Caldwell the picky Marine drill sergeant made lots of rules

Underneath his Marine-tough exterior, Caldwell was kind and understanding at times, but tried not to show it in a general sense.

“I remember Caldwell at Christmas,” Dr. Greg Riede, the first on duty at HPD Psychological Services, said. “He would work the night shift jail to let guys go home to be with their families.”


The chief alternated hour upon hour holed up in his office with walking a “beat” that included each of the investigative offices in 61 Riesner. “One day I was captain in juvenile,” Dennis Storemski said. “He tended to walk around in people’s offices. He came around about 4 or 4:30 on a Friday afternoon.”

“Do you realize,” Caldwell said to Storemski, “that you are the only on-duty captain in this building at 4 on a Friday evening.”

Caldwell stayed as picky as a drill sergeant and paid great attention to detail. He was the first chief to realize a societal irony, learn lessons from it and make necessary changes in the relationship HPD officers had with the community or, more specifically, the minority communities. The irony: Police officers were generally great citizens who chose a career in law enforcement. Yet once they donned the uniform with a badge and gun, they appeared to be in conflict with the community.

“I did things too rapidly,” Caldwell said in retirement. “I didn’t have time to do things well. I had a failure to delegate. I didn’t extend authority to the extent that the staff wanted it. I had to be accountable (to the federal government) and couldn’t take the chance of someone fading the heat for me.

“If I failed, it wasn’t because of something somebody else did. Considering what I had inherited, the problems put on my desk, I had to act as rapidly as I could. That department meant more to me than anybody but my family, my God and my country.”

Caldwell burned the midnight oil preparing for appearances before the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights both in Washington, D. C., and in Houston. He knew he couldn’t do it by himself overnight; he had to open the doors of the chief’s office to Hispanic leaders and get their help. Any improvement plan for HPD’s community relations had to be not just his plan or their plan but our plan.

“Before meeting with Harry Caldwell,” Mamie Garcia, a 1970s leader in League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), said, “there had never been a meal, holding hands or shaking hands with the chief of police.”

Historically, LULAC had been instrumental in gaining entry into HPD for certain qualified Hispanic men who were tall enough to meet supposedly strict entrance requirements. Garcia, a social worker, was an elected LULAC District 8 director during the time of the Torres case and the Moody Park Riot.

She teamed with other LULAC leaders to draw up a three-page proposal to present to Chief Caldwell and the Houston Police Department. Unlike a radical named Travis Morales, the group sought to be constructive instead of destructive. The group consisted of Garcia and her husband Julian, John and Jeanie Aleman, Rita Arevalo and two Hispanic activist attorneys, Ellis Barrera and Frumencio Reyes. In spending all of one night writing the document, the group hit upon the idea of Mamie Garcia serving as HPD’s volunteer liaison to Houston’s Hispanic community.

“The community was in turmoil, hurt, sad, but they came to LULAC,” said Garcia, who retired after about twenty-five years of service in her HPD community liaison position.

“When the Joe Campos Torres case came about, we decided that there had to be something in the police department that we can learn from, that we can bring the community together with the police department. That’s how we came up with the idea for me to come and volunteer with the police department if there was not a paid position available.”

New Opportunities

Before Torres there had never been any opportunity to open genuine communication with Houston police officials to sincerely tackle the cultural barriers that prevented the department from representing all of Houston’s diversified community. “We were never to the point that we could prove that the door was open for the community until we came and met with Harry Caldwell,” Garcia said after her retirement.

“Before Harry Caldwell there weren’t meetings with neighborhood police officers with the community. This all came through Harry Caldwell.

“It was a beginning. It was like the doors were open: Let’s work together. There was an appetite in the Hispanic, black and the Anglo community to come together because of incidents. Through Harry Caldwell it was a new start. He is very modest, but it’s true. It was him who started everything and the rest of the police chiefs followed.”

While Pappy Bond make an effort to initiate open dialogue with Hispanic leaders in order to persuade them to help him recruit more Hispanic officers, he didn’t go out into the community as often as Chief Caldwell. Hispanics deemed Caldwell’s actions to speak louder than rhetoric in the news media.

The group that included the Garcias, the Alemans, Ellis Barrera and state LULAC director Rueben Bonilla of Corpus Christi sat down with Caldwell to present the three pages of requests and goals that included the naming of Mamie Garcia to be the liaison. Initially, the chief hired Garcia on a temporary basis “for one year,” during which time the two worked together to prove there was a need for such a civilian position in the department.

Garcia reported directly to the chief. She helped him prepare for Department of Justice meetings in both Washington and Houston, documenting every request and every meeting involving HPD and the community for the federal government’s consumption.

Garcia also handled a multitude of requests from Hispanic citizens regarding policing matters – everything from how to pay parking tickets to how to get out of jail. She discovered that HPD would arrest illegal immigrants and leave them in jail for months before sending them back to Mexico.

In response, she helped to establish a better working relationship with the Consulate of Mexico, which undertook the task of paying transportation costs to return immigrants to their homeland. Garcia even traveled with Caldwell to Mexico City to meet with the police chief there for discussions about basics such as cadet classes, uniforms, standard equipment, squad cars and radios.

A Standing Ovation

Garcia became Caldwell’s No. 1 fan, believing in a heretofore unseen, unfelt trust in a Houston police chief. Her feelings spread to others in the community, endorsing the drill sergeant’s attitude.

“Harry held everybody accountable,” she said. “Harry was a workaholic. He would sleep in his office because he had to go to night meetings. He worked hard all day long because he wanted to meet with every group. He was not your eight-hour police chief. He would spend late hours at meetings that lasted until 10:30 or 11 o’clock at night. People in the community would come and they would be long. Everything that was requested of him he provided.”

Caldwell worked up to a September appearance before the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights in Houston by espousing the need for more Hispanic officers through recruiting in a growing number of areas, including LULAC conventions and similar organizational gatherings, and conducting more Hispanic-oriented seminars for Houston officers. Newspaper headlines early in 1979 suggested that Caldwell was impressing Houston’s Hispanic leaders.

At a LULAC convention in Houston on June 14, Caldwell presented a special plaque to outspoken Houston police critic Ruben Bonilla “for his innovative, pioneering and courageous efforts in establishing better relationships and understanding between Hispanic citizens and law enforcement officers of the state of Texas.”

Bonilla responded by stressing that he still aggressively sought better treatment of Hispanics at every opportunity but conceded that there had been progress in the lines of communication with police within the past year.

Garcia fondly remembered the night Caldwell and his wife ate at a Mexican restaurant in the Harrisburg area. She said no action in public better demonstrated the chief’s newly developed success communicating with Houston’s Hispanic community. “As he finished the meal and was leaving the restaurant, he got a standing ovation,” she recalled. “That was certainly a first for any police chief.”

By September’s hearing, the Civil Rights Commission was saying positive things about HPD and Houston Hispanics, a far cry from Philadelphia where the commission had filed suit against the police department.

The detailed report, overseen by Caldwell and Garcia, obviously impressed Commission Chairman Arthur Flemming, who praised Caldwell for being more open and cooperative than Philadelphia police officials. Caldwell fielded tough questions about the integrity of the new Internal Affairs Division and stridently pointed out that he and the department does not condone any violation of departmental policies.

Officers violate them “at their peril,” he said, saying it was impossible to control human behavior and added: “As I recall, Moses walked off Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments and they’ve been violated ever since.”