HPD History: Back in the Olden Days, sergeants were kings

M. D. Beale

I started the Houston Police Department on May 6, 1968 and graduated with Class No. 38 on Aug. 28, 1968, after 16 weeks of HPD Academy training. We had 78 selected and I believe that 72 showed up that first Monday and one man left at the first coffee break and later denied he’d even been there at all.

We graduated 68, I believe. We lost a few because they didn’t like the job or violated rules of conduct and the rest because they failed three of the 16 weekly tests. I retired in January 1991 after 16 years in the Robbery Division.

Sergeants ran the Show

At the time I started HPD was the highest paid police agency in the state (excluding the Feds) and one of the better ones in the nation. My pay increased 60 percent, plus or minus, from my civilian job I had the day I started the Academy. When I left, HPD was the lowest paid in the state and close to the bottom in the nation. Doesn’t say much for the administrations in between.

In 1968 the Academy was run, for all practical purposes, by a sergeant. He held day-to-day operational control over the Academy and direct supervisory control over the instructors and cadets. His control over a cadet’s future was pretty much absolute since, by contract, a cadet could be terminated for cause or without cause during training.

Operational philosophy matters for any organization. During Herman Short’s tenure as chief of police his policy regarding sergeants and detectives was key to the way the whole department worked.

Sergeants were supervisors – first, last and always. When a sergeant was promoted they would meet Chief Short briefly in his office and he would explain in no uncertain terms just exactly what he expected out of you.

First and foremost he would tell you that if you were interested in running calls, writing traffic, making accidents or that type of work, then you should do him and yourself a favor and decline the promotion. You were already a police officer and he needed a sergeant.

Sergeants were there to make sure the police officers assigned to them had the things they needed to do the job and to provide guidance and competent assistance when and where needed.

The sergeant’s key responsibility was to know completely and exactly what went on at any scene they were supervising or incident they were investigating. The chief expected the sergeants to be able to answer any question he asked. It wasn’t unusual for him to talk to a sergeant directly about a situation.

He also explained that no matter what happened on any scene or incident, an officer was involved in, that if any officer acted the best he could with the knowledge of the situation as he understood it at that instant, then he and the Department would fully support that officer’s actions. This support came no matter what the news media, special interest groups, the mayor, City Council, the grand jury, the Feds or anybody else thought about it.

Chief Short did that. No officer was ever sacrificed on the Alter of Public Opinion or political pressure for doing what he believed to be the right thing, no matter how the incident was portrayed in the media.

The main rule – indeed the cardinal and unpardonable rule – was to never ever lie to him. By imprecation this applied to everyone in the chain of command from civilian employee up to any one of the nine inspectors (later deputy chiefs).

No Free Rides

If you were smart you didn’t lie to your sergeant. But you trusted him to help and back you when you were right.

Discipline and “corrective action” was taken but not because it was politically correct. The longest suspension I know about was six months. There were those that were fired – as much for lying as anything else – and some that were indicted and sent to state and federal penitentiaries – because they were criminals – and not because of public perceptions.

It wasn’t “a free ride” by any stretch of the imagination.

Generally speaking, a sergeant’s recommended discipline was usually accepted by the chief when he reviewed the incident. So sergeants had a great deal influence over an officer’s career.

One evening an officer called the patrol office asking for a sergeant to meet him in the then new Municipal Courts Building. When the mystified sergeant arrived, the officer took him down to the small men’s room in the basement. Nobody else was in the basement.

The sergeant noticed that the handle on one of the faucets had its handle blown off. The bathroom had only the one enclosed toilet space and was directly in front of the sink.

The officer explained that as he was trying to put his Sam Brown belt back on when his revolver slipped out of the holster. He grabbed it to keep it from hitting floor. The gun was tumbling and when he grabbed it he accidently pulled the trigger. The bullet smashed the handle on the faucet.

There are a couple of things that need to be understood that many officers today might not appreciate.

The approved holster at the time was one that had a flap covering the whole pistol. While appearing to be “ultra-safe,” these holsters, in fact, were less secure than holsters today because a pistol could, indeed, slip out of the holster from under the flap if turned just right. It happened to a lot of officers, though usually not with this kind of results. So it’s not unreasonable for a pistol to slip out of these old holsters when turning the belt to put it on.

More than one officer can certify absolutely that if you hit anyone with your finger on the trigger of a revolver or a double- or single-action automatic with the safety off you will fire the gun. So making a snatch-grab at a falling pistol and catching the trigger at the same time is very possible.

Sergeant’s Decision Prevailed

What the sergeant also noticed but didn’t remark on was that the “target” was located at eye level to anyone sitting on the commode, that the pistol was a new S&W Model 29 .44 Mag, and that anyone sitting there and maybe “dry firing” a loaded pistol would be in a perfect position to take out the handle.

In evaluating the overall situation the sergeant considered everything for a minute and then asked the officer a question: “Would you be willing to pay for the repairs?” The officer’s instant reply was “Absolutely.” The sergeant told him that he would see what he could do.

The sergeant kept his observations to himself and talked to the lieutenant who talked to the captain who thought the idea was a good one. The captain called the building administrator who agreed that it was a good idea.

In a couple of days the sergeant called the officer and told him that he could pay the bill.

The repair bill was sent to the captain and he made sure the officer paid the bill. No further disciplinary action was needed or taken.

Not sure how a situation like this one would play out today.

Then there’s the incident of the sideswiped palm tree, but that’s for another time.

Stay safe and remember: Being paranoid doesn’t mean that there isn’t someone out there trying to kill you.