Sgt. Ben Norman — ‘A Policeman’s Policeman’

Earl Musick

 

Miles Dewey Davis III is widely considered as one of the most influential and innovative musicians of the 20th Century.  He was also considered to be a legend during his time.  When asked how he felt about being called a legend Mr. Davis replied; A legend is an old man with a cane known for what he used to do. I’m still doing it.”

Houston Police Sergeant Ben Norman of the Major Offenders Division has always stood out in a department full of giants and outstanding police officers.  Ben’s career has been nothing short of legendary for over 57 and a half years and “Ben is still doing it.”  Ben began his career with the Houston Police Department (HPD) on December 29, 1959.

Recently, I went to lunch with Ben and we talked about some old crooks and HPD.  As we talked, I realized I was in the presence of a police legend.  Before leaving the restaurant, we had our bus boy take a photograph of us together.  The photograph was posted on Facebook in a section made up mostly of retired and active police officers.

More than 265 members of the site liked the photograph and 48 members made complimentary comments about Ben.  The majority of the comments referred to Ben as being a Houston police legend.  After reading each comment, my mind was flooded with memories of working with Ben Norman through the years and a few of those comments follow.

Barbara Cotten, a long-time HPD employee, commented: ” A true legend with HPD.  And a great guy.”

Retired Sergeant Guy McMenemy commented:  “I can remember some scary stories when I was Ben’s Sgt on night patrol.  Good training for a rookie Sgt.”

Retired Lieutenant Steve Lyons commented:  “Worked with Ben on Tact Squad in 1970 and in Special Thefts late 70’s early 80’s.  Truly a policeman’s policeman…. and a gentleman…. unless you were one of the bad guys!!!”

Ben was, and still is, “a policeman’s policeman”.  I remember the first time I rode with Ben on evening shift patrol in June of 1967.  After graduating from the police academy, I was assigned to Radio Patrol evening shift and each month we rotated to a different patrol station around the city.  During June my training partner at Central was Officer Jim S. Coley.

One day in June, Jim had taken off, probably to get a break from riding with this rookie and the roll call sergeant assigned me to ride with Ben.  From the moment we left Central, Ben started making arrests and putting prisoners in the back seat of our patrol car.  It became obvious to me, we were not headed to the jail and I asked Ben about it.  His reply was we don’t have a full load of prisoners yet.  It should be noted this was prior to cages in the back of our patrol cars.  This certainly was not how we were trained in the academy, but he was the boss, so we collected a car full of arrests before heading to booking.

I knew immediately that Ben loved being a police officer and he knew who the criminals were in his beat.  They also knew Ben and the crooks respected him.  Ben probably made more criminal arrests than any police officer in Patrol.  On March 24, 1971, Ben and I were two of four police officers selected to work a new special unit focusing on criminal activity.

The special unit was the Tact V Squad, supervised by Sergeant Charles W. Munroe, who reported directly to Inspector Wallace Williams.  Tact V officers were all one-man units and we learned to count on each other for backup and support.  This new unit was extremely successful and Ben played a major role in the unit’s success.

Just like the first time I worked with Ben, he started policing immediately after roll call and he didn’t stop until his shift was over.  Actually he didn’t stop then, he just turned in his police shop.  Our hours were long and we very seldom just worked an eight-hour shift.  Back then, paid overtime did not exist, but we did have comp time.  It allowed us to take off when we needed a break. However, Ben mostly used his comp time to work extra jobs, where he could continue to police.

While off duty on comp time, Ben was working an extra job downtown in his own personal car.  He noticed a vehicle with three males driving around a downtown business.  After a couple of passes by the business, Ben noticed the vehicle now only had one of the males inside.  Obviously the trio were up to some sort of criminal activity.

Alone with no radio, Ben decided to check out the suspects and went into the business to make sure everyone was okay.  Unknowingly, Ben walked into a robbery in progress and the suspect was able to disarm him.  As the robbers fled, the business owner called the dispatcher and reported the robbery by firearms.  I was close, so I rushed to the scene.  There, I found Ben trying to pursue the armed robber who had his duty weapon.

When I stopped, Ben jumped into my patrol car and pointed out the direction the robber had run.  He described the car the suspects were last seen in and told me to hand him my gun.  I then realized Ben was unarmed, the robber had his gun.  Fortunately for me and the robber, we were not able to locate the suspects that morning.  However, it was not long before we learned the suspect’s identity.  “Cowboy” Kizzee was a well-known crook in the Fifth Ward and also was identified in the robbery.

The entire Tact V Squad now concentrated on the areas Kizzee frequented.  As the lyrics to the song go, “the heat is on.”  In the beer joints we made it known we would be stopping by often until Kizzee was arrested and Ben’s pistol was recovered.  It didn’t take long before a club owner called the Robbery Division and Ben’s pistol was produced.  Kizzee fled to Louisiana, where he was caught robbing a supermarket.

In Louisiana, Kizzee was tried, convicted and sentenced to 50 years in Angola Prison and he was never brought back to Texas.  While reminiscing about this day in Ben’s life, he reminded me of another robbery/shooting we worked in Tact V.  The robbery occurred in the River Oaks Center at the Kroger store on West Gray.

During the robbery, the store manager, Mr. Johnson, was shot.  When I was a teenager, I worked for Mr. Johnson at this same store and was familiar with the location.  When Ben heard the call go out, he volunteered to go to the scene and, as he got near the store, the dispatcher reported shots were being fired.  The dispatcher notified Ben there were no other available units for backup. I heard him and immediately dropped what I was doing and headed in that direction.

Unknown to us and the dispatcher, Officer James B. Haney was off duty and had just left the store before the robbery occurred.  He was in his personal vehicle, which had a police scanner, and he heard the robbery-in-progress call.  He turned around and headed back to the store. As James approached the store he saw one suspect running away with a box in one hand and a .45 automatic in the other.

James pursued the robber into the subdivision just north of the store.  James had his police uniform on and he jumped out of his personal vehicle to attempt an arrest.  Seeing James, the suspect dropped the box with all the store’s cash and ran to a nearby house.  James didn’t have any way of notifying the dispatcher about his location, but he gathered up the cash, put it in his vehicle and started toward the house in question.

As Ben arrived, a workman on a rooftop had watched James’ encounter with the suspect and he directed Ben to their location.  Ben then got with James and notified the dispatcher of the location of the house where the shooter was. Several units were starting to arrive and we surrounded the house.

The terrified resident told Ben and James the suspect had forced his way into her home and was in the bedroom.  Ben and James went into the bedroom and found the suspect hiding under the bed with an empty gun.  It was the gun he had used in the robbery and shooting.  The store manager Mr. Johnson was taken by ambulance to the hospital and, thankfully, survived the shooting.

Ben and James had a little talk with the arrested suspect and he gave up the other individuals involved in the robbery and they were also arrested.  The suspect was tried, convicted, and sentenced to 40 years in the Texas Department of Corrections (TDC).

During my career, I had many occasions to work with Ben on some pretty good cases.  We were promoted to detectives off the same promotional list in 1972, and Ben was assigned to the Burglary and Theft Division (B&T).  While talking about our promotions, Ben told me he didn’t like the way some detectives treated the street officers when they needed help and that was why he wanted to be a detective, so he could help them.  Like what’s been said, Ben is truly a policeman’s policeman.

In January of 1977, Detective Sam Nuchia and I investigated a home invasion robbery where a Houston lawyer was robbed in his home.  During this robbery, two white male suspects took a lot of valuable property from the victim’s home.

We received a break in the case when Ben and Detective Tommy Grubbs received information regarding the robbers’ identity.  They also furnished information that led to the arrest of Larry Knighten, Mancel Ray Taylor and a female suspect.  They obtained consent-to-search forms from all three suspects and we recovered all the stolen property and a gun used in the robbery.

Taylor pled guilty in the 183rd District Court to the charge of aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon and Judge Joseph Guarino sentenced him to 15 years in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.  Knighten pled not guilty, was tried and convicted.  The jury sentenced him on August 4, 1977 to 26 years in TDC.

Taylor and the girlfriend were subpoenaed for the trial and testified for Knighten.  Taylor committed perjury while testifying and was charged in a new case.  He was then tried on the charge of aggravated perjury on June 12, 1978.  The jury found him guilty of attempted aggravated perjury and sentenced him to an additional five years in prison.

When I was promoted in January of 1986, I again had an opportunity to work with Ben, in the Special Thefts Division, Fence Detail.  Through all the many years, Ben’s work ethic had never changed.  While working with Ben in Special Thefts and the Major Offenders Division, he worked tirelessly in policing individuals who were involved in criminal activity.  While in the Fence Detail, it was not unusual for Ben to recover truckloads of stolen property.

When police officers were having problems with business owners, who possessed stolen property, they would call Ben.  Usually after a brief conversation with Ben, the business owner reluctantly turned over the stolen property to the officers.  If not, Ben was on his way out to meet with the owners.  The police officers who worked the streets brought Ben so much information because they knew he cared and would do something about the problem.

I remember one instance when Ben received information that A. C. Pawn Shop, at 5823 West Airport, was dealing in stolen property.  Ben placed the shop under surveillance and arrested the owner, a reserve deputy constable from Precinct 4.  As officers watched this location, they observed several customers leaving the pawn shop with bottles of wine.

An undercover officer was then deployed and he purchased six bottles of wine, paying $1 a bottle.  The pawnshop did not have a liquor license and could not legally sell the wine.  After the owner’s arrest, Ben filled two vans and a trailer full of the illegal wine and brought it to the station.  The owner claimed not to know where the wine came from and would only say it belonged to someone else.

Retired Lieutenant Steve Lyons said this about Ben, “Truly a policeman’s policeman…. and a gentleman…. unless you were one of the bad guys!!!”   During his 57 and a half years in HPD, there have been many “bad guys,” like Knighten and Taylor, who ended up in prison because of the work of Sergeant Ben Norman.

Over the years, he was responsible for the recovery of stolen property valued at billions of dollars.  Additionally, from all accounts and the many comments I received from my Facebook post, Ben achieved his goal of helping street officers throughout his career and “Ben is still doing it”.

As a lawyer, I have represented clients in 29 different counties in Texas.  While in Refugio County, the chief deputy told me about being in Houston once, in the late 1980s.  He then told me about working with HPD Officers Ben Norman and Dean Graves on a crook who had fled his county.  Although his experience of working with this pair of detectives was many years ago, he remembered their names and praised the assistance he received.

There are hundreds of stories that could be told about Sergeant Ben Norman and many are as good, or better, than the ones I have related to you here.  He is a true Houston police legend and he is still working at HPD.  You should take the opportunity to go by the Major Offenders Division and visit with Ben when you are in the downtown station.  You will find, as Steve has said, Ben is a policeman’s policeman.

 

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