Death of Chief Harry Caldwell prompts recollection of HPD’s harsher earlier times

Retired Chief of Police Harold D. Caldwell

Editor’s Note: The Nov. 4 death of former HPD Police Chief Harry Caldwell brings to mind many interesting historical perspectives. The Badge & Gun herewith reruns its earlier accounts of the Caldwell years and urges today’s officers see the lasting effects of his administration. We offer them in a series of stories in this issue in three chapters and an EOW commentary.

Harry Caldwell could express his thoughts to the public probably better than any of the fifty-eight men who preceded him as police chief of Houston.

Always considered intellectual, progressive and even “liberal,” Caldwell relished the idea of telling the HPD story before every possible audience, always with the assurance and confidence of a Marine drill instructor. He wished he could strongly pursue his goals to produce a better-educated, more highly trained police force that should number 5,000 instead of the 2,971 officers patrolling and protecting Houston in 1978 and 1979.

Lots of Problems

Instead, he had to – in his own dramatic words – “save the department.” Caldwell gave “thousands of speeches to try to communicate.” He had to take its message to where no police chief had ever gone before – to the minority communities, especially the east side Hispanics who felt deeply alienated and violated by the Joe Campos Torres incident.

“My administration was never short on problems to deal with,” Caldwell said in retrospect. “You dealt with them as best you could. The minority politicians did everything they could to destroy what I was doing. ‘Five officers violated public trust’ was the message I tried to get out after the Torres case.”

Right behind would come Benny Reyes, who would become Houston’s first Hispanic City Council member: “Don’t believe Harry Caldwell. Listen to me.”

“The blacks did the same thing. I didn’t back down from either one of them (Hispanics or blacks). This b——- is not true. But we prevailed. When I left the office after three years of this, we had it all resolved.”

While Pappy Bond instituted an ad hoc version of the Internal Affairs Division, Caldwell made it official and permanent. He also appointed the first HPD psychologist to help officers deal with “continuous and tremendous stress.” Dr. Greg Riede’s job also was to develop methods for selecting recruits and to teach at the police academy. Houston was about the fifth or sixth department in the nation to see the need for a psychologist.

Dr. Riede was interviewed and recommended by Assistant Chief John Bales – a mainstay on the Command Staff through at least three chiefs, who served as acting chief before Lee Brown was named to the position in 1982. The entire idea of an HPD psychologist was that of Bales. Riede said that suicide was “a real problem” among HPD officers at the time he was named the department’s first psychologist on Jan. 4, 1979.

Three officers took their own lives in 1977 and three more in 1978 – more than one officer per 1,000 and a record that was ten times the national suicide rate.

“When Caldwell was becoming chief of police,” Riede explained, “officers were in conflict with the community and in conflict with themselves.” Riede learned the HPD environment by riding with many Patrol officers. He soon had a full schedule of counseling sessions (free to officers) every day of the week, often working after dark, sometimes in emergency situations.

Shrink’s Autonomy

Chief Caldwell provided autonomy. “I don’t have a lot of instructions,” he told Riede at their first meeting. “I’m not a psychologist. From what I understand, you’re one of the best. I won’t get in the way. If I can help you, let me know. You’re not the chief of police, so don’t try to run the department.”

The two men understood each other perfectly. The chief always approved Riede’s requests. Eventually, HPD Psychological Services had Riede, six other psychologists and four clerical employees to run a full schedule of counseling sessions.

At the time of Riede’s retirement, HPD Psychological Services was one of the most widely recognized services of its kind in the United States. The suicide rate went from the highest in the nation to an absolute zero for most of the 1990s and into the new century. Departments from all over the nation and the world regularly contacted Riede to learn his department’s secret to success.

Riede and Psychological Services were instrumental in the formation and development of HPD’s Crisis Intervention Team, specially trained officers who deal with police situations involving mentally ill citizens. Houston’s CIT grew into the largest program of its kind in the country. Patrol officers literally respond to mentally ill citizens in potentially dangerous situations as regularly and as effectively as SWAT does with hostage cases.