HUNTSVILLE, TX 11/1/12 --After four years and more than 100 interviews, Mitchel Roth and Tom Kennedy published Houston Blue, the first comprehensive history of the fourth largest police department in the United States. It includes tales from the city's gritty beginnings as a trading post in the 1830s, its brushes with the famous and infamous, the controversies that have plagued the department and the groundbreaking innovations developed along the way.
Roth, a professor at Sam Houston State University's College of Criminal Justice, and Kennedy, a former Houston Post columnist, were asked by the Houston Police Officers Union to write the book. As a longtime reporter and editor of the Union's newsletter, Kennedy had contacts among the city's Mayors and Police Chiefs. Roth was given full access to the Houston Police Museum archives and found many other records at the University of Houston and the University of Texas. Together they pieced together the stories that molded the department into what it is today.
Back in the 1830s, Houston was not the urban center it is now – that was reserved for the coastal town on Galveston before the great Hurricane of 1900 that destroyed the city. Instead it was a town filled with rowdy young men and prostitution, overseen at first by constables and night watchmen.
The city served as a prime example of Southern policing, where the racial divide of the Civil War continued long after the war was over. Reminiscent of the old slave patrol, much of early policing was to keep African Americans under control. During the 1920s, the police force included many members of the Ku Klux Klan.
In sharp contrast to that backdrop, Dr. Roth found several black detectives who served on the police force in the late 1800s, although their work was heavily circumscribed and limited to the African American communities. In 1918, he also found what may be the first female police officer in the South, who watched over juveniles and young women in the town for signs of prostitution.
Houston also was known for several policing innovations. Houston was the first department in the South to use fingerprints for identification; polygraph exams and sodium pentothal for detecting the truth in interviews; and a number of traffic control innovations were implemented to control the morass of horses, cars, motorcycles and bicycles. Under the leadership of Police Chief Lee P. Brown in the 1980s, the city led the nation in community policing, harkening back to the day when officers used to walk the beat before automobiles. Brown went on to lead police forces in Atlanta and New York and became the first African American Mayor of Houston from 1998 to 2004.
The department has not been without controversy. Over the years, it has been plagued by cases of police brutality, shootings, problems with its crime lab and errant police pursuits.
The Houston Police Department had its share of brushes with celebrities and politicians as well as famous killers, like serial murderer Dean "Candy Man" Corll, who killed 28 Houston boys and buried them near bodies of water in Texas, and Dr. John Hill, convicted of poisoning his socialite wife, which became the basis for the best-selling novel "Blood and Money." Magician Houdini enlisted the help of the Houston Police Department for one of his famous tricks in front of City Hall, and former President Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders stopped in town following their battles in the Spanish American War.
Houston Blue, which will be published by the University of North Texas Press, is available through the University of North Texas Press.
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