HPD History: Chief Lee Brown laid the strong foundation for HPD’s Strong community liaison practices with all communities

Tom Kennedy

There was some belief that HPD was on the verge of a war with the community with tension reaching palpable proportions to street officers until Mayor Kathy Whitmire picked Lee P. Brown as Houston’s police chief.

The prevalent attitude among gays, African-Americans and Hispanics was that the department felt no obligation to reach out for support. The battle line remained us-versus-them and “them” was the Houston Police Department.

Neighborhood-Oriented Policing

That attitude changed with Brown and Neighborhood-Oriented Policing.

Instead of the enemy, a growing number of officers began to be regarded as allies. Brown achieved this dramatic change by gradually meeting with every representative community group and demonstrating that the HPD would be more responsive to their unique police-related problems. He soon learned that African-Americans, Hispanics and gays felt police didn’t care about the unique perplexities of communities such as Fifth Ward, Denver Harbor or Montrose.

The department itself didn’t reflect the entire community. Under Brown’s leadership, it developed steadier recruitment of minority cadets.

As the chief developed plans for increased citizen involvement, he wrestled with the appropriate buzz word or phrase. Soon he found it: Neighborhood-Oriented Policing.

In his earliest Command Staff meetings in 1982 the chief often voiced the concept of “putting ourselves in the neighborhoods and thinking about policing them differently.” The actual term Neighborhood-Oriented Policing was a derivative of his speeches in these meetings.

Not everybody relished the philosophy but among those who did were the more idealistic Command Staff members whose sphere of influence grew early in Brown’s tenure. Both the HPOU and HPPU characterized NOP as “Never on Patrol.” Old-line officers refused to see it as a different reiteration of the old policing concept of walking a beat.

Yet the primary characteristic called for an alliance between police and the communities, which resulted in a greater involvement and participation in the crime-fighting process.

NOP took the five historical stables of police work – calls, tickets, reports, investigations and patrolling – and appropriately intermingled them with sit-down visits with citizens to discuss the causes and possible prevention of crimes that occur closest to where they live.

The typical HPD patrol officers felt it took too much time away from answering calls. They didn’t want the change and used it as part of their repertoire of criticism.  Brown and his protégés were up for the challenge. They developed a color-coded Houston map that divided the city into twenty-three districts that clearly defined beats and neighborhoods. The goal was to realize that every neighborhood was different and had its own unique problems and leaders and that by recognizing hotspots and working with movers and shakers to get the best policing handle on solving the problems.

“Go in there and customize your service delivery for them,” became the order of the day.

Oettmeier and Bales Influence

NOP offered citizens a time and place to be part of the crime-fighting solution. HPD’s old guard contended it provided fewer opportunities for officers to respond and ventured to say that the department would self-destruct if it pursued this course. There wouldn’t be enough officers to respond to calls for help. More crooks would get away from crime scenes. They would laugh at the police.

Whitmire’s more liberal constituencies would keep voting for her since she put the police in their place. Marijuana smokers and drug dealers would thrive. Yet crime victims embraced the idea and said that they never thought they would see anything like this proactive concept. Bill Elkin, the HPOA president at the time, later in reflection said that gradually officers came to accept the concept after realizing that HPD was still doing its job by fighting crime.

Brown used the opportunity to offer autonomy to members of his Command Staff. When asked how to implement the concept, the chief told his leaders to figure it out for themselves and get busy. One deputy chief, Elizabeth Watson, began leading community meetings about problem-solving and tactical teams. She and others visited other cities and tried to learn from their mistakes. They learned that involvement of lieutenants and captains was a key to success because they were the backbone of mid-management.

Lt. Tim Oettmeier and Assistant Chief John Bales became the real architects of NOP. Future Assistant Chief Tom Koby also was instrumental in taking steps such as organizing workshops for Patrol officers.

Brown believed NOP was the antithesis of the Herman Short hard-line management school and would become the very best method for involving all segments and races in policing. Every officer was committed to getting to know the beat and the people on it. They were to deemphasize numbers of tickets in favor of positive interaction by engaging the community when they weren’t on call. Often the younger officers thought of the concept as social work, while old-timers felt it was what they did back in the old days. Watson confirmed this in a 2004 interview.

The program continuously stressed that the department must allow citizens to ask questions and get feedback on how policing tactics related to citizens’ lives. Some officers took to the redefined assignment like fish to water. Others developed disdain for the “out-of-services” that left the real street officers to answer all the calls. Often, officers were left to sort out the work load, a new task that didn’t sit well with older veterans.

Twenty years later (2002) citizens generally had positive appraisals of Neighborhood-Oriented Policing, not necessarily for NOP in particular but some of the programs that were its outgrowth.

Storefronts were a prime example. Early in the HPD effort to orient officers to the policing needs of every neighborhood, the storefront concept began to take hold. A research paper inspired by Chief Brown and Hubert Williams, president of the Police Foundation and former police director of Newark, New Jersey, provided a detailed analysis of similar community-oriented policing programs in Houston, a new and prospering city, and Newark, an older, problematic city.

The Storefront Success Story

The study identified police storefronts as “another strategy designed to reduce the physical and psychological distance between Houston police and residents of one neighborhood.”

Initially, a small office conducive to walk-in traffic from the neighborhood was set up in a small, one-story commercial office complex, modestly but comfortably furnished to be non-threatening. It was staffed by two patrol officers on both day and evening shifts, along with a civilian coordinator and three police aides. The programs included monthly neighborhood meetings, a truancy reduction plan, a fingerprinting procedure designed to easily identify lost children, a park vandalism reduction plan, a walk-in blood pressure screening procedure, a ride-along program and the distribution of a monthly police newsletter spotlighting local crime information and prevention tips.

Brown used the findings outlined in the study as proof that he and his administration experienced success when the chief from the outside took the lead down the reform path aimed at greater citizen support in the crime-fighting process.

His effort was later identified nationally as the “most notable” effort of its kind in the United States. Officers were becoming friends and not members of an oppressive occupational force. Brown was the first chief to expand “civilianization,” a process using non-commissioned personnel to perform specified duties, to almost every part of the department where Brown found many officers lacked the necessary training and experience. His answer was civilianization.

Brown’s frequent interaction with distinctive communities all over Houston confirmed his belief that citizens felt abandonment from officers. By the mid-1980s, the department initiated five test programs, each with varying degrees of success. These efforts provided time for officers to discuss crime with people in neighborhoods on a regular basis and develop programs that responded to their concerns.

Initially, response was more positive in predominately white neighborhoods but gradually changed as HPD intensified its recruitment of blacks and Hispanics. Neither a newsletters nor the victim recontact strategy program produced positive measurable effects. The neighborhood “storefronts” increased interaction with citizens, created more neighborhood organizations and succeeded in decentralizing the department.

Houston City Council members learned that Chief Brown was willing to work directly with them on plans to attack neighborhood crime in a positive manner without input from Mayor Whitmire, who experienced on-again, off-again working relationships with council members.

One crime-fighting success story involved District C Councilman Vince Ryan, seldom one of the mayor’s allies. With the help of the beat officers in the southern portion of his very politically active district, Ryan endorsed a wide-sweeping clean-up effort in Link Valley, a large group of rundown apartment complexes on the south side near the 610 Loop.

The area became known as “Death Valley” because of nightly drug deals and gunshots that could be heard from neighborhoods across the freeway. Police coordinated some of the apartment owners and neighborhood activists in a weekend clean-up, the first major step that led to improvements to many of the complexes and to the arrest or removal of many drug dealers.

PIP, Citizens Police Academy

The chief consistently contended that NOP did not add costs to HPD’s operations, a very important pitch in the 1980s when a bad economy required cuts in the city budget and two years without new cadet classes. This, coupled with a higher than normal attrition rate, created a manpower shortage.

By its very nature, NOP required officers to use uncommitted time to meet with community leaders and develop strategies to address specified neighborhood crimes. This wasn’t easy when a dwindling force was addressing an increasing number of calls from all over the city. The economic downturn cost HPD 500 to 600 officers.

Houston policing strategies became more effective, albeit not flawless, through long-term communications with individual communities through storefronts such as the one sponsored by the Near Town Association in Montrose, the first one set up on Brown’s watch. An earlier version formed in Third Ward before Brown’s tenure with no identification with NOP or COP.

The department formed the Positive Interaction Program, set up to hold monthly meetings featuring speakers from different divisions who would explain how their divisions operated in ways that enabled citizens to know what to expect if they ever needed the police. Community policing also resulted in the creation of the Citizens Police Academy to educate citizens on the jobs of police officers. By 2009, Houston had fifty-five PIP programs in all sections.

Brown authorized the development of the Houston Police Activities League, a group of serving as caring, supportive, responsible, adult role models to thousands of school-aged children. The target population was at-risk youth ranging in age from eight to eighteen, mostly from low-income, single-parent households. Like most of Brown’s programs, it was a first for Houston.

Aside from “firsts,” the department revived the HPD Mounted Patrol – the use of the combination of the horse and a patrol officer – in 1984. Funds for its establishment were provided through a grant from the Downtown Central Business District and later became a part of the Special Operations Division under the Tactical Support Command.

The detail was located at a stable at 300 North Post Oak on the southwest side. It primarily worked the downtown area as well as Memorial and Hermann parks. The increased height enabled officers to be as effective as a human who stands ten to twelve feet tall. Councilwoman Eleanor Tinsley led the crusade to re-establish the outfit in 1984. The detail stood out as a great crowd control and public relations asset during the 2004 Major League All-Star Game, the 2005 Super Bowl and 2005 World Series.

Other Interaction Groups

Brown also formed the Police Advisory Council, the Law Enforcement Explorer Scout Program, the Youth Police Advisory Council and the Ministers Against Crime, a group of black ministers who worked closely with the department on community-related issues. Later, the Hispanic Ministers Against Crime and Asian Ministers Against Crime were formed. Brown hired the first Vietnamese police officer in America. He also used his Atlanta experiences to foster a better police relationship with the Houston gay community.

Brown, in theory, opened the first police storefronts, a practice that became a department tradition and served to keep police/community relationships on a high plain.

Brown opened the first “storefront” that was officially a part of NOP at the Wesley Community Center. Victor Trevino and an African-American officer, J. J. Berry, became the “black-Hispanic team” that worked out of a library at Wesley for half a day. They then traveled to South Park, which was later named Martin Luther King Jr., and Van Fleet in a former church the city purchased. It became known as HELP Center and housed other offices such as Juvenile Probation.

Gay leaders began to feel that the chief listened to their problems and worked with them to co-exist without raids on gay bars. Police administrators learned that many Montrose gays were law-abiding and wanted better communications with police under the right circumstances. Even before NOP, the very first storefront opened in Brown’s tenure was the one sponsored by the Near Town Association at 802 Westheimer in the middle of Montrose.

The media quoted Brown as saying that sixty percent of all police departments nationwide adopted NOP in one form or another. As chief from 1982 until 1989, Lee Brown got credit for getting more police officers into the communities of Houston, vastly improving citizen/officer communications and the public’s perception of officers in general.