, very serious individual when it came to work." During slow times, Clack said his friend often hunkered over a copy of Newsweek, circling any word he didn't know before looking up its meaning in the dictionary.
"He was a perfectionist," said Clack, who is the father of Express-News columnist Cary Clack. "He loved nothing better than a challenge."
Robinson was a man of wide-ranging talents. A tennis player who rarely lost, he earned his master's degree in public affairs from Texas State University. He learned hypnotism, Charles Clack said, and used the technique to help fellow officers study for their promotional exams. He was a passionate photographer, and also earned his pilot's license.
Though his achievements were many, Robinson's life hit a low point following the death of his wife and a 2005 drunken-driving accident in which he struck and killed a man. He was convicted last year in the case.
Born in Jackson, Miss., Robinson joined the U.S. Marine Corps before signing up with the department. He served as a patrol officer and detective-investigator on the East Side, before rising through the ranks until he was appointed as assistant police chief. A subsequent police chief later demoted him back to the rank of captain.
As captain, his responsibilities included overseeing the department's Internal Affairs Unit - a position his daughter said he was particularly proud of because of the ways he could help not only fellow police officers unfairly accused of wrongdoing, but also citizens abused by police. He was also active in recruitment strategies for the department.
"Now, you have females in high-ranking positions, and other minorities," said retired Sgt. Eddie Pinchback. Before Robinson, "you didn't have that," he said.
But Robinson's reputation was called into question when his son was arrested on charges of theft and possession of cocaine. Though a jury eventually found him not guilty, prosecutors and other officers implied the captain improperly interfered with the case, an assertion he and his defense attorney refuted.
In 2007, a jury sentenced Robinson to nine years in prison for intoxication manslaughter after killing Armando Navarro, 54, who had been walking on a downtown street when he was struck by Robinson's vehicle.
Robinson, whose blood tests revealed he had a blood alcohol level more than three times the legal limit, told jurors he had earlier attended an event at Fort Sam Houston - a place he had not been since the death of his wife - and that those memories made him distraught, driving him to drink.
At the time of his death, his case was being appealed and he had not served any prison time.

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