Houston Blue: The Story of the Houston Police Department


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. Combining the ...

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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. Combining the skills of historian, criminologist, and journalist, Roth and Kennedy reconstruct the history of a police force that has been both innovative and controversial.

Readers will be introduced to a colorful and unforgettable cast of police chiefs and officers who have made their mark on the department. Prominent historical figures who have brushed shoulders with Houston’s Finest over the past 175 years are also featured, including 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 has been at the cutting edge of police innovation. It was one of the first departments 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 and Dr. John Hill 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.

Roth and Kennedy reveal that most of modern Houston’s issues and problems are rooted in many of the challenges that faced police officers in the nineteenth century. Anyone who drives in Houston will not be surprised that the city’s reputation for poor drivers was already cemented in the 1860s, when ordinances were passed to protect pedestrians from horse-drawn carriages. Likewise, the department’s efforts to overcome funding and manpower shortages, and political patronage, are a continuing battle that began a century ago. In the end it is a story about the men and women in blue and the role played by the Houston Police Officers Union in creating a modern 21st-century police force from its frontier roots.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“The authors do an exceptional job piecing the history together. The vivid descriptions of life in early Houston, as well as the elaborate details concerning the evolution of policing in the country’s fourth largest city, make this a highly engaging read.”—Daniel M. Stewart, criminal justice, University of North Texas

Houston Blue leaves the reader with a true sense of history and pride for the many Houston Police officers—the men and women in blue—who gave so much of themselves and their families to serve the citizens of Houston for the past 175 years. It is a must read for anyone with a fondness of history and policing, for the art of storytelling and the early days of good guys and bad guys, and for the surprising appearance of John Wayne in the annals of the Houston Police Department.”—Michael Bozeman, criminal justice, University of Texas-Tyler

"The Houston Police Department, in its long history, has been policing all manners of life here in the Bayou City. The good, the bad, and the groundbreaking are now detailed in a comprehensive new book about the nation's fourth-largest police force."—Houston Chronicle

"[T]here are vignettes here and there dealing with particular officers, including some who died in the line of duty, as well as of specific units within the Houston Police Department and improvements in race relations both internally and externally."—Journal of South Texas

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781574414721
  • Publisher: University of North Texas Press
  • Publication date: 10/31/2012
  • Series: North Texas Crime and Criminal Justice Series , #8
  • Pages: 496
  • Sales rank: 423,169
  • Product dimensions: 7.30 (w) x 10.20 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

MITCHEL P. ROTH received the Ph.D. in history from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1993 and is currently professor of criminal justice at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. He has written extensively about the history of crime and punishment and was selected by the Texas Department of Public Safety to write its history and update it three times over the past fifteen years. His books include Crime and Punishment: A History of the Criminal Justice System, Historical Dictionary of Law Enforcement, and The Encyclopedia of War Journalism.

TOM KENNEDY spent twenty-five years with the late Houston Post as a columnist and member of the Editorial Board. His columns focused on politics, police, and criminal justice. He authored From Waco to Wall Street, the biography of SYSCO founder John Baugh. A Baylor University journalism graduate, he resides in Houston with his wife Glenda.

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Read an Excerpt


By Mitchel P. Roth Tom Kennedy

University of North Texas Press

Copyright © 2012 Mitchel P. Roth and Tom Kennedy
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-57441-472-1

Chapter One


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.

Few of the inhabitants of what would become the fourth largest city in the United States could have predicted the future stature of what in 1836 was barely a clearing on the bayou with several cabins in the woods. In 1833, one early visitor to the "Town of Houston" noted that "it was hard work to find the city in the pine woods" and that when one managed to actually find the site it was little more than "one dugout canoe, a bottle gourd of whiskey and a surveyor's chain and compass and was inhabited by four men with an ordinary camping outfit." When this visitor returned to Harrisburg, he reported "mosquitoes were as large as grasshoppers" and found his companion's attempt to bathe in the bayou cut short by alligators.

Following independence in 1836, the Republic adopted a constitution that would influence the development of local policing in Texas. According to Article 4, Section 10 of the 1836 Constitution of the Texas Republic:

There shall be appointed for each county, a convenient number of Justices of the Peace, one sheriff, one Coroner, and a sufficient number of Constables, who shall hold their offices for two years, to be elected by the qualified voters of the district or county, as Congress may direct. Justice of the Peace and Sheriffs shall be commissioned by the President {of the Republic].

Many Western historians consider Texas sheriffs as "the first legally qualified sheriffs of the American Far West."

Houston was situated on the "the south side of Buffalo Bayou, at least sixty feet above the water and about one hundred miles from the coast." Founded just two months earlier, on January 1, 1837, and incorporated as the city of Houston on the following June 5, the city, with a sheriff as its first principal peace officer, held its first official election in August of the same summer. Turnout was reportedly low, due in no small part to the voter qualifications of the day, which required anyone voting for aldermen or mayor to be a free white male, citizen of Texas, a resident of Houston for at least six months, and the owner of at least $100 worth of city real estate for at least three months prior to the election.

Houston, from the very beginning, was besieged by extreme weather events that have since made the city famous. In April of that first year, the town was flooded with seemingly endless rain, followed by a hurricane in October that made the bayou rise four feet to the edge of Main Street. The following February, Houston was jolted with its coldest day when temperatures dropped to sixteen degrees below freezing on February 2 and six degrees colder two weeks later. It was indeed a rare sight to see even Galveston Bay covered with ice and the streets of Houston covered with snow and ice.

Weather did little to dampen the spirits of settlers headed to Houston. Early settlers did not just bring libraries, furniture, musical instruments and the odd piano, but their servants and slaves and even the lumber that would be needed to construct their new homes. Despite advertisements for all kinds of wood in "inexhaustible quantities," there was no sawmill and few laborers. Trained carpenters earned as much as three dollars a day. One individual reported that Houston "seemed to be the focus of immigration" and "houses could not be built near as fast as required, so that quite a large number of linen tents were pitched in every direction over the prairie, which gave the city the appearance of a Methodist camp-ground."

According to one early history, "In the early days, a man's reputation for personal courage, honesty of purpose and a bulldog determination to do his duty" were the requisites of a police officer. It was his personality, and not his ability as a businessman and executive, that counted. The only ability demanded of him was that "he be quick on the draw and expert in the use of his pistol." By all accounts, Houston's first official peace officers fit the bill.

While a number of sources indicate that G. W. Holland, elected constable in 1837, was the city's first law enforcement official, the best evidence suggests that appointment of two constables in 1838 by the city aldermen inaugurated formal law enforcement in Houston. Foreign tourists were apparently impressed by the Texas brand of justice. Mrs. Matilda Charlotte Houston reported in the early 1840s, "The Texan people go on remarkably well with their primitive system of administering justice," especially when it came to the lynch law that sometimes prevailed in Houston.

Another British tourist named Francis C. Sheridan several years earlier, upon leaving Houston, commented that lynch law "has been as generally vilified as it has been generally successful." He found that seldom "the judgment of the respectable part of a community errs, or that a punishment inflicted by it is disproportional to the crime, and at all events this much can be said of Lynch law, that it has reached murderers, felons, and swindlers when no other law could."

While the British tourist did indeed support draconian punishments in a frontier town, it should also be noted that England used the "bloody code" in the same era that demanded the death penalty for almost 200 different felonies back in the "civilized" British Isles.

Thanks to his success in his earlier stint as Alcalde, John W. Moore was elected as the county's first sheriff in 1836. Sworn in to office in February, the new district court convened for the first time by March 20, 1837, with jurors taking their seats "On a log under an arbour of pine bushes." Sheriff Moore then presented three cases. First, the verdict in an assault and battery case resulted in a judgment of guilty and a fine of five dollars. The second case was a charge of murder. Foreshadowing Texas's future reputation for frontier justice, most of the jurors agreed that they probably would have done the same thing under the circumstances and exonerated him. Alas, the third suspect would not be so lucky. Found guilty of larceny, James Adams was ordered to pay restitution of $295 and receive the draconian punishment of thirty-nine lashes on his back, followed by the branding of a "T" (for thief) on the back of his right hand. As was customary in an era before professional law enforcement, the sentence was to be carried out publicly on a Friday night, a message that could not be sent any louder to potential criminals. As was his duty, Sheriff Moore was assigned to carry out the sentence—quite a day's work for a freshly-minted sheriff.

As sheriff, Moore was required to act as tax collector, keeper of the peace, issuer of warrants, hangman and chief executioner. One early account tells of several sympathizers visiting the judge to complain of the harsh conditions of the jail and requesting more hospitable quarters for two condemned men. The judge acquiesced, pronouncing that because of the jail's inhumane conditions, the prisoners should wait no longer. The following headline reported the aftermath: "Merciful Judge once had 2 prisoners Hung Ahead of Time to Save from Cold," "presumably" by Sheriff Moore.

Arriving on the outskirts of Houston in 1837, an unnamed traveler reported that "The Land from Galveston to the city of Houston, or at least such portions of it as are worth having, have been taken by settlers, and I doubt whether an inch of it can be bought for a less sum than at the rate of five dollars an acre." He came upon the city after traveling first to San Jacinto, less than a year removed from the battle that made Texas a republic, before continuing on to Houston from the mouth of Buffalo Bayou. The next stop was in the burgeoning town of Harrisburg, some twenty-five miles to the north (now part of East Houston), extending some distance above his destination. Mr. Anonymous continued his journey, passing Buffalo, better known as "Pokersville" for obvious reasons.

Just four years later, future mayoral candidate Francis R. Lubbock visited Houston by steamboat, but found "So little evidence ... of a landing that we passed by the site." Backing back down the bayou toward the fledgling city, Lubbock and his party "discovered a road or street laid off from the water's edge. Upon landing we found stakes and footprints" and then "a few tents, one of which served as a saloon, and several small houses under construction." 15 So this was Houston entering its first year of existence—several ramshackle shacks and plentiful alcoholic libations, with enough mouths to sip them. Policemen, firemen and the other hallmarks of urban living had yet to be discussed.

There is little doubt that the city was named for the friend of town-founders Augustus C. and John K. Allen and the hero of the Battle of San Jacinto the previous year—Sam Houston. Houston was probably flattered but no doubt remembered that when he was shot in the ankle just months earlier he had to go all the way to New Orleans to find a capable doctor. According to popular lore, the Allen Brothers had ulterior motives for naming the town after Houston. It was most likely part of their campaign to have the town selected as the headquarters of the new republic. In its planning stages, the city was platted in gridiron fashion, a pattern that flourished after Philadelphia. It was supposed that this pattern was best for future commercial greatness, something the Allen Brothers wholeheartedly expected.

By 1840, Houston was laid out on a nine-square-mile grid, with a courthouse in the centre. Together with the other elected officers who included the mayor, a secretary and treasurer, tax collector and constable, city governance had been pretty well established. Ordinances required two aldermen to be elected from each of the four wards. The First Ward was located north of Congress and west of Main Street. The Second Ward was north of Congress and east of Main. The Third Ward was everything to the south of Congress and to the east of Main, while the Fourth Ward was comprised of land south of Congress and west of Main. Later, as the city continued to spread north of Buffalo Bayou the Fifth and Sixth wards were created. Although these political subdivisions were abolished years ago, the terms, according to journalist Ray Miller, "are still used to describe the black ghettos in the area near downtown."

* * *

There are few records that have survived from these halcyon days of the late 1830s and the 1840s; much of the city's history and the evolution of law enforcement from this era can be only anecdotally recovered. Outside of his duties, it would seem that most peacekeeping was the jurisdiction of Sheriff John W. Moore and members of a Citizen's Patrol. When Houston was incorporated as a city on June 5, 1837, law enforcement planning was one of the first issues on the table. Little more than two weeks later a committee composed of the town's leading citizens was charged with forming "the citizens into a patrol for procuring order."

Houston citizens became concerned about violent crime at an early juncture. One early visitor called Houston "the greatest sink of dissipation and vice that modern times have known." Probably more hyperbole than fact, by most accounts early Houston was an open freewheeling frontier town with few restraints on misbehavior. As early as September 23, 1837, the Telegraph and Texas Register chronicled the fatal shooting of Leman Kelcy by Zadock Hubbard the previous week. Newspaper editor Dr. Francis Moore Jr. lamented, "This is the first individual of this city who has fallen a victim to the disgraceful custom of wearing deadly weapons—a custom which should be denounced and frowned down by every intelligent and respectable community."

Duelling was so conspicuous in the area that one Louis de France emigrated from France to teach fencing in Houston. Houston was not even one month old when the first duel took place, but the duelling instructor and other members of the fencing fraternity were disappointed that duels were typically fought with pistols instead of swords. Francis Moore was one of the loudest critics of the practice and used his newspaper, the Telegraph, as a forum to rail against duelling. The following editorial offers the gist of his comments: "We had an affair of honor settled here yesterday, no blood shed however, all was amicably adjusted by merely shooting into WOOD, If all duels were settled by merely shooting at blocks, instead of BLOCKHEADS, the practice would be far more consonant with the dictates of wisdom and justice." Moore's crusade against duelling led to its criminalization in 1839, and by 1840, there were few if any accounts of duelling incidents in Houston, leading to its virtual disappearance from the streets of Houston by 1840.

By 1838, Houston had established itself as a trading centre, which brought with it its share of criminal activity. The previous year a Methodist minister named Littleton Fowler reported finding "much vice, gaming, drunkenness, and profanity" in the frontier town. Public drunkenness, prostitution, gambling and violence accompanied the growth of Houston from frontier village to city-hood.

Due in part to the promotional acumen of the Allen Brothers and other boosters, businessmen and transients alike found Houston and Texas an irresistible destination during the Republic period. But in too many cases recent arrivals became embroiled in criminal activity. One Englishman passing through recounted, "Murder and every other crime is of great frequency in Texas." Another visitor reported that it was not uncommon "to see men passing on the streets with from 2 to 4 pistols belted around them, with the addition of a larger Bowie knife."

According to HPD historian and former archivist Denny Hair, the first death of a Houston peace officer on duty was probably the murder of a Constable Lewis Way on April 19, 1839 [although WPA notes he was appointed constable on January 6, 1840]. One of the city's original constables, he was reportedly stabbed to death by Army veteran Captain Haigler. The Morning Star of the following day chronicled the killing, noting that it occurred at a "house of ill repute" run by someone named Nelly. Way was called to the house to confront the former captain who was breaking crockery and making an all around ruckus. Almost immediately, Haigler drew a "sword cane" and fatally stabbed Constable Way through the right breast and lung. Haigler was arrested, but it is not clear what final judgment was rendered. However, there was talk that if the rudimentary court system would not take care of the case, the citizens might take the law into their own hands.


Excerpted from HOUSTON BLUE by Mitchel P. Roth Tom Kennedy Copyright © 2012 by Mitchel P. Roth and Tom Kennedy. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Foreword Ray Hunt, President, Houston Police Officers' Union ix

Chapter 1 Baghdad on the Bayou 1

Chapter 2 Houston, USA 13

Chapter 3 Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Birth of HPD 17

Chapter 4 Houston's Crime Problem 30

Chapter 5 The Marshal Becomes the Chief 41

Chapter 6 Murder Was In the Air 53

Chapter 7 The Bloodiest Day 68

Chapter 8 HPD and the Klan 77

Chapter 9 The Prohibition Era 83

Chapter 10 Reorganization 97

Chapter 11 Percy Heard and the War Years 111

Chapter 12 The Post-War Era 134

Chapter 13 The Old Gray Fox's Whim 145

Chapter 14 Secret Leaders and 1269m 152

Chapter 15 A Sergeant Becomes Chief 162

Chapter 16 Political Winds 177

Chapter 17 Herman B. Short 191

Chapter 18 Conflict at Texas Southern 208

Chapter 19 The Successor 219

Chapter 20 All 7's 233

Chapter 21 Buffalo Hunters and a New Union 247

Chapter 22 The Darkest Day 265

Chapter 23 The Drill Instructor 280

Chapter 24 Hispanics Stand Tall 299

Chapter 25 The Outsider 312

Chapter 26 Neighborhood-Oriented Policing 329

Chapter 27 Betsy and the Poster Boy 339

Chapter 28 The Man in the Uniform 359

Chapter 29 Hans Marticiuc and Greater Benefits 368

Chapter 30 The Chief from Phoenix 383

Chapter 31 An Insider and New Trust 399

Appendix 1 Fallen Heroes of HPD 413

Appendix 2 Houston Mayors and Police Chiefs, 1837-2012 417

Appendix 3 HPOA/HPOU Presidents 424

Notes 426

Sources 453

Index 467

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