Harry Caldwell came out of the chute fighting police unions

If Hollywood chose to come to Houston to dramatize the city’s police department, the chief on the set wouldn’t be Lee Brown or Art Acevedo. No, it would be Harry Caldwell.

Caldwell was the first-ever chief (1977-79) to cultivate an ongoing persona prevalent in the news media, the political arena and – most frequently – in the then-underserved minority communities. He spoke with a deep baritone; articulated words not often spoken by a police chief and commanded the troops in blue like the Marine drill sergeant he had been in a previous life.

In interviews for the HPD history in the early 2000s, Sgt. – er – Chief Caldwell said he regretted the fact he had to deal with so many problems by himself without delegating the workload to trusted assistant chiefs and captains. He felt he had to take on all the major responsibilities by himself. Meantime, he saddled his officers with endless GOs and details, details, details.

An officer in uniform couldn’t be seen without his cap. Officers on patrol were in fear they would have the cap on the seat as they happen to pass a tattle-telling sergeant or lieutenant.

By his own admission, Caldwell said he could be overbearing. More than 20 years after his retirement he said in retrospect he wishes he had done many things differently.

Stories abound from the officers of his tenure. One of them was his encountering Officer Charles Howard – one of the department’s most widely respected Black pioneers – in an elevator. Officer Howard had a birthmark down the side of his face that was actually shaped like a sideburn. It earned him the nickname “Sideburn,” a moniker that lasted throughout his career and into his retirement

Chief Caldwell didn’t know this when he glanced at Howard and said, “Officer, looks like you need more than a bit of a trim there.” The other officers in the elevator just rolled their eyes.

Caldwell’s attitude toward police unions was more than just eye-rolling. The Houston Police Patrolmen’s Union thrived on his watch. He fought the Union at every opportunity and often went too far.

Although basically groundless in the realm of the Civil Service laws in effect at the time, Caldwell kept HPPU founder and president Bob Thomas outside his office as he riled on and on with then-Mayor Jim McConn, a politician who heavily relied on labor’s support in his reelection. (McConn served two terms, 1977-1981 and appointed Caldwell).

From his office in the presence of Houston area labor leader Don Horn, Mayor McConn told Caldwell he didn’t have the grounds for firing Officer Thomas just because he was organizing a union. Caldwell went ballistic and Thomas went on Night Shift in the Property Room.

Over the years it became common knowledge that the FBI was recruiting Thomas to become an agent. All Caldwell had to do was give him a recommendation and let him go. Had the chief done so, the effectiveness of the HPPU and the later formation of HPOU through the unification of HPPU and the Houston Police Officers Association (HPOA) may well have been severely delayed.

Caldwell’s emotional reactions in situations like this one – as he would later admit – did not serve him or the department well.

History shows the HPOU achieved many of Caldwell’s primary goals. The department became a majority/minority police force that has seen five Black chiefs, one female and one Hispanic. Only hours from earning a PhD, Caldwell no doubt would be pleased to know that 62.7 percent of HPD has at least one college degree.

Also, we can now argue that HPD is one of the best trained big-city departments in the United States. The outspoken, highly disciplined former chief also would be pleased at the better pay and still lament the fact that the Bayou City’s police department seems forever to be under-staffed. In the decade of the 70s he dreamed of a 5,000-membre force. That was achieved but – as any knowledgeable source will tell you – is nowhere near enough officers to patrol and protect just under 700 square miles.

And so, we can say in the context of Caldwell’s legacy that he may have fought a police union for the Houston Police Department but in the final analysis many of his high-priority goals were achieved because of an outfit known as the Houston Police Officers Union.