Retiring Chief McClelland believes he’s leaving ‘a better department’ in the hands of his successor

Tom Kennedy

After nearly four decades serving in the Houston Police Department Charles McClelland has strong determination to accomplish the goals he has set for his retirement years.

They will far less complex than the deeply committed, stealthy routine that lasted from the early, early morning to late, late at night he established as police chief for the past six years.

Grand kids’ Little League games and simply sitting down in the morning and making his own coffee will become the new norm, McClelland told the Badge & Gun in an interview two weeks before his last days in office – Feb. 25 and 26.

A Book in the Works

“On Feb. 27,” he said, wearing a happy face, “I plan on sleeping late, getting up and making myself a cup of coffee and then deciding what trips I’m going to take and go on and after that.

“I’m trying to get an outline of my book that I’m going to write. I’ll change the name to protect the guilty.”

He laughed at the thought and quickly added, “I have a story to tell, not just all about me but what I believe is a foundation of leadership, the quality it takes to be a good leader in a large policing agency.

“I had my foundation before I came to HPD. HPD did not instill leadership in me. That came while navigating through a racist Jim Crow system,” the now-retired chief said of his growing-up years as a young African American man.

“Clearly HPD put me in a position where I’ve been able to enhance my leadership abilities. My parents and grandparents, my teachers and the pastor of my church – all of those people instilled leadership in me.”

It’s a book we can all look forward to reading, especially after McClelland’s six years as chief are getting strong reviews, not only from local politicos but, especially, from the leaders of the HPD labor force at the Houston Police Officers Union.

The basic review underscores the history of McClelland being – in the words of HPOU President Ray Hunt – “one of us.”

As such, McClelland said, “I didn’t consider us adversaries. We were partners. We had to agree on the path we were going to take.”

The chief cited “a couple of reasons” why this relationship was possible.

“It was due to a unique and special relationship,” he said. “I knew Ray and Mark (Clark) before I became police chief. It’s an advantage when you have a chief that came up through the ranks. People know who you are. You have a record they can examine.

“You know each other’s character, ethics and morals. Some people think management and the Union never agree on anything or should always disagree. The union has same goals and objectives that I do – to keep the city safe as effectively as possible.

“The Union has a certain concern about their members’ safety and they want the best working environment for their members. We have had no disagreement whatsoever about this. Now, we might slightly disagree about how we achieve that.”

Despite disagreements over specific details, HPOU leaders have never believed that the chief, himself a long-time Union member, ever held personal grudges after lively discussions over those personnel issues that routinely surface in a labor-management relationship.

“There are so many things that the Union and I agree on and our relationships are personal relationships,” McClelland explained. “Things go much better when you trust each other.”

The McClelland Legacy

As he leaves office the chief was very pleased with improvements made in records keeping, community interaction, officer safety, morale and the ever-crucial officer safety.

The chief was particularly pleased with another record low number of internal affairs complaints filed by citizens against HPD officers in 2015. In more than 1 million calls for service, citizens filed only 209 complaints last year, the second lowest number since 2001. In addition, 96 use-of-force allegations were filed, the lowest number in 21 years.

“We have certainly tried to come up with new innovative ways to protect our personnel and become more efficient,” he said.

“The personnel that you have is the greatest asset the city has. You must protect your assets. You have Tasers to stop them from being hurt. We have the seat belt policy and new technology to save our resources.

“Citizens may now report minor crimes online and are able to check online to see if a person has been arrested. We try to limit our liabilities by new use of force training, cultural differences training, etc.

“There are two other big technology projects the public doesn’t notice. We replaced a radio system that was almost 30 years old and our records management system. We brought that one in under budget. The radios made officers safer.

“They can now communicate with other law enforcement agencies and be understood while communicating on a radio in a tunnel or in particular spots where the older radio system did not work.”

Despite these advancements, McClelland readily acknowledged that there are still other big-city policing factors that he – or likely his successor – will be hard-pressed to control. Throughout history HPD has been undermanned, underfunded and under-equipped. Despite some improvements in equipment, the other two factors – since the department was formed in 1841 – need improvement.

“When it comes to staffing, the numbers tell a story,” he said. “Certainly when I was sworn in in April 2010 there was less staffing, classified and unclassified, than the department had in 2000. We had over 5,400 police officers and over 1,900 civilians.

“Today we have 5,200 police officers and only 1,100 civilians. We have lost ground. It’s purely a funding issue where the mayor and council chose not to fund cadet classes.

“The problems are going to be worse if the mayor and council don’t do something about it. Public safety should always be their top priority so citizens feel safe and they feel that their kids are getting an education in a safe environment.

“Citizens must ask themselves, ‘Do I want to pay more to grow the HPD?’ If they do, they’re going to have to come up with a public safety tax or support lifting the property tax cap.” The latter option, of course, ranks high on the list of possibilities fostered by new Mayor Sylvester Turner. The tax cap Houstonians voted in the years of Mayor Bill White continues to hamper a city faced with a $126 million deficit.

Diversity a Plus

HPD has become a “majority minority” department, seeming to well compete with other big-city departments in recruiting its share of minority and women officers. The department is averaging three cadet classes per year, attracting about 70 in each class.

“Most of our out-of-state applicants come from the military,” McClelland said. “We have a very good success rate with hiring locally. A few weeks ago in our graduating class out of 68 all but 16 came from right here in Houston. That’s good for this city. That means these new officers grew up and went to school here and have parents and friends in Houston. They understand the culture of this city.”

McClelland also cited the diversity on the HPD Command Staff and put it up against any big-city department anywhere in the United States.

“This is not found in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia or LA,” he said.

McClelland accentuated the high points of his administration with great job and some laughs but also reflected on the more stressful low points, several of which happened as he first took office.

“Nine days after I was sworn in as police chief,” he remembered, “the Chad Holley incident came to my attention.”

Holley, an Elsik High School sophomore and alleged burglary suspect, was captured on a private video camera as he was being beaten by HPD officers. Of the 12 officers involved, seven were fired, four were charged and one was acquitted of Official Oppression charges.

McClelland said, “Had this been mishandled, the city could have erupted into riots. It (the chief’s actions) also set the tone for the organization and the community. There is no handbook on how to be police chief. I tried to be as open and transparent as I could.

“I notified the DA, the FBI and the officers were relieved of duty as soon as they were identified. I believe that some officers committed a criminal act. Four were charged. Three were convicted and only one was acquitted.”

McClelland also lamented the second negative episode of his years as chief – Ryan Chandler’s “mishandling of some very serious murder cases. This tested the integrity of this organization. What Ryan Chandler did was wrong.”

Chandler lost his job as a sergeant amid allegations that he failed to do any serious work on more than 12 murder cases.

The chief said he always hated to see the month of May come around. Three HPD officers lost their lives in the line of duty – all in May.

And they were:

  • Officer Eydelmen Mani in a May 19, 2010 automobile accident.
  • Officer Kevin Will in a May 29, 2011 vehicular assault.
  • Officer Richard Martin in a May 18, 2015 vehicular assault.

“Every single one happened in the month of May,” McClelland said. “That took a lot out of me each time one of those incidents happened. To be with the family and see how devastating they were.

Mr. Thomas and Incentive

“We were praying all night that Mani would pull through. That was the first year I was in office. There was the Holley incident in April and Mani’s death in May. Those are the low points.

“The toughest thing in the world is to sit down with a wife, mother and father and kids and tell them that their father isn’t coming home again.”

Obviously the chief brightened up with his recollection of his “greatest accomplishment” – successfully leading the effort to convince the Mayor and City Council to name the downtown police headquarters as 1200 Travis after HPD’s longest-serving officer, Mr. T—Edward A. Thomas, a beloved African American gentleman.

“He was a really good friend of mine,” the chief said. “I looked at him like a grandfather. I always had it in the back of my mind that if he ever retired that I hoped it was on my watch and that if he passed away that also would be under my watch.”

Both events happened on that now historic watch. And headquarters got its new name right before Mr. Thomas’ passing.

His thoughts about Mr. Thomas and mostly positive reflections about his “watch” prompted Chief McClelland to express his belief that he’s leaving a smooth-running department to his successor, for whom as national search is now underway.

“The financial and staffing issues aside,” he said, “I’m handing off a police department in much better shape working together with the chief and with the community. It’s a much better police department today than it was six years ago.

“People have to think back. Morale was low when (Chief Harold) Hurtt left. Our community engagement was in the pits. So we had to work hard to build a lot of trust with the community.

“The men and women here have supported me to set and accomplish the goals I’ve set. This makes you look good and successful. I feel it walking down the hall.

“I’ve done that every single day for the last six years. It’s been an incentive to me to go out and represent them as well as I could. They deserve everything I had to give 100 percent.”