In my 20 years of writing stories about Houston police officers, I have been privileged and had tons of fun telling your war stories – at least those we found to be okay to recall “on the record.”
I firmly believe each of them served a positive purpose that clearly emphasized the dangers, the training, and your dedication to helping others. I hope that my retirement as editor of the Badge & Gun leaves a plethora of points on the board.
At this point I want to share with you a few key points, the first of which is the definition of the over-used term “old.”
You guys describe Tim Whitaker, the 2nd vice president of HPOU and one of the most dedicated HPD officers I have ever encountered, as “old.” I laugh when I tell you that the year, he was born was the first year I broke 10 flat in what was then the 100-yard dash.
Although I would have trouble running that fast today, I don’t feel old, I feel, well, experienced.
Since being assigned to the Friday and Saturday police beat for the late and lamented Houston Post in 1970, I have seen numerous changes in the Houston Police Department. I recall with the type of humor we find in police war stories the experiences emanating from the dingy third floor press room of 61 Riesner.
Detectives, usually from Homicide, drafted reporters to appear in lineups. You know the routine well – witnesses in the “audience” attempted to identify suspects from a line up of five or six possibilities. On one occasion I was No. 3, next to a man about my size with blond hair and a light complexion. We stepped forward and side to side. After some close examination, victims IDed No. 2.
“It was between you and the old boy on your right,” the Homicide detective said with that type of playful sneer you guys get when the member of the news media gets in a snare. “She picked the right one. We booked him.”
“Wait,” I pleaded. “Exactly what crime would I have been charged with had she made a mistake?”
“The guy’s a serial rapist.”
I hope you are laughing. I still do when I tell this story.
Other memories of 61 Riesner tell the story of changes at HPD. More than 50 years ago there were hardly any policewomen in the building. Also, there were maybe a half dozen black and/or Hispanic officers on the floors that were finally remodeled years later. TV could have done a long-running series on the two female detectives in Homicide, Carol Ewton and Lanny Stephenson, nicknamed “the high-heeled flatfoot.”
History shows the biggest changes in HPD happened at its most ironic moment since its founding in 1841.
Cops detested the first woman to become mayor of Houston. Kathy Whitmire was following a new election formula that entailed getting the minority voters in her camp. This meant picking on the police and criticizing them to no end. In 1981, when she first ran and won the mayoral election, there was a night at her Montrose home when she met with the then-fledgling and aggressive Houston Police Patrol Officers Union (HPPU).
Whitmire demanded that the group of officers, led by HPPU President Bob Thomas, check their guns at the door of her house much like the sheriff at the bar in an old Western movie. Do I need to tell you she got off on the wrong foot with both feet?
Then came the irony I’m talking about. She appointed Lee P. Brown as police chief of Houston, a black lawman from Atlanta. Brown, as expected, recruited more minority and female officers, beginning in 1982 – a courageous endeavor that led to HPD becoming the majority minority department it is today.
As a longtime Houstonian – and your devoted editor for two decades – I greatly admire and appreciate this highly significant change. It’s far easier to identify the bad guys and haul them in with considerably less accusations of racism. Sure, there will always be these charges, but I have seen them decrease in numbers since the 70s when civil rights advocates were larger in numbers and louder in voices.
Let me state it a different way: Houston officers are more diverse, better educated and experience the best law enforcement training in the nation. I will assert the latter even though the head trainer at the New York police academy disagrees.
In my journalistic career I avoided using what we euphemistically refer to as bad words. There’s one I’ve always wanted to use in the B&G. Ray Hunt even said it was okay. Alas, I have yet to use it. Maybe I’ll get the chance before too long.
But let me get back to some key’s points. What we know as the Houston Police Officers Union is – in my opinion after almost as many years as Tim Whitaker has been on earth (LOL) – the best friend of Houston police officers. You have more benefits and representation than ever before. Had HPOU Legal been in place, say, in the 1970s, much of history would spell out differently. The Union got you Meet and Confer and the HPOU Political Action Committee.
As to the latter, I recall the president of the then Houston Police Officers Association (HPOA) coming to City Council to ask for a double-digit raise. I was covering City Hall for The Post at the time. In subsequent interviews with the council members, reporters heard two answers, “We can’t find the money,” and – off the record – “These guys are great, but they can’t help us like the firefighters. The firefighters print all our campaign signs.”
You should now realize that those answers and that council excuses are forgotten footnotes in history. Why? The HPOU PAC. The influence extends to the point of worrying less and less about whether the council will approve the contract terms from Meet and Confer. The PAC doesn’t support any council member who does not approve proposed contracts.
The proof of PAC effectiveness: Your contracts, which always include raises. So are the requests for as many cadet classes as possible, despite national trends elsewhere.
I have worked with great hard-working individuals besides the gray-haired Westside stalwart. I have last through the terms of the following HPOU presidents: Hans Marticiuc, Marshal Gary Blankinship, J. J. Berry, Ray Hunt, Joe Gamaldi and Doug Griffith.
These are the sharpies you want and have gotten for your leaders. They are great leaders. I wanted Ray to run for Congress and still believe Joe, notably the founder of HOPA, will either be chief or head a corporation someday. And Doug hasn’t run through his effective leadership cycle.
I need to specially recognize three people whose support have made these two decades exciting and fun. First, Sgt. Tom Hayes, arguably the hardest worker behind Assist the Officer, was my “boss” over the B&G until his retirement in March, was never bossy and always supportive. We thought up great story angles together. I wrote them and we printed them.
There are two 1600 State Street stalwarts I couldn’t function without – and neither could HPOU and Assist the Officer. I speak of Lisa Marino and Gabriela Gregory. In all my years working in Houston inside and outside of journalism, I have never encountered two people with the intelligence and sensitivities as Lisa and Gabby. As you should know, both are tireless workers.
I still believe what I wrote in Houston Blue to be right on the money. The three most important Union men in history were Hans Marticiuc, Mark Clark, and Bob Thomas. Please read it if you haven’t already and you’ll see why.
I will single out another police hero of mine – the retired Homicide Lt. Nelson Zoch, tireless author of Fallen Heroes of the Bayou City. He allowed me to edit what I believe is the greatest tribute to officers who gave the ultimate ever written. Please realize that the lieutenant is so dedicated that he has worked his tail off seeing to it that the graves of each of these heroes was appropriately marked.
As I said, in all the writing and editing I’ve done in all these years, I’ve refrained from describing the perpetrators in each of Nelson’s stories the way you all would – until now.
I never identified them and the other evil doers in the police stories I’ve written herewith for what they are.
There. I said it for the first time in anything I have written since 1970.
Farewell. Be careful out there and never stop watching out for them and hauling them in.