Female officers have come a long way since the first four women graduated HPD Academy Class No. 12 in 1955.
History aptly shows just how far, with one female chief (Elizabeth Watson) and many others on the Command Staff.
And no one could tell the story better than Jo Bankston, who, by seniority, was the very first female academy graduate since her last name started with a B. She also was the first to officially retire, the other three women having left the Department well before the magic 20-year mark.
The year was 1955, 65 years ago, when Police Chief Jack Heard made the monumental decision to allow female cadets. Oh, there had been a previous female detective, Eva Jane Bacher, who “graduated” from matron status in 1917 because of the growing need to provide social services for the large number of “wayward girls” haphazardly quartered in downtown Houston.
The real story here is Bankston, not Bacher. It is timely since Jo Bankston died Nov. 28, a symbol of strong, sensitive and worthy dedication to duty.
Chief Heard, the only individual in history to serve as HPD chief and Harris County sheriff, saw the need for female cadets due to the growing number of criminal reports involving juveniles. An early tradition from 1955 forward was to place the vast number of female officers in the Juvenile Division.
We now know that ain’t so anymore. Let Jo Bankston tell you the story.
“We were the first guinea pigs in the academy,” she said with a loud laugh during an interview for Houston Blue, the Story of the Houston Police Department. Had we not made it, they wouldn’t have hired anymore women. That was Jack Heard’s idea. We had to compete with everything – well, almost everything.
“They didn’t make us climb the ropes during academy training. In those days they wouldn’t let you wear pants. We had to wear skirts, so we didn’t have to climb the rope. We didn’t have gym suits.” She laughed and said, “You could’ve seen up our skirts. Don’t print that.” It wasn’t printed – until now.
She was married to an HPD officer, J. C. Bankston. The couple lived on Sabine with Jo’s mother at the time, just a few blocks away from 61 Riesner, HPD headquarters. Heard chose to “recruit” either officers’ wives or Hispanic women.
Over those 65 years the female numbers have grown from four to approximately 950 to 1,000 of the Department’s 5,300-plus officers. And they serve in far more divisions and units than juvenile and the jail. History shows the first policewomen on patrol took place in the mid-1970s.
Of the four, two were police wives and two were Hispanic women. In an interview about his years as the first and only sergeant promoted directly to police chief, Heard said he didn’t realize that the male recruiters went so far as to ask the four chosen female cadets if they were pregnant or intended to be anytime soon.
That wasn’t the only “criteria” – if that’s what you want to call it. “You had to have ‘good moral character,’ ” Bankston said. “You couldn’t have bad credit reports. They did a thorough background check to make sure you weren’t a prostitute. As for your morals, you had to have letters from neighbors – references.
“I was working for the Records Division when Jack recruited me. That’s how I met my husband. I kept track of all the officers’ offense reports. You typed out the report or supplement. They dictated to us and we typed it.
“The police officers on the street made the reports and they were checked by a sergeant in Records. Everything was done on typewriters with carbon copies sent to the appropriate divisions and sometimes to the crime lab.”
The benefits? Bankston and the other three new officers “probably cleared $90 a month.” A Jeff Davis High School graduate, Bankston was a University of Houston student but dropped out before earning a degree. At the time, of course, the Department didn’t pay higher salaries to college degree holders.
Very Strict Treatment
She and her husband, who worked an extra job at the professional wrestling matches at the Houston Coliseum, earned enough to move to a house that at the time was “out in the suburbs” but now is considered “inside the Loop.”
The other three female academy mates were Addie Jean Smith, the wife of another police officer who left after about five years; Emily Rimmer Vasquez, who left after eight to 10 years; and Mercedes Halvorsen, who later married Joe Singleton, a detective who rose in the ranks and served as the police chief in Houston’s westside villages. Halvorsen also left the Department long before she reached retirement eligibility.
Every cadet class since 1955 “has had women in it,” Bankston said with pride.
Recalling the interview by the male recruiters not used to female applicants, Bankston said, “They asked me if my husband would be jealous of me working with a male partner and if there would be objections to the night or evening shift. He asked, ‘How stable is your marriage.’
“They were very strict with you. We had a sergeant, Julius Knigge, over us. If there was any butt-kicking to be done, he did it. He was really tough. You just had better live up to what you were supposed to do.”
Chief Heard took the lead and made his expectations clear. Bankston grew to love the man as a leader for the example he showed.
“Jack Heard said always remember you are a police officer but first you are a woman. That was the feeling in those days. In the Juvenile Division, we worked with boys until they were 10 and girls until they were 17. You had to be compassionate but you had to be firm. The other officers were chauvinistic. They didn’t want to accept the women as officers. It was difficult for us, especially since we received the same pay they got.”
Like Bankston, the other women had served HPD as clerks before they became certified officers. They were each told “You worked here prior to this and you should know what is demanded of you. You should expect no special privileges.”
It became common for the matrons who worked in the jail to become cadets.
The Juvenile Division was a common assignment for female officers. Bankston grew to enjoy Juvenile, serving 23 of her 30 years there. She also served in Narcotics, primarily to “type search warrants and “serve seven years as a mother to some of those young officers.”
As you would expect, questions about sexual harassment in those early days of Houston policewomen cropped up in an interview about those early days. Bankston was known for being a pro and answered the harassment questions forthrightly and right to the point.
“I never remember being sexually harassed,” she said. “I never got close enough to the other (female) officers for them to tell me they were being sexually harassed. Now, it was normal for them (male officers) to joke with you, but I never took it seriously.
A Helpful Duty
“Most of the men had respect for you. It was very rare that someone would insult you. They wouldn’t let anybody hurt you. They (sergeants) wouldn’t send a woman out alone at night. That was unheard of in those days. If you went out, you were supposed to take a man with you.”
Bankston’s “war stories” generally center around her work in the Juvenile Division.
“When you work with children there are a lot of them (war stories) there,” she said, recalling a memorable case. “I still corresponded with one of the girls I handled as a defendant. Her friend worked with a company that would get credit card numbers. She would get them from her friend. Her mother had died and she lived with her father. She got tangled up with the wrong kind of boy. It was her first time (offense) and we just worked with her.
“She never went to juvenile court because of what she did. We took her to probation. She was just 14 years old.
“I still get Christmas cards from her,” Bankston recalled more than 17 years after her retirement. “She’s married and lives in the Hill Country.”
In retirement Jo Bankston remained active in the Houston Retired Officers Association, attending meetings and reunions always with her ready smile on her face. Among her fellow retirees, she will never be forgotten.