HPD Hispanic History: Early days saw the city using height requirement to limit number of Hispanics in the department

Tom Kennedy, Editor

Editor’s Note: The celebration of the 40th anniversary of the HPD Chicano Squad brings to mind the early history of Hispanics in HPD. The following was selected from Houston Blue, the history of HPD by Tom Kennedy and Mitchel Roth, to recount earlier days that limited Hispanic police recruiting in Houston.

In the year 1950 the Houston Police Department leadership perceived a problem with the Hispanic community. A Hispanic suspect killed an Anglo, prompting police to believe they needed a “Latin American Squad” to deal with cases involving similar circumstances. A called meeting at the Civil Courts Building attracted 200 people, including a number of prospective police cadets. The League of United Latin American Citizens wanted Hispanic officers “according to the same standards as real policemen.”

The police representative present asked that each Hispanic male interested in joining the force to please stand up. Then he outlined basic requirements of a prospective cadet one at a time: You must be between the ages of 21 and 35, have a high school diploma and no criminal record. Some portion of the prospects sat down when they failed to meet these qualifications.

“And you must stand 5-feet-10 1/2 inches tall,” the recruiter said. Most of the remaining young men sat down. HPD immediately fell short of the number needed for a Latin American Squad. Only five remained and just one, Raul Martinez, a share cropper’s son, really wanted the job. He was twenty-seven years old and saw nothing but problems with his job as an orderly that paid fifty cents an hour. Martinez soon got a call from highly respected Mexican restaurant owner, Felix Tijerina, who said to him, “We need you. Why don’t you go down there and apply?”

Raul Martinez

Thirty-nine years later Martinez said he felt he could make a difference and went down to City Hall, officially applied and found it hard to believe his acceptance until he saw it in writing. Meanwhile, he trained to become a barber and earned seventy-five cents a cut every Saturday at the Gallegos Barber Shop on Preston. The barbering and his orderly job put Martinez in a high income bracket. The police job actually meant a pay cut and required him to work six days a week for a $60 salary.

The entire community encouraged him to become an officer since Houston had no uniformed Hispanic police officer at the time. Martinez faced tough recruiting questions from Ray Floyd, the Civil Service director at City Hall. Floyd cited Martinez’ heavy accent and asked him how he would handle insulting comments from Anglos he might have to arrest. Martinez responded by saying he would be trained and paid to be called names he had been called already.   

Martinez passed the written examination and the physical before undergoing more interrogation. The questioners gave him spirit when they never brought up the fact he was Hispanic. He entered the academy in March 1950, becoming the first academy-trained Hispanic police officer in HPD history. He went on to earn a college degree from the University of Houston under the G. I. Bill and served twenty-three years on the force before Harris County Judge Bill Elliott appointed him constable of Precinct 6. He served five terms there. He died on August 23, 1990.  On September 17, 2003, Precinct 2 County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia led a dedication ceremony of the Raul C. Martinez East End Courthouse Annex.

Martha Morena Montalvo

The visibility of the improving numbers of Hispanics in HPD blue captured the attention of a teenaged girl who thought she could become a police officer and make a difference. The department recruited more actively with minorities to develop a more positive image through outreach programs at weekend events and at high schools during the week. Martha Morena sensed there were still problematic issues – but none she couldn’t handle.

Morena was born in Ecuador and came to Houston with her family at age five to live in the East End, just outside of downtown near the original Ninfa’s Restaurant on Navigation. Hearing the recruiting pitch, Morena thought the pay and benefits HPD offered were extremely high for a young Hispanic female with a high school diploma from Incarnate Word Academy. Encouraged by the recruiting booths at East Side community events, she was impressed that the department actually viewed Hispanics as people different from the bad guys on the beats or in the lead story on the evening news. Hispanic recruiters were there, as were African-American and Anglo officers.

Morena joined HPD in 1979, stepping into Police Cadet Class No. 90 and graduating in May 1980. In earlier years, HPD regularly assigned new female officers to either the Juvenile Division or the jail. Montalvo was assigned to Central Patrol, as were the other two African-Americans and two Anglos in her cadet class. Her first sergeant, Robert Hill, fit the old-school image – paternal, decisive and always eager to give advice applicable to both professional and private lives.

Morena married and became Martha Montalvo. That was not the only change. She earned bachelors and masters degrees in Criminal Justice Management from the University of Houston – Downtown and Sam Houston State University, respectively. Montalvo found that the vast majority of officers accepted a Hispanic female officer as long as she was productive on the job and remained strong and determined to achieve her professional goals.

She felt a major turning point in public perception of the department happened when Mayor Kathy Whitmire appointed Lee P. Brown to become the first African-American police chief in 1982. Brown was eager to answer the hardest possible questions from all minority communities and to convince leaders he needed their support through both dialogue and positive actions. It wasn’t easy coming from people who felt they were overly policed and targets of suspicious arrests and traffic tickets. Chief Brown required officers to dialog with community leaders and convince them that police were there to serve everyone.

Like many of her police contemporaries, Montalvo was seldom pleased with Whitmire’s attitude toward police officers. She participated in demonstrations against the mayor by members of the Houston Police Patrolman’s Union that were common early in Whitmire’s ten-year tenure. At one heavily attended HPPU meeting with Whitmire, members sat silently as the mayor entered the room, the clicking heels of her shoes echoing in the large meeting room. Montalvo sat on the end of a row and felt sorry for the trembling woman. She saw that the mayor feared police, definitely a bad omen for the city.

Montalvo worked in Central Patrol after spending time at the academy as an instructor. She didn’t let a stubborn mayor deter her from stepping up the management ladder. After being shifted back to Central, she became a sergeant in 1985 and promptly got assigned to the jail, where she worked with Lieutenant Robert Montalvo, the man she married. Montalvo went on to serve as one of four executive assistant police chiefs under Police Chief Harold Hurtt, the highest ranking Hispanic female in history.

Wilfred Navarro

Wilfred Navarro got out of the service in February 1948 and went from one job to another until 1950 when LULAC began its big push to get the police department to hire Hispanics. Navarro took notice of the articles in local newspapers and attended the same meeting in which Raul Martinez learned he was tall enough to qualify. B. W. Payne was police chief and an inspector, L. D. Morrison Sr., was Payne’s spokesman at the meeting. Morrison said the reason that the department wasn’t hiring Mexican Americans was that the majority weren’t as tall as Martinez.

Navarro met the requirement and told Morrison he would apply. Yet when he went to the ninth floor of City Hall, Civil Service Director Roy Floyd said he was five eights of an inch too short. Floyd suggested that Navarro become a firefighter and wound up getting the applicant a job as a junior police clerk because he could type. As he worked at the job clerk under three lieutenants, R. J. Clark, Foy D. Melton and Sid Rowe. One day Rowe gave the same advice as Tijerina: apply early in the day when you’re taller.

When Navarro showed up, the man there to do the measurement was George Hogan, a clerk who later became the business manager for police chiefs from Jack Heard to Lee P. Brown. Hogan found him to be a half inch above the requirement.

Originally, Navarro was scheduled to start Police Cadet Class No. 4 in March 1950, the same as Martinez, but he was rescheduled for Class No. 5 in September because of a problem with his work as a police clerk. Police Chief L. D. Morrison Sr., the recruiter, pinned on Navarro’s badge on December 28, 1950, and the new officer started his first duty on New Year’s Eve.

Other Hispanics in Class 5 were Jesse Ontiveros, Roy Beltran and Pete Fuentes (all deceased). The four Hispanic cadets made a conscious decision not to hang around with each other in their effort to get to know all of their classmates and not seem standoffish. They all went to Patrol with the feeling they were disliked because of their race but believing only a small percentage of officers were actually prejudiced against them. They were encouraged that some higher-ranking officers such as A. C. Martindale, a leader in the Houston Police Officers Association, discouraged discrimination at every opportunity and accepted them as equals.

No one came out and voiced opposition to Navarro until he went on the night shift and one particular officer went to the sergeant and said he wouldn’t ride with him because “he’s a Mexican.” Navarro went on to work Dispatch, Evening Patrol and Day Patrol at the North Shepherd Substation until one day when Lieutenant Chester Massey called him to become his administrative officer to work the desk for Downtown Patrol. He worked there until 1970, when he went to Community Services to supervise school crossing guards and make safety talks at schools.

When the incumbent chief of police at Houston’s airports resigned, thirty-year veteran Navarro’s name appeared at the top of Mayor Jim McConn’s list of possible successors in 1979. Encouraged by Councilman Ben Reyes, Houston’s first Hispanic City Council member, Navarro actively pursued the job. On January 3, 1980, he retired from HPD to become chief of the Airport Police three days later. He was responsible for both Hobby and Intercontinental airports, commanding 259 people.

Navarro worked under mayors McConn, Kathy Whitmire, Bob Lanier and Lee Brown. When the airport police merged with HPD in November 1992, he became an assistant chief, a civilian position made official by ordinance under Mayor Lanier. He improved working conditions and morale and raised the training standards at the airports, believing that his officers had undergone more training than HPD officers at the time of the merger. By the time he retired in 1999, Wilfred Navarro had spent just a few months short of fifty years in law enforcement.

Velia “Belle” Ortega

Officially, Mercedes Halvorsen Singleton was the first-ever academy-trained female Hispanic Houston police officer, and Emily Rimmer Vasques was the second. They actually graduated from the same academy class. Since cadets got their badges in alphabetical order, Vasques ranked second in history’s count. Velia “Belle” Ortega, a Houston native and 1951 graduate of Sam Houston High School, was an HPD Records clerk in the early 1950s when Singleton, Vasques, Jean Smith and Jo Bankston were the first policewomen to be academy-trained.

Everyone called her “Belle,” a nickname that meant “young beautiful woman,” and often sought her to translate Spanish. Sergeants begin to suggest to her, “If you are going to translate for the reports, why don’t you try out for the academy?”  She wound up in Class 15 and was sworn in on New Year’s Day 1957, the third Hispanic female officer in HPD history. As was typical, Ortega replaced a matron who retired and alternated between Juvenile and the jail before spending eleven years in Crime Analysis. She was in her thirties and let “the younger women go and be brave” when policewomen were allowed to patrol the streets. (Ortega interview)

Ortega’s first taste of resentment of Hispanics came when she was a cadet and a high-ranking Command Staff member was conducting a class discussion and asked the class, “Anyone here speak Mexican?” She and other Hispanics took remarks like this one in stride and tried to do the job.

Having so few female officers caused frustrating scheduling problems. If another division needed a woman for special duty, Ortega was “loaned out” from Juvenile or the Jail. Shift scheduling was inflexible. A female officer’s schedule stayed the same until someone quit, retired or died. Ortega worked the night shift eighteen years before she was able to work days.

After her retirement, Belle Ortega served eleven years as a police service officer (PSO), a de facto desk officer who took police reports from citizens, performing virtually every duty but riding the streets. Ortega died August 11, 2008 from gunshot wounds she suffered in a July 21 drive-by shooting at her daughter’s apartment. Her death was ruled a homicide. She was seventy-eight years old.

Art Contreras

When the admittedly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Art Contreras, age twenty-two, drove in from Baytown and walked into the Houston police recruiting office in the basement of City Hall, two Anglo recruiters stood between him and the police academy. The height requirement in 1961 was 5-foot-9. The first recruiter, an older man, tersely informed Contreras that he was too short and walked out of the room. Contreras stood in the middle of the room, too angry to move.

Enter the second Anglo recruiter – an Officer Hill – who came in, measured Contreras and all of a sudden the recruit had grown an inch. Contreras always credited Hill with giving him a life-changing break that resulted in a career that lasted more than four decades. In November 1961, the son of a Humble Oil and Refining Company (later Exxon) safety inspector and LULAC activist entered the Houston Police Academy at Police Headquarters at 61 Riesner by commuting from Baytown.

A tough-minded sergeant, Julius Knigge, required meticulous notes and gave hard tests. Each cadet turned in his notebook every day for grading. Knigge put strong stock in a cadet’s ability to pick up details even the most basic investigation. Knigge once asked cadets how many steps were there in front of this training building. Contreras always remembered that there were thirteen.

Contreras’ father was a “color blind” Baytown reserve officer who urged his son to change the policing system “from within,” an outlook that inspired the new officer to conclude that only certain individuals had racist problems. When Contreras started in 1961, there were less than 100 Hispanic officers. Overall, in his Class No. 25, there were six – Contreras, George Rodriguez, Humberto Moreno, Abel Casas, Robert Luna and Johnny Gonzalez.

Contreras’ first job in 1962 was riding a three-wheeler, working downtown to make sure traffic didn’t get backed up. He made sergeant in 1968, the third Hispanic sergeant behind Raul Martinez and Richard Castillo and the first one assigned as a supervisor in Patrol. All previous Hispanic sergeants were assigned to Dispatch or the Jail. Weldon Waycott, his supervisor, emphasized the fact that he ran Patrol and made Contreras the Northside sergeant on the night shift. Contreras had a few attitudinal problems with subordinates but gradually worked through them.

He became a lieutenant in 1973, serving in Juvenile and Recruiting. In the latter division he worked hard at enhancing the message to Hispanics and African-American would-be cadets that there was upward mobility available to them. He was promoted to captain in 1982 and spent time in Night Command at Northeast and took the lead in the elimination of some sexually-oriented questions on the pre-employment polygraph test. The new set of questions and guidelines required that all inquiries be job-specific and not designed to satisfy voyeuristic tendencies, including questions involving homosexuality or sodomy.

Contreras drafted a bilingual pay bill during the 1987 session of the Texas Legislature, trying to use better pay as a recruiting tool to encourage bi-lingual men and women. The bill’s passage meant officers who could speak Spanish, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Cantonese and Korean began receiving bilingual pay. Another bill provided the city with the ability to offer shift differential pay.

Contreras became HPD’s first Hispanic deputy police chief in 1990 and served in that capacity until his retirement after thirty-six years in HPD. He spent only two days “unemployed” when President Bill Clinton named him U. S. Marshal for the Southern District of Texas on March 10, 1998 – the first Hispanic in history to serve in this capacity. He was there four and a half years. In his HPD career, Contreras was considered as a candidate for Houston’s police chief by two mayors, Bob Lanier in 1996 and Bill White in 2003.

Phyllis Serna Wunsche

Phyllis Serna Wunsche recounted her HPD career as a true calling or blessing. Her recollections flow as if out of a story book with a happy ending despite the inevitable conflicts along the path. Wunsche’s most significant “first” was pregnant with controversy and changed a bad tradition and policy for a department which took aim to recruit more women in the changing times of the 1970s.

Wunsche was “the first Hispanic female math degree holder” to become a Houston police officer. A March 1972 graduate of the academy, her rise was meteoric – she became a robbery detective in three years and later stair-stepped up to become the first Hispanic female assistant chief. She also was the female half of the first married couple on the Command Staff. Her husband, Les Wunsche, was the first head of the Internal Affairs Division. He retired in 1986.

The University of Houston graduate began her career in November 1971 when she was looking for a government job that would take advantage of her way with numbers. HPD had four openings for women in its next cadet class, only hiring women to replace those retiring or resigning. She never had any inclination to be a police officer but ultimately “never went through any burned-out period in twenty-three years.” Always motivated by changes in assignments and promotion, her longest assignment was five and a half years as a robbery detective.

Wunsche scarcely passed her six-month probation when she violated an unwritten HPD rule – she got pregnant. She already had a three-year-old child at a time when motherhood was discouraged for policewomen. There were no health benefits that enabled her to take a paid leave of absence to give birth. If a policewoman wanted to have a baby, she had to take a non-paid leave of absence. Police Chief Carrol Lynn rejected Wunsche’s request to use sick leave time.   

It was a city policy that affected any pregnant employee, whether in the police department or any other city department. The young officer learned from research that some other cities granted sick leave for pregnancies. She thought it was worth fighting the city of Houston for such an entitlement and sought help from Wilfred Navarro of the Houston Police Officers Association Board of Directors.

Wunsche went down the line with the association officers and none gave her any hope. Navarro, chairman of the Insurance Committee, presented the issue to the full board and said pregnancy should be recognized as a health issue. He took Wunsche to an HPOA meeting when she was “very pregnant” and had her stand up as he made the case.

The board then got Mayor Fred Hofheinz and City Council to grant sick leave for pregnant city employees as part of the city’s health insurance plan. The measured passed a few weeks before Wunsche’s delivery. She was later transferred to the midnight shift at the jail for rocking the boat.

Policewomen found it hard to raise any stink about another issue that touched them almost every day of their job assignment, their blue uniforms. In the Hofheinz/Lynn years the department saw a major influx of women. But there were no uniforms designed to fit them. Women had to wear men’s pants and jackets usually three or four sizes too large. Many women were reduced to tears by the way they looked in a department that could fit 300-pound men but not 110-pound women. Many women altered their own blue and in the 1990s Wunsche ordered a Navy cap, which became part of the female assistant chief’s uniform.

Wunsche became the first female detective in Texas assigned to investigate armed robberies. In 1980 she was promoted to lieutenant with another aspiring policewoman, Elizabeth “Betsy” Watson. Every week Wunsche worked as a lieutenant on all three shifts – days, evenings and nights – in what was a special “swing shift.” She didn’t complain.   

She was a lieutenant when Watson succeeded Lee Brown as chief in 1990. Watson eliminated the deputy chief position and increased to eleven the number of assistant chiefs reporting directly to her. Newly appointed assistant chiefs hereinafter were subject to City Council confirmation. Later, under Police Chief Sam Nuchia, the Command Staff consisted of five executive assistant chiefs and eight assistant chiefs.

Watson could fill vacancies by appointment and chose Wunsche as the first female assistant chief. The appointment finally came but not without controversy complicated by Watson’s lack of political experience with City Council. Watson first sought Wunsche’s appointment along with two white males in 1990 but endured political heat before a more diverse list of five appointees got through the mayor and council on July 2, 1991. Wunsche was not the Hispanic community’s choice and stayed in limbo while Watson held her ground.

As Watson’s budget administrator, Wunsche finally got to use her talent with numbers. Bob Lanier took office as mayor in 1992 and demoted Watson in favor of Nuchia. But Wunsche remained in her “numbers job” and mastered the details of the move of police headquarters to 1200 Travis in downtown. The department didn’t want to lose her knowledge and talent until the project was almost completed. She was the only chief of any rank that Mayor Lanier and Chief Nuchia asked to stay. She went on to serve on the Presidential Commission on Organized Crime as the group’s only Hispanic female police officer.

Adrian Garcia

Adrian Garcia’s desire to become a police officer started to unfurl when he was hanging out at his dad’s gas station on the Northside at age ten. Garcia was in awe of the take-charge men in police uniforms that performed their daily duties while riding Harleys. These “solos” hung out at a Texaco across the street from his dad’s station. One day he saw them pull over a man who was driving through the neighborhood. Since this driver only spoke Spanish, the solo officers had trouble communicating with him.

One of them approached Garcia and respectfully asked, “Can you translate?” The little boy was happy to do so and his work resulted in a better understanding between the officers and a citizen who had a malfunctioning tail light. The officers cautioned him and let him go. One of them said to Garcia, “You’ll make a good police officer.”

In 1980, when the outreach toward Hispanics was greater than ever and the height requirement all but gone, Garcia got into the Houston Police Academy Class No. 93 at age nineteen. Many of Garcia’s contemporaries called him a sell-out, while memories of Joe Campos Torres and the Moody Park Riot lingered in the community.

Like Martha Montalvo, Garcia credited Whitmire’s choice of Lee Brown as the first-ever black police chief as a major turning point in the attitude of Hispanics. Minority recruiting went through the roof as the department instituted academic standards. Brown also included the Hispanic community more and more in his interworking and strategies. Garcia believed the initial changes came through Harry Caldwell and were truly embraced by Chief Brown.

Garcia became the first-ever Houston police officer elected to the Houston City Council in 2003. In his HPD career he worked in Patrol in downtown and the Northside, in HPD’s Criminal Intelligence Division’s Organized Crime Squad, and served as a special investigator for the District Attorney’s Office in the Special Crimes Division. He also served in HPD’s Community Services Division before his appointment to be HPD’s liaison to the Mayor’s Anti-Gang Office in 1994, becoming director in 1999.    

Before retiring after twenty-four years as a Houston police officer, Garcia saw Hispanics come to form a much larger percentage of the force. The number of high-ranking Hispanics in HPD became too long to list completely.  In 2008, Adrian Garcia, a Democrat, became the first Hispanic elected Harris County sheriff.

Victor Trevino

Victor Trevino grew up on Houston’s eastside in the 1950s, becoming adept with a broomstick from the time the broom stood taller than he was. Over the years as one of nine children parented by a Mexico-born day laborer for Southern Pacific Railroad and his stay-at-home wife, he worked in several mom-and-pop grocery stores, graduating from sweeper to stock boy, then sacker, and on to stocker, meat cutter and cashier.

As he became a teenager, Trevino loved helping people, a satisfaction that inspired a desire to become a police officer after he graduated from Austin High School. By 1970 the department lowered the police academy eligibility age to nineteen. Trevino was nineteen, biting the bit to join up but faced a requirement he couldn’t measure up to.

The HPD height requirement was 5-foot-10; Trevino stood 5-foot-7. The height requirement ruled out all but the tallest Hispanics. So Trevino became a butcher at an east side Weingarten’s during the Herman Short era in HPD when only Anglo officers patrolled Hispanic neighborhoods. There was only one Hispanic cop for the area and investigations were tough since Hispanics wouldn’t talk to police.

Trevino thought that intelligence and policing ability had nothing to do with height. He wanted to enter HPD as early as 1975 but soon learned he faced yet another obstacle – he was not legally an American citizen. He had entered the country legally at age seven, and he assumed he was a citizen. But he wasn’t. He took courses at San Jacinto College, enabling him to earn citizenship in January 1976, just as HPD lowered its height requirement to 5-foot-7.

Over the years business leaders such as Houston restaurant entrepreneur Felix Tijerina instructed Hispanic applicants to apply first thing in the morning when they were taller. Next time Trevino applied in the morning and qualified for HPD Cadet Class No. 74 in 1976 at age twenty-four. He was one of seven Hispanics to qualify, a new record at that point in history. One class member, Jesse Garza, became a sergeant, while another, Joe Zamarron, died in the line of duty on April 18, 1981, when he was struck by a car while directing traffic on Market Street.

The height policy changed again. In March 1977, with Harry Caldwell at the helm, a management consulting company conducted a study that changed the department’s hiring practices. The firm was Lifson, Wilson, Ferguson and Winick Inc. LWFW surveyed all officers and their job descriptions and developed criteria to measure effectiveness. Among its findings was that since August 14, 1968, HPD had used a height and weight chart developed by the U. S. Air Force. In hindsight, many in the department believed the chart requirements had a disparate impact on females, blacks and Hispanics. Coincidentally, LWFW had earlier validated the agility test that critics felt effectively eliminated many female applicants. HPD changed the height policy in 1977 to be height in proportionate to weight – a major turning point in the recruitment of women and Hispanics.

Trevino succeeded another former Houston police officer, Raul Martinez, as constable in the predominately Hispanic Precinct 6 on the east side. He was a founding member of the Organization of Spanish Speaking Officers in 1981 and served as OSSO’s second president. He looked back on the day in July 1976 that he was sworn in to wear a badge and gun with the Houston blue with good humor. He and the largest-ever graduating class waited for that memorable moment when Police Chief Pappy Bond pinned on their badges. Taking his turn, Victor Trevino stepped up and stood tall – all 5-feet-7-inches of him.

As Bond did the honors, Houston’s newest police officer was looking down at a chief obviously shorter than he was.