History shows bond between McClelland, street cops and the Union Served Houston well during the chief’s HPD tenure as ‘Top Cop’

Tom Kennedy

Editor’s Note: The last chapter of the HPD history book, Houston Blue: the Story of HPD, details the human chemistry that had built up between a new mayor, Annise Parker, her chosen police chief, Charles McClelland, and the Houston Police Officers Union. This segment of the chapter details the dynamics of that chemistry and how it would benefit Houston, HPD and HPOU.

The year 2012 brought to fore a never-before-seen chemistry that many Houstonians didn’t realize would well serve their city. There was no clearer demonstration of these active human chemicals than the January swearing-in ceremony of the Houston Police Officers Union Board of Directors.

A smiling Mayor Parker led the formality and immediately asked the broadly-grinning Chief McClelland to join her, HPOU President Ray Hunt and the board members to pose for an historic picture. Everybody wore genuine smiles and not just for the split second benefit of a photographer.

The Street Cop

Each of the chosen leaders present made it clear on that day and on many since that they are on the policing page. In good times and bad, they each believed the doors of communication and understandings were wide open.

This true depiction and attitude were never evident in any similar picture taken in the previous city administration. Houstonians now had a mayor who had grown up knowing the Houston blue, a chief who almost lost his life on at least two occasions in his early days as a street cop, and a well-educated, street-smart Union leader who had demonstrated a knack for communication and fairness in even the toughest of times.

The political fates had put them at the forefront, each with a determination to work through tough economic times that promised to especially threaten a long-approved police pension system that some civic leaders were anxious to raid for the dollars involved.

Officer Charles A. McClelland Jr. was born in Center, Texas. He graduated in Class No. 78 in the Houston Police Academy in May 1977 and started his career on the streets, where he soon found himself in the most realistic, violence-producing situations perhaps ever encountered by a young officer on a dangerous beat.

In March 1980, McClelland answered an assist-the-officer call involving two suspects who had shot at an officer. Once at the scene, McClelland chased one of the suspects, who soon popped up with the barrels of two revolvers pointed at him. The suspect’s bullet missed McClelland, whose return fire found its mark, instantly killing the armed individual.

Many HPD officers have heard Chief McClelland tell the story and describe the sick feeling he had when he realized that he had taken a human life, albeit to save his own. He admits to shedding tears at the scene.

In the aftermath, the officer got strong support from his supervisor and his fellow officers. He didn’t know it then but in 2012 he reflected on the fact that the experience provided him with a deep understanding of what any Houston police officer could experience on any given day, especially while on patrol.

On McClelland’s watch as chief, HPD Psychological Services played a key role in counseling officers involved in shootouts or any event that involves deadly or near-death experiences. McClelland went without this counseling more than thirty years but his experiences on the inside have made him a prime counseling advocate today.

Enter Mark Clark

This shooting wasn’t the only life-threatening policing situation McClelland faced on the streets. A year or two earlier he and his partner got into a scuffle with some thugs at an accident scene on the southeast side. The bad actors were determined to seize the officers’ guns, badges, flashlights and handcuffs.

It was evident to McClelland that if they got a gun, one of them would shoot the officers. The calls for assistance got the attention of another young officer named Mark Clark. Clark and his partner soon entered the fracas, saving McClelland and the other officer from a life-threatening situation.

More than three decades later Houston’s chief of police remained clear in his assessment of the event: “Had not Mark Clark got there at the time he did, there was a good chance that one or two of us would have been killed.”

Clark went on to become president of the Houston Police Officers Association and later began serving as the executive director of the Houston Police Officers Union. He is also HPOU’s chief lobbyist and a primary advocate of the effectiveness of a Political Action Committee. The latter stays active by helping to fund the campaigns of the mayor and City Council members as well as those of state representatives and senators.

Clark is but one of the top three or four HPOU leaders, but when the Union discusses the issues at hand with the Command Staff, the police chief has no problem paying close attention to the fellow street officer who once answered a crucial call for help.

Many of McClelland’s colleagues remember him as sporting a large afro, goatee and mustache, allowing him to fit in with street people, as the best of the HPD undercover officers were adept at doing. “You had to play a role every day. It was exciting work but dangerous,” he said in an interview with the Badge & Gun in January 2011. “You went to clubs, bars and massage parlors with no police ID or weapon. You really had to be a good actor but keep yourself safe. You looked like you could fit in with somebody on the street. That was the look you had to portray.”

McClelland evolved into a chief who had once been the epitome of the HPD rank and file, a condition well appreciated by both the mayor and the Union. After more than two years as chief, McClelland said, “The major reason why I’m able to sit down with the Union is I came up in this organization and know people on a first-name basis, know their reputation and vice versa. It is a level of trust that has been built up over a number of years.”

People in the community also know McClelland for implementing policies that affect the quality of police protection. He was, for instance, the executive assistant chief charged with maintaining a constant vigil over the department’s Taser policy set up by Harold Hurtt. McClelland approached each day at work knowing community leaders trusted him to enforce laws with fairness and integrity.

Community Interaction

This chief follows the dedicated approach of the community-minded Lee Brown, who spent hours into the night meeting in the far reaches of each and every Houston community to communicate about crime problems and specifically tailored ways to fight them. Brown’s tenets from Neighborhood-Oriented Policing are quoted and used to this day.

“Crime suppression and crime prevention go hand-in-hand,” said Waynette Chan, a Lee Brown follower since their days together in the 1970s in Portland, Oregon, where Brown was the sheriff and Chan a police officer. The two knew they would work together one day and that day came in 1983 when Chan joined Brown’s civilian staff in HPD.

Union (then Association) leaders expressed skepticism about Chan’s qualifications until they learned she was a former police union leader. Lines of communication opened up. Chan got to know Clark, became aware of the goals of Clark’s organization and worked to iron out communications problems with the outsider chief.

Chan later worked in the Department of Public Works and Engineering, giving her experience in two of the city’s highest-funded departments, prompting Mayor Parker to name her chief of staff – establishing her as yet another major player on the city’s police stage.

Chan knew in great detail Chief Brown’s 1980s plan to get HPD into the 20th Century through Neighborhood-Oriented Policing and, later as mayor, to make Houston officers the highest-paid in the state and nation.

On the night of the 2009 runoff election, she knew her friendship with Clark would have an immediate effect on the relationship between Mayor Parker and the Union. “True to his word,” Chan said upon reflection, “Mark Clark called me the day after we won the mayor’s race. We asked each other: Where do we agree? Can we sit down and iron all this out and let bygones be bygones.”

In subsequent meetings both sides agreed to disagree when the need arose but do so in good faith without any surprises on the political front. No matter what the issue, they would always communicate fairly and honestly.

So the gamesmanship one usually finds in the complex relationship between a big-city mayor, her police chief and police union leaders was on the table and not behind any backs in 2012 and promised to continue. “The trust has returned,” as Chan put it.