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Houston Blue: The Story of the Houston Police Department

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Houston Blue offers the first comprehensive history of one of the nation's largest police forces, the Houston Police Department. Through extensive archival research and more than one hundred interviews with prominent Houston police figures, politicians, news reporters, attorneys, and others, authors Mitchel P. Roth and Tom Kennedy chronicle the development of policing in the Bayou City from its days as a grimy trading post in the 1830s to its current status as the nation's fourth largest city. Prominent historical figures who have brushed shoulders with Houston's Finest over the past 175 years include Houdini, Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, O. Henry, former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, hatchet-wielding temperance leader Carrie Nation, the Hilton Siamese Twins, blues musician Leadbelly, oilman Silver Dollar Jim West, and many others.  The Houston Police Department was one of the first cities in the South to adopt fingerprinting as an identification system and use the polygraph test, and under the leadership of its first African American police chief, Lee Brown, put the theory of neighborhood-oriented policing into practice in the 1980s. The force has been embroiled in controversy and high-profile criminal cases as well. Among the cases chronicled in the book are the Dean Corll, Dr. John Hill, and Sanford Radinsky murders; controversial cases involving the department's crime lab; the killings of Randy Webster and Joe Campos Torres; and the Camp Logan, Texas Southern University, and Moody Park Riots.

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Chapter 1. Baghdad on the Bayou

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1

BAGHDAD ON THE BAYOU

Much of the early history of peacekeeping and law enforcement in Houston has been lost to fire, floods and poor record keeping. Not until the 1840s does the dim outline of what would become one of the nation’s largest police departments begin to take shape. The earliest references and anecdotes dealing with law enforcement can be traced back to the early 1830s. By most accounts, the origins of Houston policing can be traced back to the efforts of an Anglo settler named John W. Moore in the years leading up to the Republic. Moore was appointed Alcalde of the Eastern Province, a position that covered everything from local judge to sheriff.

However, most law enforcement was community-based in this era. In fact, as far back as Anglo Saxon England prior to the Norman Conquest of 1066, community residents were called on to bring local troublemakers to justice in lieu of formal policing. And so it was in Houston almost eight centuries later; when a crime was committed, someone alerted the community and the familiar posse composed of local residents of western lore would set out to bring the malefactor to justice. Typically the suspect would be held in confinement until the arrival of the Alcalde, who would conduct the trial and dole out punishment. There was no need for a penitentiary in the 1830s since punishment usually took place immediately after the trial, whether it was physical or financial in nature.

 

Chapter 2. Houston, USA

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HOUSTON, USA

As German scientist Ferdinand van Roemer approached Houston in 1845, he recorded in his diary, “I found myself on the way to Houston, next to Galveston, the most important city of Texas.”1 However, upon his arrival in the Bayou City, he reported the houses on the city’s main street resembled the frame construction Roemer found in Galveston, but “looked somewhat dilapidated and less tidy.”2 Like most cities of this era west of the Mississippi River, the streets were unpaved and the mud seemingly bottomless. Most residents of early Houston could relate to one contemporary account of an unnamed southern city in which a citizen ran out to assist someone buried up to the neck in mud. The victim replied, “No need to worry, I have a horse underneath me.”3

Roemer saved his greatest accolades for Houston’s numerous saloons, which he found in some cases “really magnificent when compared to their surroundings.”4 Even in this early era, Houstonians had a reputation for enjoying a good time, more like New Orleans to the east, than San Antonio in temperament. Roemer found saloons displaying “divers [sic] kinds of firewater,” Cognac and brandy the most popular. The German scientist reported that business merchants would leave their shops unattended momentarily “to indulge in a fiery drink in the nearest saloon.”5

 

Chapter 3. Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Birth of HPD

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CIVIL WAR, RECONSTRUCTION, AND THE BIRTH OF HPD

Prior to the Civil War there was little if any police patrol in Houston. After nightfall the lack of protection was even more daunting. What little reliable protection existed was the result of local merchants hiring private guards and volunteers to protect their businesses. As Houston and the United States stood on the brink of Civil War in 1860, most evidence suggests that policing was inadequate by all standards.

One of the earliest accounts of a member of HPD killed in the line duty was of the death of Officer C. Foley on March 10, 1860. According to the report in that day’s Tri-Weekly Telegraph, Foley had been patrolling the market district when accosted by Michael Flock. Upon being hit by the policeman, Flock left the scene only to return shortly after with a shotgun, fatally shooting Foley. Little is known as to the fate of Flock, who was carried off to jail and later tried in court. It would be more than twenty years before another member of the force was killed in the line of duty.1

 

Chapter 4. Houston’s Crime Problem

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HOUSTON’S CRIME PROBLEM

Despite a number of strides in upgrading local law enforcement, one local newspaper lamented in 1873, that “at no time in her history, has [Houston] been so immersed in crimes as at the present. The terrors of the blade of the assassin and the bullet of the murder have become a matter of almost daily occurrence.”1

Citizens had little reason to feel protected by the HPD at this time. In March 1873, a Daily Houston Telegraph editorial lamented the fact that officers frequented the barrooms with the same regularity as did private citizens, noting, “It appears that some officers of this city have been in the habit of imbibing too much whiskey . . .  a policeman who allows himself to get under the influence of ardent spirits should be promptly dismissed from the force.”2

In 1873, the position of secret policeman was retitled either “special agent” or “detective.” The main distinction between regular plainclothes officers and the special agents was that special agents reported directly to the mayor and Police Committee rather than city marshal.3 In 1875, a resolution passed which solely authorized the mayor to oversee the special agents, with funding provided by a “Secret Service Fund.” Curiously, no specific tasks were enumerated for the agents. Most likely, their duties were intelligence-related and might have included the reporting illegal activities by police officers.4

 

Chapter 5. The Marshal Becomes the Chief

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THE MARSHAL BECOMES THE CHIEF

John G. Blackburn was the first head of the Houston Police Department to be referred to as chief of police rather than marshal, signalling another step in Houston’s advancement from town to city. Blackburn was born in Mississippi and moved to Marshall, Texas in 1871, where he resided until departing for Houston in 1887 to become a blacksmith for Southern Pacific Shops. For the next eight years he worked in this capacity. In 1895, he formed a partnership with W. F. Black and opened a private blacksmith business. Blackburn entered public service following his election as alderman in the spring of 1898. That December, Mayor Brashear selected Blackburn to fill the vacancy as head of the police department. In 1898, Blackburn was elected city marshal and upon re-election in 1900 took on the sobriquet of “chief of police.”1

An examination of police rosters over the preceding decade finds no mention of Blackburn except as chief. But this does not preclude that he was unaware of the dangers and challenges faced by the rank and file officer. In the following speech Blackburn outlines a number of themes familiar to policemen in any century:

 

Chapter 6. Murder Was In the Air

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MURDER WAS IN THE AIR

On August 22, 1910, Houston Police Chief George Ellis resigned, ending an eight-year reign as Houston’s top cop. His resignation was unexpected to say the least. By all accounts, Ellis was a popular chief held in high regard by the rank and file. But when he showed up at the police station wearing citizen’s clothes that morning, his staff knew something was up. Ellis calmly took off his badge and handed it to Night Chief James Ray, who was on duty conducting morning roll call at the end of his shift. Mayor Rice promptly appointed Assistant Chief Ray to replace Ellis.

Ellis’s resignation was not publicly announced until the next day, which one reporter claimed was to forestall a rush on the part of applicants for the position. Mayor Rice was overwhelmed with applications nonetheless. However, reflecting the political climate of the day, the mayor said in response, “There were a good many applicants for the position, none of them being considered. An efficient public service can only be maintained by merited promotions [from within].”1

 

Chapter 7. The Bloodiest Day

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THE BLOODIEST DAY

By early 1917, HPD consisted of 159 men headed by two veteran police officers, Superintendent Ben S. Davison and Deputy Superintendent J. E. Dunman. The rest of the force was composed of sixteen detectives, twenty mounted officers, six motorcycle cops and several others on special assignment. Except for one black detective and one black officer, the force was completely white.1

According to several police veterans, “For years Houstonians had displayed only modest respect for the police department and had shown little faith in its ability to preserve law and order.”2 It had in fact been only six years since two policemen settled a dispute with a duel on Main Street, leading one observer to note, “It wasn’t safe to get in range of the police.”

Few Houstonians could have imagined that the hot and rainy dog day of August 23, 1917, would turn into the bloodiest day in the history of the HPD. On that day five Houston police officers lost their lives in what became known as the “Camp Logan Riot.” But it was much more than that. This was not the only race-related conflict in America’s military history—incidents took place at virtually every camp in the south where black troops were stationed during the early 20th century. But, this was by far the worst event of its kind and remains to this day a record holder of sorts; its aftermath resulted in what is still the largest mutiny and the largest domestic court martial in U.S. Army history. It remains the only race riot in which more whites perished than blacks. In all, sixteen whites were killed, including the five Houston police officers, and close to thirty others suffered violent wounds such as the loss of limbs. No black civilians were killed, and only four troopers of the 24th Infantry died. Of these, two were accidentally shot by other soldiers who may have mistaken them for police officers. A white citizen shot a third soldier who later died in a hospital. The fourth black was Sergeant Vida Henry, the well-respected soldier with an honorable record up until he undertook the leadership of the violent attack on Houston. Henry took his own life.

 

Chapter 8. HPD and the Klan

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HPD AND THE KLAN

By 1918, the police department had 176 officers for a city of 153,192. That same year, Mrs. Eva Jane Bacher joined HPD, officially becoming the department’s first female police officer. Another woman, Juvenile Officer Ferdie Trichelle, also served. Bacher would be promoted to detective in 1920. The 1918 Houston City Directory was the first to include a policewoman—in this case referring to Bacher as “Woman Police.” She would be referred to as “Woman Police” the following year as well, although Bacher signed most of her correspondence as “Policewoman.” Bacher next appeared as “Woman Detective” in the 1920–21 Houston City Directory.

In 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified and went into effect the following year as the Volstead Act, introducing America to Prohibition. Almost from the beginning, HPD was embroiled with enforcing the federal law. Like modern day police officers tracking drug dealers, early HPD used intuition to capture booze runners. For example, one night in 1920 two motorcycle patrolmen were riding along Sabine Street when they spotted an automobile “with kegs in it.” They pulled over the car and found ten kegs containing almost five gallons of moonshine whiskey. The two suspects were charged with violating the federal law. That same week, HPD detectives teamed up with Prohibition agents and raided a house on Wilson Street, where they found a small quantity of wine and whiskey. The tenants Mr. and Mrs. Tomasino operated a grocery store there, but were both arrested; these were little more than pyrrhic victories in a war that could never be won.

 

Chapter 9. The Prohibition Era

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THE PROHIBITION ERA

Once Prohibition was legislated into reality with the passage of the 18th Amendment, it dawned on most observers, particularly in law enforcement, that it was virtually unenforceable. Although Prohibition would later be regarded as an unmitigated disaster for providing the opportunity for organized crime to thrive, it was not actually the total disaster that was popularly depicted. Nationwide, the Prohibition era saw a huge decline of public drunkenness; deaths and diseases from alcohol, such as cirrhosis of the liver, declined as well.

Alcohol prohibition had been an issue in Texas since the time of Sam Houston. Prohibitionists were active at state constitutional conventions and elections throughout much of the nineteenth century, with unsuccessful amendments attempted in 1887, 1908 and 1910. Baptists and Methodists were at the forefront of the temperance movement in 1900 and had also helped pass the Sunday saloon closing law in 1866. However, it was virtually impossible to enforce Prohibition along the Gulf Coast, as Galveston became a sanctuary for smugglers. Although anti-vice campaigns had shut down vice sections in Austin, Dallas and Houston in the 1910s, Galveston remained a “sin city” that flaunted its reputation as the “Free State of Galveston” for years.

 

Chapter 10. Reorganization

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REORGANIZATION

During Oscar Holcombe’s two terms as mayor between 1933 and 1937, he inaugurated several changes for HPD largely regarded as politically motivated. Not the least was his creation of the Department of Public Safety. By making this move, he effectively ended the existence of independent police and fire departments. Holcombe abolished the position of chief of police and imbued the director of public safety, George Woods (his former campaign manager), with the chief’s powers and then some. However, Woods stressed, “If anyone calls me chief, they had better take to their heels when they say it.”1

As public safety director, Woods implemented a number of changes that had long-lasting ramifications for HPD. The egotistical Woods created the position of superintendent of police and appointed Banyon Wylie “B. W.” Payne, former captain of detectives, to fill it. In the process, Woods, who claimed that the city budget required it, fired Chief Percy Heard and Captain of Detectives J. K. Irwin. In addition, many high-ranking officers were reduced in rank.2

 

Chapter 11. Percy Heard and the War Years

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PERCY HEARD AND THE WAR YEARS

As the 1930s came to conclusion, city politics were as complicated and acrimonious as ever as a new mayor took office and a new police chief was appointed. L. C. Brown became police chief in January 1939 and almost immediately set about putting his stamp on the force by demoting twenty-six police officers, forcing seven to retire and firing three others. He also closed three police substations and promoted many of the officers that Holcombe had demoted during his administration to their former ranks.1

The same year that saw the release of Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz also saw HPD open its first police training school for new recruits, under the direction of Captain L. D. Morrison. The five-week classes were conducted at the Sam Houston Coliseum. Moving farther away from its roots in patronage politics, the department subjected new recruits to more requirements than simple political party affiliation. In 1939, HPD adopted a military model for screening potential officers. Of the first 362 who passed the initial exam (out of 597), only seventy were selected as recruits and of these only fifty graduated. But due to budgetary constraints, only twenty-four would wear the HPD blue. The remaining twenty-six were put on a waiting list and would be considered for future jobs on the force or as special police officers. One of the questions asked on the written exam was, “Why do you want to be a police officer?” The same question was still on the test seventy years later.

 

Chapter 12. The Post-War Era

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THE POST-WAR ERA

America has long grappled with juvenile gangs of one sort or another. This has been true throughout a good part of Houston’s history. Gang names seemed less sinister in the 1940s when monikers included the Long Hairs, the Black Shirts and the Alley Gang. Most American cities have also endured so-called “juvenile delinquency” problems. Like today, the media often exaggerated the incidence of youth crimes.1

During the 1940s, local newspapers filled columns chronicling the large number of crimes by minors and with pleas for curfews to curb juvenile delinquency. The Houston Post heralded the use of curfews in 500 American cities as a way of “solving the perplexing problems of teenage life.” The newspaper cited a Parade magazine article that claimed “curfew is, in part, America’s answer to the problem of youth in a country at war.” In reality, several city officials noted, there were few figures to support either a decrease or increase in youth crime, explaining that any infraction of a city ordinance was listed as a criminal offense. Hence, children who rode their bikes on sidewalks were committing offenses, as were children who “trespassed” on private property to retrieve a ball that landed there, or shot an air gun on their own lawn but the pellet landed in the next yard. Minors caught smoking cigarettes on the streets were even included in the statistics of law violations.2

 

Chapter 13. The Old Gray Fox’s Whim

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AT THE OLD GRAY FOX’S WHIM

Known as “the Old Gray Fox, Oscar Holcombe would serve as Houston mayor longer than any other man. He began the first of eleven non-consecutive terms in 1921. The prematurely gray and political crafty Oscar Fitzallen Holcombe was born in Mobile, Alabama and lived with his family in San Antonio before moving to Houston in 1906 at age eighteen. He formed his own construction company and ran for mayor for the first time in 1921 at age thirty-two. Holcombe was elected to eleven non-consecutive terms from the 1920s through the 1950s, a record no other mayor has approached.1

Holcombe utilized a police officer spoils system like no other Bayou City mayor in history. He manipulated officers as ward heelers during election years and employed only two police chiefs over four consecutive two-year terms until 1929. In his first campaign, Holcombe vowed to reorganize city departments, pave more streets, build new schools and improve the business climate. Policing this more pleasing environment was seldom mentioned in his speeches.

 

Chapter 14. Secret Leaders and 1269m

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SECRET LEADERS AND 1269M

Breckenridge Porter Sr. was the only Houston police lieutenant in history to be thrown out of the Texas Rangers and charged with murder within a relatively short period of time. The storied details of Porter’s life were retold around police headquarters throughout the 20th century, always in modest, down-to-earth segments, using the honest-to-goodness modus operandi of the biographic subject. Just as Ranger Porter got the hang of a job that included earning a $2 bounty for each illegal immigrant he captured in the Valley, the issue of his age cropped up.1

The Rangers’ age requirement was twenty-one; he was barely twenty. Before the state found out, Porter and a partner were assigned to Galveston, where violence frequently broke out in union picket lines at the port. During one near-riot, shots were fired and Porter was left standing with a smoking shotgun in his hands; one man was dead.2

 

Chapter 15. A Sergeant Becomes Chief

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A SERGEANT BECOMES CHIEF

Police Chief L. D. Morrison Sr. closed the little-used North Side Police Substation at 1814 Gregg when the new headquarters at 61 Riesner opened in March 1952. He also transferred twenty-one officers, three sergeants and one lieutenant from the Motorcycle Squad to the Safety Division, effectively disbanding the “solos” squad.

By May 15, Morrison posted his semi-annual bulletin about politics and the men in blue. The bulletin said that civil service rules prohibited policemen and firemen from taking part in such political activities as making speeches, soliciting votes, passing out literature and writing letters. The rules also protected the men from reprisals for refusing to contribute to political campaigns or to render any political service.

One activity that no law affected was the naturally flowing inter-departmental politicking that posed day-to-day distractions for the chief. Even though some ranking officers were dismissed, demoted or chose to resign, some strong followers of B. W. Payne remained to stir the waters of discontent. Morrison did what chiefs before him had always done—he put his loyalists in influential positions and those not so loyal in out-of-the-way assignments in a growing department that now numbered about 600.

 

Chapter 16. Political Winds

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POLITICAL WINDS

By the time Mayor Oscar Holcombe appointed Carl Lester Shuptrine police chief on August 15, 1956, the appointee was in position to achieve a noteworthy Houston policing irony. He was demoted in 1947 and promoted in 1956—for the same reason: he was non-political. Holcombe promoted police officials for supporting him in 1947 and Shuptrine, then an inspector, was demoted to lieutenant so that a Holcombe supporter would get the higher rank. In 1948 and 1949, the Houston Police Officers Association succeeded in outlawing this practice with the passage of 1269m.

By 1956, the law had solidified rank security and the political winds had shifted 180 degrees. The older and wiser Holcombe, serving what would be his last term, wanted a decidedly non-political police chief to succeed Jack Heard. The factionalism that prevailed in the department when Heard left in August 1956 caused Holcombe to pick someone as far away from either faction as he could get. He and his staff interviewed forty-seven HPD veterans, asking each one to name the person he thought would make the best chief.

 

Chapter 17. Herman B. Short

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HERMAN B. SHORT

As a member of the Houston City Council, Louie Welch had a vision of the type of police chief he wanted if he ever became mayor. Welch didn’t want an academician or a nice guy. He preferred a squeaky clean, non-political veteran unafraid to strongly enforce laws for all Houstonians.1

By the mid-1960s, Welch had support from minority groups, mainly stemming from his strong stand against refusals to serve African-American customers in the City Hall cafeteria. One day in 1961, Councilman Welch became the first Houston public official to sit down with blacks in a public place to share a cup of coffee with them amid booing and catcalls of a crowd outside still favoring Jim Crow laws. Scared by hearing the N-word loudly voiced, the cafeteria’s cashier called Welch when she couldn’t get an answer from the mayor’s telephone to ask him what to do. Not surprisingly, Welch got the vast majority of black votes in the 1961 mayoral election, but lost to incumbent Louis Cutrer.2

 

Chapter 18. Conflict at Texas Southern

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CONFLICT AT TEXAS SOUTHERN

Houston’s leadership kept violence and damage to neighborhoods and businesses to a minimum when compared to the Watts section of Los Angeles, Detroit and other scenes of rioting during the violent days of the Civil Rights movement. Accounts of what became known as “the TSU Riot” vary in their judgment of HPD and the city administration under Mayor Louie Welch. The number of persons arrested, wounded or killed never approached the toll of other riot-torn cities. Instead, Houston held a rare distinction: More white people than blacks met death in the violence. The only individual to die was a white Houston officer with hardly a month’s experience.

A department report detailing the events leading up to the “riot” itself said the groundwork was laid when the TSU Friends of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee formed in October 1966. A “Snick” (SNCC) speaker, James Forman, addressed the subject of “Black Power—A New Religion?” that month, setting the stage for picketers of a campus speech by Mayor Welch on December 13, 1966. Further intervention by members of the W. E. B. DuBois Club—identified by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover as an alleged Communist front organization—spawned increased discontent and led to demonstrations in March and April 1967.1 TSU students boycotted classes and left the campus cafeteria in shambles. Wheeler Street, the major campus thoroughfare, enabled gangs to harass motorists, throw rocks at cars and quickly flee.

 

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