(Editor’s Note: This brief profile of interim Police Chief Martha Montalvo first appeared in a series about HPD’s Hispanic pioneers. The Badge & Gun reprints it herewith.)
The visibility of the improving numbers of Hispanics in HPD blue in the late 1970s captured the attention of a teen-aged 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. Such activities took place in the effort to open HPD’s doors to more minority officers, especially in response to the Jose Campos Torres debacle.
About this time, 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. Morena 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 master’s 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 (HPPU) 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.
Montalvo went on to serve as chief of staff to Police Chief Charles McClelland during his six years as the city’s Top Cop.
Mayor Sylvester Turner appointed Montalvo interim police chief, effective at McClelland’s retirement on Feb. 27.