HPOU History: War story about violent 1970s HPD drug wars set the stage For events leading to creation of Houston Police Officers Union

Tom Kennedy

Editor’s Note: The history of the Houston Police Officers Union came to us in three phases: 1) the formation of the Houston Police Officers Association in the 1940s; 2) the creation of the Houston Police Patrolman’s Union in the late 1970s; and 3) the merging of HPOA and HPPU to form HPOU in the 1990s. The following story, based on a chapter in Houston Blue, the Story of HPD, details the formation of HPPU, whose history begins with a “war story” from the violent drug wars in Houston in the 1970s.

 

By TOM KENNEDY

Pappy Bond had a plan in late 1974. The new captain in Narcotics had taken over a division troubled by unsafe arrest practices and accusations of brutality, wiretapping and other questionable activities that often turned the tide in the criminals’ favor. Bond attacked the growing drug problem in the Bayou City through a special inter-departmental recruitment technique. He perused the lists of arrests from Patrol and wrote down the names of the arresting officers most often appearing.

On his yellow notepad he scribbled the names of the top three from Central Patrol, Northeast, Shepherd and Park Place. He interviewed each of them, flattered their egos by citing their aggressiveness, and appealed to their purposeful demeaner as being just what HPD needed to take on drug dealers.

He sought and signed up the people who later nicknamed themselves the “buffalo hunters” on the day shift. The night shift became known as “Ripley’s Raiders” after Narcotics Lieutenant Billy Ripley. These hunters and raiders were younger officers unafraid to plunge head-on into the more challenging and dangerous police situations and live to write detailed reports.

 

Buffalo Hunters Form

 

One of them was Bob Thomas, who endured his share of meanness and violence as a patrolman in Third Ward and with the Park Place Rangers, known in the 1970s as HPD’s toughest patrol division. In his three years on the force, Thomas had heard more shots fired and saw more blood than hundreds of officers with far more years on any beat.

The “buffalo hunters” met for the first time in early 1975, each finding himself in a roomful of strangers, a condition that quickly changed. Thomas threw in with Officer Doyle Green of Central Patrol. The modus operandi meant working in groups on shifts. Thomas’ group worked days and also included Rick Ashwood, Kenny Williamson and Joe Otis. The narcs worked undercover, using tips from street people and informants to make buys of heroin and large amounts of marijuana. They grew long hair and beards and dressed the part. They put in long hours together and frequently socialized off-duty.

Thomas grew up in Oak Forest on Houston’s Northside, an ideal backdrop for conscientious young men and women of the early sixties. Many graduates of Waltrip High School, Thomas’ alma mater, became Houston police officers. An especially poignant fact in history is that three Waltrip graduates were police officers killed in the line of duty: John Bamsch, shot to death by a robbery suspect in 1975; Timothy L. Hearn, killed by a pistol-wielding drug suspect in 1978; and John Anthony Salvaggio, killed by a hit-and-run driver in 1990.

The twenty-one-year-old Thomas realized that Waltrip’s HPD tradition, his three years as a UH business major and sixteen weeks in the police academy prepared him for the Houston streets – but only to a degree. He got the same on-the-job experience as thousands of his predecessors. He graduated high enough in his academy class to pick his poison. Choosing nights in Central Patrol, he quickly became intimate with the Third Ward culture despite the fact he had never been able to vote or buy weapons or ammunition, had never gotten drunk and always locked his patrol car doors.

Many officers learned before decade’s end that Thomas knew the meaning of perseverance. He persevered through the bloodshed and the tough initiation dished out by the department. He even was recruited by the Park Place Rangers, the only way a young officer could join the rugged, no-nonsense patrol known for taking no prisoners. Instead of worrying about the lack of legal representation for officers involved in shootings or fretting over insurance co-pays that added up too quickly on pay day, Thomas built a solid reputation for the savvy needed to make cases that stood up with supervisors and later in courts.

Thomas was a quick study in drug culture. He dressed the part, talked the part and became an integral part of it just like colleagues Doyle Green, Rick Ashwood, Kenny Williamson, Jim Kilty, Tim Hearn and others. He learned the dangerous trade from more seasoned narcs such as Frank Miller, Mike Woods and Joe T. Dugger.

Narcs cultivated their snitches, discreetly dropping charges against suspects in return for certain introductions. Bartering for a dismissal, the defendant was required to introduce the narcs to three people who sold drugs. The informant might participate in the first dirty buy. Then the narcs would make two more on their own, building up trust and carefully working their way through the drug-dealing chain.

Captain Bond was looking good, too. By the middle of 1975, the Buffalo Hunters and Ripley’s Raiders developed and cultivated a vast network of drug dealers. In their first year, the Narcotics Division saw a 300 percent increase in drug arrests, a stark contrast to the squad of predecessors disbanded because of its own way of doing things.

 

Aggressive War on Drugs

 

The narcs set records for blowing the division’s monthly drug budget the first three days of a new month because they were making bigger busts, requiring much larger sums. On the night shift, Lieutenant Billy Ripley, Jim Kilty and his aggressors in the war on drugs were doing the same thing. Each of the narcs learned to always be part of a task force that involved Harris County officers, the U. S. Drug Enforcement Agency and the Texas Department of Public Safety. One task force member or another always had the money the underfunded HPD officers needed for their next bust.

The work load added up, especially the time in court. The narcs worked sixteen-hour days and sometimes on their days off. Thomas kept his marriage to his high school sweetheart together by spending every day off with her and his daughters. Others weren’t so lucky. The HPD divorce rate grew higher, particularly among narcs.  The narcs’ workload grew heavier and, as they learned on a December night in 1975 night, it also became more dangerous.

Critics of the Narcotics Division of the late seventies believed narcs were overly aggressive and careless. Too often they initiated arrest operations without fully assessing the dangers. Justices of the peace, particularly Judge Lawrence H. Wayne, eagerly demonstrated their anti-drug stance by signing search warrants without posing the detailed questions about the perilous predicament in which arresting officers would soon immerse themselves.

Early the evening of December 8, 1975, Officers Mike Woods and June Cain were en route to a darkened and rundown multiple-unit dwelling on Golfcrest on the southeast side. The twenty-year-old Cain was still wet behind the ears. She grew up in Pasadena and always wanted to be a cop. Cain graduated from the academy at age nineteen and spent a half year in Recruiting because she was one of only a few females who could pass HPD’s tricky agility test. She became HPD’s second female narc, with braces on her teeth and a Sunday school image.

She had been a narc for only three months when the Golfcrest warrant situation arose. Woods needed help to gain entry to the apartment and secure the occupants inside. He radioed Thomas as he worked late from the day shift. Doyle Green bumped him and they also got Nathan Brumley to volunteer to participate. The sergeant going to the scene was Gene Cox.

The sergeant and three other officers arrived and shared information about the case. The guy in the apartment was sixty-year-old Thomas Garza Malone, the poster boy for the early release program in the Texas prisons of the seventies. He served ten years of a ninety-nine-year sentence for murder. Once paroled, he killed another man in a bar fight and did another twelve years of hard time on a life sentence for murder.

Malone had nineteen-year-old stripper Bonnie Sue Hollis with him. Hollis had recently sold heroin to a narc. The buffalo hunters would have sweet, innocent-sounding Cain knock on the door and say, “It’s me,” which usually prompted the drug to open up, triggering officers to hit the door with their shoulders and order the occupants up against the wall. The ruse worked – until this night.

Hollis didn’t open up. Malone jammed a two-by-four against the door knob, burying the other end into the carpet. The officers heard the toilet flush down evidence as they kicked down the door. Flushing continued steadily as several minutes passed before the narcs gained entry to the darkened one-bedroom apartment.

 

Five Shots Hit Four Officers

 

Green took the lead with his shotgun. He grabbed Hollis by the arm, eased past a small Christmas tree and stepped down a hallway. Green aimed his shotgun as he rounded the corner toward the bedroom. Malone was in a shooter’s stance with a five-shot, snub-nosed .38.

POW! POW . . .

Malone’s first shot struck Green’s left hand on the stock side of the shotgun. The bullet hit the third knuckle of his left index finger and traveled up into his wrist where it tried to exit the palm side. Deflected by the face of Green’s watch, it then continued up his arm and came to rest near his elbow.

Malone aimed his .38 carefully. The memories of what happened in the next few seconds consist of the fiery yellow orange muzzle of the .38, ungodly intense pain, death and yet the strong desire to catch the bad guy whodunit.

POW! POW!! POW!!!.

Woods and Thomas returned the fire in uncertain directions, unable to zero in on Malone as he aimed the gun barrel precisely in their direction. All of this happened in split seconds.

            Malone’s second bullet struck Woods’ gun, deflecting the slug down through the officer’s groin. Woods’ gun jammed helplessly after he got off two rounds and took cover behind Brumley after a third slug traveled dead center through Brumley’s chest cavity. Brumley was shocked back to life three times that night, living in physical and mental pain for the rest of his life.

“I saw the muzzle and his face,” Thomas recalled the instant a slug – believed to be from Malone’s fourth shot – tore through his stomach and stuck between two vertebrae, barely missing his spinal column. The officer returned a total of fourteen rounds.

Green was down near the dinette table. He had his regular duty weapon in his “jack ass” shoulder holster, but he was left-handed with the wound putting his left hand out of commission. So he just lay there – shot, bloody and scared – wondering if he should try to get his gun out of his holster and shoot right-handed. He later said he was afraid he would be too slow or miss, and Malone would take it away from him and shoot him with it. Playing possum was his best decision.

Woods retreated out the front door, where Thomas had difficulty standing and walking. Woods and Thomas thought Green and Brumley were dead.

 

‘I’ve been shot! Get me some help!’

 

Malone went into the bedroom to put on a t-shirt, came back out and picked up Green’s shotgun, wanting to shoot the possum. Malone started pulling what he thought was the trigger while pointing the shotgun at Green’s head. In his confusion Malone actually caused the slide to release and eject one live round and pump another one into the chamber. He kept pumping until the gun was empty and Green was still alive.

Thomas and Cain were shoulder-to-shoulder, side-by-side in the doorway when the shots rang out. The shot that hit Thomas in the gut caused blood to spill out over his left hand, which was holding his stomach. “I’ve been shot!” Thomas said to Cain. “Get me some help!” He continued shooting, thinking he had hit Malone. The bullet in Thomas’ vertebrae pressed against the nerve that put his right leg asleep. Woods picked up Brumley from a pool of fresh red blood and pulled him out, while Green hugged the floor, ever the possum.

Malone was shot one time, through the sagging skin that hung below his bicep area. It was never determined whose bullet hit him.

Thomas’ leg was numb and he couldn’t stand up. He heard the racking of Green’s shotgun and thought Malone was trying to kill him. The gun wasn’t working. It never fired. Malone never released the safety. He pointed the shotgun at Thomas twice, tried to pull the trigger and ejected at least two rounds. Thomas had seven rounds left and wanted to sit there and keep him in this apartment. But he couldn’t see what he was doing behind the counter of the living room, only hearing the racking of the shotgun.

In less than another split second twenty-year-old June Cain had to make a decision of what to do. Cain saw the muzzle blasting of a gun like it was in slow motion. She cocked her gun and pointed it at Bonnie Sue Hollis, whose hands were spread out on the carpet. Cain had to get help for her partners. This meant sprinting down the stairway to a police radio. Officers had Walkie Talkies in 1975 that were useless in “dead zones” like this rundown apartment. Not taking a chance on a dead zone, Cain got to the stair steps and yelled to Sergeant Cox to throw her the keys to the police car so she could get to a reliable radio.

Then Malone got help from an unexpected source, the apartment manager who mistook Thomas for the drug dealer. The manager was about three-hundred pounds and clad in a sleeveless t-shirt and boxer shorts. He barked at the wounded Thomas: “Drop your gun! I’ve called the police!” Then he fired a shot that barely missed the officer’s head. Thomas painfully tossed his badge in the man’s direction. “Anybody can get a badge,” he responded, and fired more shots.

Thomas limped down the steps, dodging more bullets. The pistol-packing manager soon surrendered to somebody who set him straight.

Cain radioed, “Officers down,” asking for help and ambulances. Before she could put down the radio mike, she heard sirens and saw Thomas out in the street waving for help. Cain told him to sit down, hearing him state, “June, I’ve got to get these patrol cars and ambulances in here. I think Doyle’s dead.”

Meanwhile, Malone tiptoed over the wounded Green, left his apartment and crept down the narrow second-story walkway to the apartment unit of an older woman two doors down.

Almost as chaotic as the actual shooting scene was the narrow Golfcrest Street with cars parked on both sides, virtually blocking the ambulances and responding officers. Cane and four others actually picked up the back end of a car parked on the side of the road and moved it toward the drainage ditch so ambulances could get through.

 

Brumley ‘died’ three times

 

Despite his four hits with five pistol shots and seeming to have luck on his side, Malone couldn’t find an adequate escape route. Sergeant Cox arrested him at the apartment unit down the walkway as Houston Fire Department paramedics carefully placed four wounded officers into three ambulances. A few miracles kept all four alive or else the Houston Police Department would have experienced its second bloodiest night in history next to the Camp Logan Riot.

The four officers survived serious line-of-duty wounds and returned to duty six months later. Instead of heroes, they become “morale problems.” Their overall treatment led Bob Thomas and others to seriously question departmental philosophies and benefits enough to initiate a new, more aggressive police union within three and a half years.

Thomas felt he was alive because Malone mishandled the shotgun and that the trigger-happy apartment manager missed shooting a man he didn’t know was a police officer. Malone was able to launch his escape attempt when Thomas left Green and sought shelter from the manager’s shooting attack behind a parked vehicle downstairs.

About twenty-five to thirty apartment dwellers gathered downstairs after hearing the shots. They spotted Malone and pointed toward his temporary haven as Sergeant Cox rushed in to arrest the man whose shootings came within inches of killing four officers.

Fire Department paramedics placed Green and Woods in one ambulance and Thomas and Brumley in another. Nathan Brumley “died” at the scene. Paramedics quickly resuscitated him and laid him and Thomas side-by-side in their ambulance. Halfway to Ben Taub General Hospital, they lost Brumley again. They pulled over to the side of the road, again shocked him back to life, and rushed him to Ben Taub while leaving the still-breathing Thomas with a paramedic. Within seconds another ambulance arrived to pick them up.

Brumley “died” yet a third time and underwent an out-of-body experience as one of the best emergency doctors in the business, Dr. Ken Maddox, brought him back to life in the Ben Taub Emergency Room. Later, Brumley told his fellow officers that he remembered looking down from above his body and seeing Maddox. “He was ripping me apart like a watermelon and I could feel his fingers in my chest. I kept trying to talk. There was no pain, but I could feel the sensation. I was up above and could see a light. I was looking down at my body.”

Green underwent surgery and his arm was placed in a cast. He needed two more surgeries. Woods felt lucky the bullet deflected off his watch or else he would have suffered a more serious chest wound. Both rested at home in bed for several months.

Doctors cut a hole for a tube in Thomas’ abdomen to drain an abscess. They also installed a colostomy bag he used four months before undergoing surgery to repair the damage. For the next four months he endured a low-grade fever caused by two different infections. His weight dropped sixty pounds to 135.

Pappy Bond was police chief by this time and visited each of his wounded narcs on Sunday afternoons at their residences or personally called each one at his home. The four men longed to get back to normal working routines and closely bonded during their recovery process. Two months passed before the quartet was instructed to return on a limited-duty basis, Thomas still running a fever with his colostomy bag and drainage tube in tow.

Narcotics underwent another series of supervisory changes, largely the result of the Golfcrest shooting, another shootout that wounded several narcs and the April 8, 1976 line-of-duty death of Jim Kilty. Most of the supervisors didn’t know Woods, Brumley, Green and Thomas, and didn’t like the fact they were physically incapable of working the streets. Brumley was in the poorest shape. While off-duty in recovery, he couldn’t hold a gun and once back on duty he started shaking at the sound of loud noises. The cruel jokers popped sacks behind his back, causing obvious responses of fright.

The four wounded officers orchestrated their return on the same day. Woods returned to regular duty but the other three were assigned to answer phones. Within two weeks, their supervisors called them into the office for a conference. They told them that they were a lingering reminder of the danger of Narcotics, a negative morale factor. They each were to be transferred.

All hell broke loose. The new brass wanted all four in lighter duty, maybe even back in uniform. The officers hobbled down to find the former captain who teamed up the buffalo hunters. There in the chief’s office sat Pappy Bond, who screamed, cussed and dressed down the new Narcotics captain. Green and Brumley transferred to the Helicopter Division, while Woods and Thomas stayed in Narcotics. Thomas went back on injury leave for his colostomy closure surgery and returned to work in June 1976. Woods was named the 100 Club’s 1976 Officer of the Year.

Conditions worsened for narcs on the streets. Three more were shot in February 1976, and Jim Kilty was killed in the line of duty during an arrest on April 8. Captains and lieutenants were replaced and most of the sergeants transferred. Thomas got paperwork from two doctors saying he was fit for full-time duty. He spent time on surveillance without making any arrests through the summer. By September he was again buying drugs and making cases. Eventually he and his two closest friends in Narcotics, Ashwood and Williamson, were transferred out against their wishes.

Three of the four officers stuck it out until retirement. Three of them pursued other careers, Green in U. S. Customs, Woods in land investment and Thomas as a lawyer. Brumley didn’t make it. Cancer struck him down and affected “every organ the bullet struck.” He died in 1981.

The quickly-seasoned June Cain stayed in Narcotics, later married an assistant police chief, Tommy Shane, and became the first female police helicopter pilot in HPD history. She retired in 2006 with thirty-one years on the job.

Thomas Garza Malone was sentenced to life imprisonment for his deadly assaults on the officers. After serving five years, Malone died behind bars in Huntsville.

 

Aftermath changes HPD History

Patrol brass put Bob Thomas in “the armpit of the police force” – riding on the evening shift of the Northeast substation. Then the two men in Thomas’ corner, Pappy Bond and Lieutenant Eli Rivera – the only brass that understood the plight of the wounded narcs – retired to security jobs at Tenneco.

Thomas and the other three seriously injured narcs were the first in history whose injuries were subjected to worker’s compensation laws amended in September 1975 to cover municipal employees. Heretofore, officers injured in the line of duty could not take off for sprained backs, broken bones or injuries affecting soft tissue. The department ordered Thomas to work light duty with a colostomy bag and a low-grade infection.

Initially, the shabby treatment disappointed and angered four men considered to be good officers. Thomas took the sergeant’s examination and scored high except for a captain’s low evaluation given him for failing to write at least two moving tickets per day when most of Thomas’ citations involved expired plates or license stickers. When the Houston Police Officers Association wouldn’t furnish an attorney to fight the low evaluation, Thomas hired his own lawyer to argue against the captain’s unfair evaluation.

Other promotion lists were similarly affected. One lieutenant, Tom Koby, died No. 1 on the captain’s promotional list three years in a row. Thomas’ case resulted in enough alterations in the evaluations to place him fifteen slots higher on the sergeant’s list, thus attracting the attention of Harry Caldwell, acting chief until Mayor Jim McConn made the appointment permanent in McConn’s first term in 1978.

Thomas learned he was enjoined from entering the Northeast Substation, subject to arrest if he did. He was then ordered to report immediately to the Property Room, long established as a duty station for injured officers during physical recovery periods. The reassignment had all the earmarks of punishment since HPD had no opening at the Property Room. There were five officers assigned there – three with heart problems, another who had suffered a nervous breakdown and a fifth with a glass eye. Thomas had Wednesdays and Thursdays off on the evening shift. s)

The officer had the reputation for voicing disagreement over the way narcotics cases were handled at the Courthouse. Thomas’ record, combined with high recommendations from past supervisors, assistant district attorneys and a high test score, made him a prime candidate for the FBI. He passed the background check, yet when word leaked that he was headed to the Feds, suddenly he became known as a malcontent who questioned authority and didn’t follow orders.

Had Thomas left for the FBI, the HPPU never would have taken shape. His case for change was mounting, beginning with wounded officers’ treatment in the aftermath of the December 1975 shootout; second was the torpedo from above that ruined his chances of getting into the FBI; and, third, an experience that clearly showed that civil service laws didn’t provide an officer with due process after a suspension.

 

Sexual Advantages

 

The latter experience in January 1975 emerged during the third week Thomas was assigned to Narcotics and involved the sexual proclivity and demands of a night shift Narcotics sergeant. The sergeant took sexual advantages of female narcotics suspects in return for dropping charges against them. The department fired the sergeant, who otherwise had an exemplary record, a wife and six children, and nineteen years and nine months service with HPD – three months away from vesting. The logical plan might have been to allow him to retire in three months. Instead, the department quietly fired him, causing him to lose a retirement that amounted to thirty percent of his salary, medical benefits and forfeiture of more than $25,000 he had contributed to his pension fund.

Thomas thought that the errant sergeant should have gotten back the money he had earned and contributed to a pension fund. The young officer also was struck by the fact the sergeant had no recourse through an independent appeals process and restricted due process. The process at the time entailed a hearing before a three-member Civil Service Commission appointed by the mayor with the later option of appealing to a state district court. This procedure was a far cry from the modern day practice of independent arbitration.

The treatment of the sergeant set the stage for the formation of a new union and an eventual reform movement that finally saw the necessary changes in procedures that would have allowed him to keep his accrued benefits.

Within six months of Thomas’ assignment to the Property Room in 1978, the department conducted a surprise audit, unannounced and the first in five years. Previous Property Room audits were openly scheduled at least three months prior to the auditors’ appearance. Thomas was ready for them, taking care to log in money and pornographic films and videotapes. The audit turned up nothing negative, but it sent signals to many other officers in the department that if the higher-ups were after you, they would stop at nothing to nail you.

As 1979 began, Thomas had enough ammunition to strike a mighty blow for largely overlooked Patrol officers, present and future. Like the Houston police officers who met secretly to write state laws granting them civil service protection in the 1940s, Thomas and a widening inner circle started thinking about a new union separate and apart from the HPOA.

 

Association ‘Too Soft’

    Formed in 1945, the HPOA was there for every rank. Many of those forming the group had graduated to sergeants, lieutenants and above. In 1979, the association was perceived as being too soft on representation and in bed with the police administration and City Hall. The oil-rich Houston economy of the seventies enabled the city to pay for two generous back-to-back pay raises under Mayor Jim McConn. Despite these lifts in morale, Bob Thomas and other leaders found shortcomings in legal representation, health insurance and job security.

The economy elsewhere in the United States wasn’t as prosperous. Detroit and other cities laid off officers. So down to Houston these officers came from New York and the Midwest to enrol in HPD cadet classes. These new officers signalled a major change in HPD demographics. Instead of a force consisting of Texas country boys and former members of one military service branch or another, a growing number had some college behind them, talked differently, were more demanding and knew the power of unions.

Thomas garnered a multitude of issues after serving on the HPOA board for two years. He knew if he and his friends couldn’t dramatically change HPOA, they would initiate an ambitious plan to get aggressive legal representation, more inclusive insurance coverage and due process. By the end of the 1979 session of the Texas Legislature, Thomas and his fellow Waltrip High School alumnus, state Representative John Whitmire, had a notch on their political gun. Whitmire sponsored a measure to require refundability of police pension contributions if an officer left the department before twenty years of vested service – like the Narcotics sergeant earlier in the 1970s.

Withholding these contributions was highly hypocritical since the city refunded them for firefighters and municipal employees. City lobbyists killed bills in two previous sessions that would have achieved this goal. Thomas and some other HPOA board members believed that many of HPD’s sharpest and brightest young officers were leaving to work in other law enforcement agencies, not wanting to contribute pension monies that they knew they would never get back unless they were around for twenty years.

An HPOA meeting with the pension board members was especially rancorous. One or two of them yelled at Thomas and the others. Coincidentally, Chief Caldwell was the long-term Pension Board chairman during this period. Thomas pushed the issue at the next HPOA board meeting by requesting an unprecedented roll call vote for the Whitmire legislation. It passed unanimously and the proposed measure became the association’s sole goal in the upcoming Legislature. The bill exclusively required refundability of pension contributions and became law despite the Pension Board’s backroom effort to fight it.

Conflicts like these solidified the growing belief that HPOA was not representing the average officer on the street. The association board members came mostly from areas like Burglary and Theft and Community Services. The new officers from the north and northeast, some of whom were referred to as “the Detroit Tigers,” were familiar enough with police union affiliations to provide sources of information for Thomas, Raymond McFarland and Rick Ashwood. Although Thomas was the founding president of the Houston Police Patrolmen’s Union (HPPU), Ashwood was the primary instigator.

 

Bad Bed Partners

 

Like the HPD Civil Service advocates of the 1940s, the first HPPU members met in secret. At 11 p.m. on October 29, 1979 at the Holiday Inn on Memorial and Sawyer, just west of 61 Riesner, they started flocking into a meeting room. Each person brought a $10 initiation fee. A total of fifty-three people joined on the spot. The union would alter the future benefit package for all Houston officers by embarking on a crusade for improved insurance, legal representation that included due process and even higher salaries.

These steps resulted in a growing number of young police officers believing that the Houston Police Officers Association was nothing more than a bed partner with the city administration. The HPOA spent $40,000 annually on athletic events that included sponsorship of Little League teams and the establishment and financing of softball leagues for its members. Younger, more aggressive officers from states in the Northeast and Midwest expected more than a time-honored brotherhood and were bothered that HPOA budgeted a mere $15,000 for legal services.

Low dues reflected low expectations. HPOA’s major thrust was the yearly study of city finances and the recommendation of salary increases. Parity was in effect, meaning that a sergeant shared the same pay scale as a fire captain, etc., on up the line. Council members felt they had to give firefighters and municipal employees the same percentage raise they gave officers.

Active terms like “collective bargaining,” “grievance procedure” and even “due process” weren’t commonly used. Feelings intensified among officers that they had fewer rights of due process than common crooks. When an officer was transferred to the jail, Dispatch or the property room as punishment, he didn’t speak out for fear his work life would worsen or he would be labeled a malcontent for the rest of his career. “Firings” weren’t labeled as such. The affected officer literally cleaned out his locker and was “allowed to resign for personal reasons.” HPD kept no record of the number of times this happened.

More aggressive members of the HPOA board started to keep score and voiced concern that younger officers got no legal representation. They preferred that money be designated for legal assistance rather than nighttime softball leagues. The scorekeepers found that the retention rate of officers had reached a new low point. New recruits in town expected a totally different philosophy than the mild-mannered HPOA. Some association members had growing families and felt unions like those in the Northeast endorsed work stoppages and strikes. HPOA President Bill Elkin and the association wanted nothing to do with an organized union. Under Elkin’s leadership, HPOA acquired land two blocks west of headquarters at 61 Riesner. The president also appointed the organization’s first African-American board member, J. J. Berry.

A growing number of new HPD officers hailed from Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and Boston. Many of these officers had walked picket lines with their dads, while Texas-born officers had lived in a right-to-work state. About the same time Bob Thomas of Central Patrol became a more active HPOA member, so did Tommy Britt of North Shepherd, Rick Ashwood of Central, Raymon McFarland or North Shepherd, Doug Carr of Central/North Shepherd and Chris Gillespie of Northeast. Gillespie was from the Midwest and had a college degree. “It was almost like the perfect storm of people coming together,” Britt said. Each had his own strengths. Gillespie, for example, introduced the idea of collective bargaining, grievance procedures and career development.

 

Old  Influence vs. New Faction

 

Vast differences existed with the older, more influential HPOA members. The younger faction had some college hours. These six activists each worked in uniform on weekends and nights or evenings, while the majority of HPOA board members had 8-to-5 desk jobs, take-home cars and didn’t have to wear uniforms. Each of the younger challengers had a grievance of one kind or another and sought the strength in numbers to resolve their problems. They felt the need to take a more strident involvement in the organization to deal with their perception that some of the people running the department had a moral compass that wasn’t running true north.

As early as 1978, Britt, Bob Thomas and four others ran as “a reform slate” for the HPOA board. Thomas and Ashwood were already board members but unsuccessfully sought board leadership offices, causing them to believe they needed a new union.

Thomas soon got the reputation as a trouble maker. Older members weren’t reluctant to express their desire to give him a good old-fashioned “whupping.” The bitterness from his 1975 near-death line-of-duty experience remained a chip on his shoulder and he sometimes came across as a smart aleck. Yet his leadership was effective enough for Britt and many others to later conclude that most of the good things that happened to officers took place because of Thomas’ leadership.

These new activists were soon known by a new universal identifier, “Baby Boomers,” the first generation to grow up in the sixties, affected by protests for civil rights and women’s liberation or against the Vietnam War. The officers figured they could conduct their own form of protest and maybe get somewhere. Yet the priority for HPOA President A. J. Burke, a popular solo motorcycle officer, was a new location for the association’s headquarters. Real estate sources offered two intriguing possibilities. One was the Brazos Hotel in downtown, the other the Atascocita Country Club property on the northeast side.

Both had high asking prices, discouraging most HPOA members. The association could have used the golf course for its golf-playing members and sold off most of the remaining acreage to a developer. Instead, the board decided to lease a building on Jackson Street in downtown that once housed the Salvation Army and was later torn down to make way for the George R. Brown Convention Center.

HPOA then purchased property at 1600 State Street, two blocks from 61 Riesner, where it constructed a building opened in 1983 later dedicated to the late Lieutenant Breck Porter, a hero in the establishment of state civil service protection for officers. To help pay for the facility, HPOA sponsored a country and western concert with Roy Clark as one of the headliners in the old Coliseum. Outside supporters bought steers at the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo and donated the proceeds to HPOA, the beef used at benefit barbecues.

Not until grand juries stepped up investigations of police brutality cases did HPOA hire a lawyer to represent members who were targets in these investigative procedures. The first was one was a former HPD officer, John Lohmann, through his firm Lohmann, Glazer and Irwin. Another legal counselor, D. Reid Walker, also was hired through Lohmann’s firm and became an authority in state civil service law.

Thomas and a growing list of ardent followers of uniformed patrol officers on duty after dark readily asserted that pay raises were one thing but legal representation and insurance benefits were quite another. At the birth of the Houston Police Patrolmen’s Union on October 29, 1979, founding President Thomas stressed points like these and backed up his words at frequent news conferences. The new union concerned Mayor McConn, Police Chief Caldwell and long-time political movers and shakers more than a Category Five hurricane. Thomas thought he would be fired and postponed the first secret organizational meeting for the union until his wife Pam gave birth to their youngest daughter in September. He didn’t want to lose maternity benefits.

Summoned to Caldwell’s office on the day he announced formation of the new union, Thomas became physically ill, thinking he would be dismissed along with other union founders. From outside Caldwell’s office, he heard the chief rant and rave about the union and the disloyal officers who formed it. As the minutes ticked into hours, Thomas remained apprehensive, but his confidence slowly grew. He later learned that influential Houston area AFL-CIO labor leader Don Horn wised up McConn. The mayor was about to win his second term with Horn’s political influence and listened on the phone as Horn posed important questions: What had Thomas done that any other officer was entitled to do under the Constitution? What law had he broken? Was the city ready to combat the lawsuit that would result from a firing?

According to McConn, he told Chief Caldwell to use every resource to discredit Thomas, thinking it was just a matter of time before they broke up HPPU. But HPPU membership grew by leaps and bounds because Thomas and union leaders were hitting HPOA in its weakest spots – its inability to publicly articulate the issues impacting working officers.

Having staff attorneys to provide legal advice to members was in high demand by officers anxious about situations like the infamous Joyvies and Webster incidents. The union felt that having a lawyer at either of these cases might well have completely changed the dynamics of the resulting investigations. As it was, people were fired and lives destroyed at the feet of the HPOA, whose dues were $3.50 a month, which HPPU contended were not enough to hire lawyers.

Thomas argued that a lawyer at the scene in which officers said suspect Randy Webster was armed with a pistol would have made a dramatic difference. Had a union lawyer been there to sort out the facts, the investigation would have shown the case to believe what many HPD officers believed it really was – an accidental shooting at the hands of one officer. The findings could well have been that his gun safety was horrendous, but it wasn’t an indictable offense. The union leaders suggested that when you have a lawyer come up and say, “What happened?” ninety-nine percent of the time officers are going to do the right thing.

HPPU pioneers also believed the most controversial case in HPD history – the death of Joe Campos Torres – may not have happened had there been a strong police union in place pressing issues such as the faulty, under-budgeted jail conditions at the time of the events of May 5-7, 1977. HPD had a clinic in the basement of the jail since the building opened in the 1950s but never manned it. Officers with an injured suspect routinely went to Ben Taub General Hospital.