Race and the Houston Police Department, 1930-1990: A Change Did Come

Race and the Houston Police Department, 1930-1990: A Change Did Come

Race and the Houston Police Department, 1930-1990: A Change Did Come

Race and the Houston Police Department, 1930-1990: A Change Did Come


In Houston, as in the rest of the American South up until the 1950s, the police force reflected and enforced the segregation of the larger society. When the nation began to change in the 1950s and 1960s, this guardian of the status quo had to change, too. It was not designed to do so easily.

Dwight Watson traces how the Houston Police Department reacted to social, political, and institutional change over a fifty-year period-and specifically, how it responded to and in turn influenced racial change.

Using police records as well as contemporary accounts, Watson astutely analyzes the escalating strains between the police and segments of the city's black population in the 1967 police riot at Texas Southern University and the 1971 violence that became known as the Dowling Street Shoot-Out. The police reacted to these events and to daily challenges by hardening its resolve to impose its will on the minority community.

By 1977, the events surrounding the beating and drowning of Jose Campos Torres while in police custody prompted one writer to label the HPD the "meanest police in America." This event encouraged Houston's growing Mexican American community to unite with blacks in seeking to curb police autonomy and brutality.

Watson's study demonstrates vividly how race complicated the internal impulses for change and gave way through time to external pressures-including the Civil Rights Movement, modernization, annexations, and court-ordered redistricting-for institutional changes within the department. His work illuminates not only the role of a southern police department in racial change but also the internal dynamics of change in an organization designed to protect the status quo.


Thieves respect property: They merely wish the
property to become their property that they may
more perfectly respect it


Recent well-publicized cases of the abuse of power by the police in Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, and Houston have revealed how little we know about how the police function and how pervasive race is in determining police behavior. When Lee Patrick Brown was named chief of the Houston Police Department in 1982, the HPD desperately needed a makeover. Its long history of brutality, corruption, and racist practices had led to cries for reform.

This story is about the Houston Police Department and race. Yet it is more than a simple narrative of racist cops, because it examines how public institutions changed through time and how that change was rendered less significant when race was the crucial hurdle to clear. Public fear made the police the first defense against the threat of loss of property and potential loss of life. The police, in turn, have anointed themselves purveyors of justice and the guardians of moral order and decency. The problem is not that all police have been evil and racist; it is, rather, that race has historically been a barrier to social change in America, including changes in policing. The heart of the problem has been that the police possess the authority to use lethal force to maintain . . .

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