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.
What Readers Are Saying:
“Breaks new ground . . . The author places the issue of race at center stage with other social and political developments in Houston and shows quite well how the changing race relations in Houston were just as important in the development of the HPD as technology, the migration of blacks from the rural areas of Texas to the cities, and the emergence of Houston as a major shipping and aerospace center in the Southwest. . . . should become the model for subsequent books on policing in urban America.”--W. Marvin Dulaney, College of Charleston, and author, Black Police in America
“Should be required reading for anyone interested in the gradual transition of a southern Jim Crow society to one with greater guarantees of basic civil rights for all its citizens.” --Texas Books in Review
“Race and the Houston Police Department, 1930-1990 is a rare addition to the literature on police history, which has mostly neglected southern cities…It is an indication of the author’s success that the reader is left wanting to know more.” --Journal of Southern History
“A scholarly study that achieves its purpose and is well-grounded.” --East Texas Historical Association
“Watson chronicles the social, economic, and political background that made the HPD the bastion of obsolete values. He shows that while the rest of the city slowly and inexorably changed, partly under federal mandate, and partly to meet its own economic and social needs, the department became more intractable, until it functioned as an autonomous duchy, subject to no control but its own.” --Southwestern Historical Quarterly
“[Watson] places the issue of race at center stage with other social and political developments in Houston and shows quite well how the changing race relations in Houston were just as important in the development of the HPD as technology, the migration of blacks from the rural areas of Texas to the cities, and the emergence of Houston as a major shipping and aerospace center in the Southwest.” --W. Marvin Dulaney, author, Black Police in America