Here’s a history of the HPD Patrol Cars, All of it in black and white – well, almost

Earl Musick

During my lifetime the color of Houston’s police cars changed many times.  As a Houston teenager, I was constantly looking out for the police blue and whites that patrolled our neighborhoods.

Obviously, from the number of traffic tickets I received during my teenage years, I wasn’t very good at spotting the police before they caught me speeding.

Upon entering the Police Academy each cadet was given a Rules Manual and expected to learn the rules and terms used by the Houston Police Department.  A section of the manuel defined the terms used by the Department and one of the terms defined was patrol car.  “Patrol Car – A car used by an officer in the performance of his patrol duties, generally a recognizable police vehicle.  A ‘marked car’.” Rules Manuel, 6.19

Cars were extremely important to my generation and I don’t remember when I didn’t have a fascination for cars.  I remember as a child the Houston police “marked cars” were black with a police shield on the doors and from old police photographs, I know that in the early 40’s the Houston police cars were black and white in color, the same as our police cars today.

When Houston Police Chief Charles A. McClelland Jr. announced on Nov. 21, 2013, the department’s decision to change the color of police cars to black and white, most of our retired police officers did not approve.  However, HPD actually had come full circle from the black and white police cars of the 1940’s to the current black and white police cars of today.

At some point in the early 50’s the two-tone black and white police cars were replaced by solid black vehicles like the old police car that has been on display at the academy.  Eventially the HPD cars changed the color scheme again, putting a white top over black, with police shields on the front doors on each side.  This color scheme lasted throughout the 50’s, but would change with a new car order in January of 1959.

In 1959 change was again occurring with HPD’s vehicle fleet.  On Jan 16, a Houston Post article announced that HPD would soon have patrol cars to match the blue and gray colors of the police uniforms.  The article stated Mayor Lewis Cutrer had signed a contract to purchase 39 patrol cars painted a starlight blue with gray tops.  I wonder what the officers back then thought about this drastic change of colors.

The mayor said eventually all patrol cars would be of the two-tone colors, which he felt would be more distinctive than the present black vehicles.  He said the new colored cars will still bear the identifying shields on their sides.

I can vividly remember my first day in Patrol when Officer August “Gus” J. Hruzek, my training officer, took me out to the Central gas pumps to get our police shop.  Shop is cop talk for a patrol car.  Our car was a white over blue Plymouth with the identifying shield on the door and a push button automatic transmission.  It had rubber floor boards with tan vinyl bench seats and it was ragged looking.  Not anything like what I envisioned a police car to look like inside.

It was April 1967, and the Houston summer months were ahead and none of the police shops had air conditioning.  The 1969 Fords were the first police shops with air conditioning and police cars did not have cages for the back seat, those would not come until 1972.

Needless to say policing was different back then.

A one-man unit would place the prisoner in the front passenger seat and move his duty weapon away from the suspect.  A two-man unit placed the prisoner in the back seat and the second police officer would sat in the backseat with his duty weapon on the opposite side of the prisoner.  Most police officers were right handed, which meant the prisoner was directly behind the driver.  Patrol units were described as one-man or two-man units because female police officers did not ride in patrol during those years.

The gray-colored top of 1959 didn’t last very long and was replaced with a white top over the starlight blue.  When I came on the department the white over blue cars had to be custom ordered.  The special ordered color was known as HPD blue.  During the late 80’s the police shield was replaced with the Houston police patch.  These white over blue cars had a red and white stripe down their side.  In 1993, the white top was not ordered to save the City money.  The new cars were now a solid HPD blue.

During Chief Clarence Bradford’s term as chief of police it was significantly cheaper to order solid white cars and put the HPD blue decals on the side of the car with the patch.  Chief Bradford commissioned a group of officers to help design what this new car would look like.  HPD was moving into the 21st century and would now be driving white police cars,

In 2008, Houston joined the trend of surrounding cities and introduced stealth or ghost cars for traffic enforcement.  These cars were solid white with the Department’s insignia faintly displayed on the side of the vehicle.  They were made to not give the appearance of a marked police vehicle, but contained faint markings to comply with Texas Transportation Code § 545.421,   “The officer’s vehicle must bear the insignia of a law enforcement agency, regardless of whether the vehicle displays an emergency light.”   The law was in reference to fleeing or attempting to elude a police officer.

These vehicles caused a lot of discussion of whether citizens are required to stop for a police officer driving an unmarked vehicle or a vehicle the citizen did not recognize as a police car.  In answering this question, “A person commits an offense if he intentionally flees from a person he knows is a peace officer attempting lawfully to arrest or detain him.”  Texas Penal Code § 38.04. Evading Arrest or Detention.  Fleeing in a motor vehicle is a felony offense in Texas.

Like it or not, policing is in a situation of constant change.  It is only natural to resist change but it is inevitable.  The one common factor that doesn’t seem to change is that HPD is always looking at ways to spend less money on purchasing the patrol cars.  When I was a young police officer a sergeant told me, “Remember, while you are chasing these suspects at speeds in excess of 100 mph, the equipment you are using was purchased from the lowest bidder.”

I found this wise sergeant’s words were true.

Hopefully you have enjoyed sharing memories from long, long ago.  Your guess is as good as mine regarding when the next change in the color schemes of “patrol cars” will occur and what the colors will be.