The city of Houston was founded on a dream in 1836 by two brothers who saw the potential of a city to be a center of commerce and the capital of the new Republic of Texas. This big dream of adventure and risk taking has characterized the city and its citizens for over 175 years. The history of the Houston Police Department mirrors the city’s growth and transformation from the election of the first City Marshal in a small frontier town to that of one of the largest, most progressive and professional police forces in the nation.
In 1837 the city began making accommodations to bring law and order to the rough-and-tumble frontier town with the hiring of the first constables. This would serve as law enforcement in Houston until the formation of a more permanent agency. It was not until 1841 that Houston elected its first City Marshal and formed the organization that we now call the Houston Police Department.
Houston had a number of City Marshals from 1841 until Texas entered the Union in 1845. Houston was flourishing with trade and the population was growing. However, trouble was brewing as the Civil War approached in 1861 and the secession of the State of Texas from the Union.
Thus began a dark and difficult time for the United States and for the City of Houston. During the Civil War, police protection was scant due to a lack of funds and many police duties were conducted by volunteer patrols. At the conclusion of the Civil War, the Union Army installed a provost marshal. Houston also maintained their office of City Marshal and by 1868 Houston had two marshals as a result of the impasse.
In 1873 the police force consisted of the City Marshal and twelve officers. The race of the officers was evenly divided between white and black officers and the salary was $60 per month. It should be noted the black officers were responsible for the patrol of the “black sections” of the city. The city was segregated by law and custom, a situation that would not be resolved for decades.
By 1886 the department had doubled in size and stood at 22 officers. Two detectives and a police wagon were added to the force in 1894 and in 1898 the city elected the last City Marshal. The turn of the century saw the title of City Marshal change to the more modern title of Chief of Police. The city jail also hired the first “police matron” to discontinue the practice of male police personnel supervising female prisoners. The department continued to grow and by 1907 the roster included 68 officers and a female matron.
In 1908 there were over 80 automobiles registered in Houston. The Houston Police Department answered in 1909 with the purchase of the first police motorcycle and in 1910 with the purchase of the first police car.
Many ideas on improving police services came about when J. M. Ray was first appointed as Chief of Police in 1910. That same year police communications were improved dramatically with the installation of Gamewell police call boxes. In 1914 Houston formed the first Civil Service Commission and the department revised the rules manual and published minimum standards for police officers.
The department continued to strive for methods to improve police service. In 1917 however, Houston experienced one of the darkest events in the history of the department. Members of an army infantry battalion on temporary duty in Houston marched on the city, killing five police officers. The soldiers, who were black, had been chaffing under the segregation and inequality they experienced in the south under Jim Crow laws. The spark had been an untrue rumor that a police officer had killed one of the soldiers and the result was an explosion that reverberated from Houston to Washington D.C. However sad, this event may have eventually influenced positive changes in police and community relations.
The first female officer was hired in 1918 and, thus, began another era for the department. In 1921 police officers formed a burial fund and struggled with poor pay and no retirement system, many officers serving into their senior years.
The march toward technology continued to improve with the 1921 installation of traffic signals downtown. The city was growing, and by 1926 the first police substation opened.
The growth of the city caused other needed technological innovations such as the 1927 installation of radios in police cars. The police calls were broadcast over AM radio station KPRC. The department moved yet again into further professionalism with the first in-service classes in 1930 and the first police cadet class in 1939. By 1940 the department had hired its own operator to manage police calls for service.
Reforms in police service continued in 1947 with the signing of State Civil Service legislation. These protections were in addition to those that the city of Houston had in place. The old police station on Caroline Street was replaced by a gleaming new police headquarters at 61 Riesner in 1952. The department purchased walky-talkies “for secret operations” in 1954 and this was followed by the formation of the Criminal intelligence Division (CID) to combat “hoodlums” in 1960.
In 1957 the department hired civilian jailers to free police officers for duties on the streets of Houston. Advances in technology continued in 1968 with the department’s joining of the NCIC system, and by 1979 Houston was one of only five departments in the nation to have joined the AFIS Automatic Fingerprint Identification System. Conditions for officers improved with the 1973 decision by city council to approve “time and a half” pay for overtime and the 1976 adoption of short sleeve shirts for officers.
In 1977 Internal Affairs was formed in response to several incidents of police brutality. Subsequently, community outreach and reform within the police department were able to close a rift that was evident during this unsettled era. The department saw its first African-American Chief of Police in 1982 with the appointment of Chief Lee P. Brown, with another barrier falling in 1990 with the appointment of Elizabeth Watson, as the first female Chief of Police.
The department continued a substantial hiring push and the “old” Police Academy at the Riesner complex was replaced by a new “modern” academy in 1981. This academy was state of the art and moved training for police officers into a new era of excellence. By 1988 Houston was the largest police department in the US to be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.
In 1989 the police department held the first Houston Citizens’ Police Academy to foster additional communication and interaction between citizens and the police. The department continued to make strides and by 1995 women made over ten percent of the police force.
In 1997 police headquarters was in its own downtown skyscraper, and by 1998 officers within the department had their first labor contract. 2005 saw business leaders and other citizens continue their support for the department by forming the Houston Police Foundation. The foundation is a nonprofit organization that provides tangible support to the Houston Police Department by funding “special programs, officer safety, training, equipment, and new technology.”
The continual adaption of the Department to technology and of the commitment to community involvement is evident by embracing of “social media” in the use of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, a HPD Blog and other emerging technologies.
We continue to remember that our interactions with citizens and our commitment to excellence distinguishes us as one of the largest, most progressive and professional police forces in the nation. In 2012, HPD adapted an organizational culture change to strengthen our core values and accountability throughout the Department. Several key elements are the focus of the change- Customer Service, Training, Discipline, Supervision and Leadership and Civilian Workforce Initiatives. All HPD personnel carry a department- issued challenge coin with the core values “Honor, Integrity and Respect” prominently featured. This is a reminder that we all have a responsibility to continue our heritage that mirrors the city’s growth, transformation and excellence.