This is the story of a city police department viewed by some of its critics as the most violent and unchecked such force in the United States. Critics have calleld it a shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later constabulary, many members of which are seen as dispensing brutality and instant justice with abandon and operating virtually without civilian control or fear of legal consequences.
The blue army is question the 2,766-member Houston Police Department.
Although the view described above is hardly unanimous in this generally conservative "law-and-order" city, the fifth largest in the United States, it is one increasingly held by lawyers, civil libertarians, leaders in the black and Hispanic communities, and local citizens appalled by a continuing pattern of brute force that might make even producers of television's ferocious cop shows wince.
"We are a police state," Houston's celebrated criminal defense lawyer, Percy Foreman, says simply.
He amplifies: "This is the case here more so than in any other city in the United States, and I've practiced in just about all of them. It even transcends the police state situation that prevails in some of the totalitarian countries.
"You must understand that there is no difference between human nature here in the U.S. and what existed in Germany, or Czechoslovakia, or where have you. The only brake on brutality and sadism and an I-am-the-law attitude, the only brake on that here is the Constitution of the United States.
"If a district attorney elects not to enforce it against police officers, as [is] traditional in Harris County, nothing can be done to turn the situation around."
Foreman has been retained as counsel by the family of Joe Campos Torres, a 22-year-old Chicano first beaten and ultimately drowned on May 6 while allegedly in the custody of six Houston police officers.
According to reports on each officer's involvement in the Torres incident prepared by Police Chief B.G. (Pappy) Bond and released by Houston's Civil Service Commission, six officers took Torres from a bay to a secluded warehouse district, where five of them beat him while his arms were handcuffed behind him.
Later, after a jail booking officer refused to accept Torres and ordered two of the officers to take him to the county hospital for treatment for a bloodled nose and injured leg, the six officers returned to the site of the beating, the chief's report said.
There, the reports continued, one of the officers dumped the drunk and severly beaten Chicano over a 20-foot embankment into a bayon, saying, "Let's see if the wetback can swim."
Lawyers for the fired officers said they would have no comment on the substance of Bond's reports other than to deplore them as prejudicial to their client's rights.
Rather than being an aberration, Foreman says, Torres' alleged murder was merely another expression out of several hundred in a "consistent, repetitive 16-year pattern" of police violence abetted by local district attorneys who have "whitewashed every charge against policeman" before grand juries, thus, he says, emboldening even more police violence.
Even Houston's two-term mayor, Fred Hofheinz, conceded at a news conference 10 days after Torres death that "there is something loose in this city that is an illness." He described it as "an attitude on the part of a lot of people, including a lot of community leaders (and) people in charge of mass communications . . . that whatever a police officer does its okay."
The result, Hofheinz said is "that the police officer goes about the daily duties knowing that he or she has that kind of community protection for whatever they may do, whether it is against the law or not."
In just the 3 1/2 years Hofheinz has been mayor, local grand juries have considered without charges at least 24 cases of police officers who have shot and killed civilians, or who have shot and wounded them.
The first grand jury to indict a policeman during that period did so in April, 1977. That officer allegedly has shot a local businessman after the two mens' car had collided on a local freeway while the officer was off duty. He was indicted for attempted murder.
Among recent police incidents:
A policewoman andand policeman shot a young black, when, they said, he appeared to be putting a weapon from his pocket. The weapon turned out to be a Bible. The policewoman had fired in such haste that she shot the black man through the windshield of the squad car the officers were riding in. Neither was indicted.
In February, 1977, a policeman shot and killed wealthy attorney Sanford J. Radinsky while executing a search warrant on the room he was sharing with two women at Houston's Rice Rittenhouse Hotel. Plain clothes officers announced their raid by knocking on the door and saying "room service" and the search warrant they had covered a search for Qualudes, a depressant drug, the possession of which is a misdemeanor.
Radinsky's naked body was found by the suite's bathroom, and a gun the officers said he fired was across the room on a bed. Former Radinsky lawyer and friend Bill Green said Radinsky was a drug consumer, not a dealer, and said standard trace metal and parrafin tests were never performed on Radkinsky's hands to confirm police charges that he had fired on them. The officer who shot him was not indicted.
The same month, grand jurors did not indict a 25-year-old policeman who had drilled 13 bullets into a burglary suspect in a tire store. The officer said the suspect had stabbed him in the thigh with scissors. Grand Jurors apparently accepted the officer's explanation that he was justified in emptying one cartridge clip and then reloading in order to fire another into the suspect because the building was dark and he couldn't see whether the bullets had bit their target. He was returned to duty without disciplinary action.
Not all the incidents have resulted in death. In March, Houston police in about 20 squad cars joined in a high-speed chase of a man who had run a red light. When the chase ended at the young black man's home, one rookie policeman later reported to superiors that the officers had banged the already subdued man's head into a concrete sidewalk and otherwise brutalized him.
Other witnesses, including a Roman Catholic priest, also reported these actions. Although an internal report commissioned by Chief Bond reportedly urged Bond to fire the rookie who reported the alleged beating for "leaving the post" during the incident, Bond merely reprimanded the officer. He took no action against the officers who supposedly had beaten the suspect.
"This stuff happens every day" says state Rep. Craig Washington, a three-term black Houston lawmaker who introduced an unsuccessful bill this spring in the Texas House of Representatives to create a five-persons civilian review board for Houston, a measure which died in committee without a hearing.
"The concept is the same whether you end up with broken ribs or whether you are called a "nigger bitch," something black women prisoners are subjected to every day in Houston jails," Washington said.
He added: "I don't know a sane, rational person in the black community who doesn't feel some fear when he is stopped for something as minor as a traffic offense. Without question, the department is racist. Some of those guys are crazy, and they might do anything."
Although blacks and Hispanics represent 26 per cent and 15 per cent of Houston's population, respectively, only 150 of the city's 2,766 police officers are blacks, and only 163 are Hispanics, the department says. It says 143 are women.
Washington, a personal-injury and criminal lawyer who was formerly a dean at the Texas Southern University Law School here, says he was galvanized to political action by what he terms the police killing of a black man to February, 1970.
Washington claims the officers leaned the man "against the wall and kicked him in the stomach until they ruptured his liver.
The officers said the man had stumbled while they were pursuing him and had died of injuries sustained indicted in Houston partly as a result of Washington's efforts, but tried on a change of venue in New Braunfels, a hamlet in central Texas overwhelmingly populated by whites of German-American ancestry where strong support for police authority prevails. The officers were acquitted.
Their lawyer, Houston attorney Richard (Racehorse) Haynes, has said he knew he had that case won "when we seated the last bigot on the jury."
Like other critics of the Houston police, Washington says the department has no effective civilian control and is run not by the chief but by the Houston Police Officers Association, a group to which virtually every officer pay $3.50 in monthly dues.
The president of the association for the past three years, detective R.C. Rich, acknowledges that the group had a whole lot to do with" the resignation of Mayor Hofheinz' first police chief, Carroll Lynn.
Hofheinz, elected by 3,000 votes in 1973 with strong black support, had installed Lynn as chief in January, 1974, following his election pledge to dismiss Herman Short, the police chief of Houston since 1964. Short was a strong George Wallace supporter widely viewed by blacks and others as a racist and Ku Klux Klan sympathizer.
But Hofheinz jettisoned Lynn 19 months later in the midst of an overhwelming rank-and-file police reaction against Lynns internal investigation that had disclosed widespread illegal police wiretapping and maintenance of files on political dissidents, among other departmental irregularities.
Hofheinz accepted Lynn's resignation months before an election in which he faced two right-wing mayoral opponents, both of whom said they intended to make the police chief a major issue in their campaign.
Lynn was replaced by Bond, who, Rich says, had been popular with the rank-and-file up until last week, when Bond released to the media details of the internal police investigation of five officers allegedly involved in the Torres slaying. (The sixth in the group is testfying against them.) Bond earlier had filed murder charges against one of the officers and had indefinitely suspended the others. "A lot of the officers feel he (Bond) put more into those reports that he should have," says the officers' association head.
Rich says officers have sloughed off criticism that they are racist, brutal and trigger-happy because they know the charges aren't true. "We don't go out there just for the purpose of shooting somebody just for the heck of it," he says. "But we also know that any second you hesitate when somebody points a pistol oat you may cost you your life."
Speaking of the Torres matter, Rich said, "If he hadn't been out there drunk and raising hell, nobody wouldn't have messed with him," Rich added, "I'm not saying what happened to him was right, but he was out there violating the law, and his own people called in on him."
National statistics comparing the violence of one city's police department with another's are not compiled, but long before the recent era, Houston lawmen have had a chilling reputation among members of minority groups. For example, Huddie Ledbetter, the late Louisiana black blues guitarist known as Leadbelly, warned in his Depression era song, "Midnight Special," that: "If you ever go to Houston, you better walk right/You better not gamble, and you better not fight."
Attorney Richard DeGuerin, head of the Harris County Trial Lawyers' Association and an associate of Foreman says Houston's police appear to reason that "we're the cops and everybody else are the crooks." He continues, "They think the end justifies the means, and they figure the people they brutalize - to use their phrase, 'lowrents' - are people who don't deserve protection of the laws."
DeGuerin says Hofheinz "lost his guts over the Lynn situation. He should have held firm in his support for Lynn, letting the department know that civilians were running it, but instead he buckled under to pressure brought by the police rank-and-file. It gave them all the encouragement they needed to believe the mayor was weak-kneed and wouldn't do anything about them. Now the cops run the chief, instead of the other way around."
DeGuerin says the Hofheinz "completely ignored [my] requests before the Torres incident to establish a civilian review board and a commission to examine the cause of violence by the police department."
He said the internal affairs unit established by the police after Torres death is "completely inadequate" to the task because the officers assigned to it are rotated back into service with the very officers they are to have investigated.
"It's the same old song and dance of the police investigating themselves," he says. Before the Torres incident, the Houston police department was the only one of the 10-largest department in the United States to lack on internal investigative unit.
DeGuerin also says that the Harris County district attorney is "in bed with the policie department, because he has to work with them every day" to prosecute normal criminal cases. For that reasons, DeGuerin says, the trial lawyers association volunteered to supply without charge a special prosecutor for the Torres case, which District Attorney Carol Vance finally took to a local grand jury last week. Vance declined the special prosecutor offer last Friday, and he said he delayed taking the Torres case to a state preferred the U.S. Justice Department to prosecute it as a civil rights violation.
Foreman, who represents the Torres family says Vance hasn't acted because he is politically ambitious, desiring to run for Texas attorney general.
Vance denies any favoritism in police abuse cases.
Former District Attorney Frank Briscoe, an avowed law-and-order conservative who opposed moderate-to-liberal Hofheinz in 1975 when he says he was supported by "the great majority of police officers," is running for mayor here again and considers himself the front runner among announced recently that he won't seek re-election.)
Police Chief Bond resigned Friday, announcing that he, too plans to run for mayor.
Briscoe, a member of whose law firm represents the officer charged with murder in the Torres case, says that case in "the exception rather than the rule." He also says that the case "Shoots in the head" the argument that perpetrators of police violence aren't prosecuted. In that case, Police Chief Bond-personally filed the murder charges and fired five of the six officers. The other officer, who blew the whistle on his fellows, was suspended with pay.
Meanwhile, Attorney Richard Haynes points to violent police television shows and say they represent a "subliminal propagandizing of the American people" to accept such behavior everywhere in the United States.
"The attitude" he says, "is that cops are involved in a cause, a war against crime, and all's fair in love and war." Haynes said the absence of reliable statistics makes it hard to compare abuses in big city police departments.
But he says that he isn't sure that Houston is all that different from departments in Detroit, Los Angeles, New York City or Washington, D.C.
"There is abuse by the constabulary in any high-crime area," Haynes maintains. Conceding an "incredible number of instances" here, Haynes says that is just "typically Houston, where a boom-town atmospher prevails - we always do it bigger and better."