Stephen Orlando never thought about being anything but a Houston police officer. A graduate of Waltrip High School on the city’s north side, he joined the force in 1975, when he was nineteen. His father is a police detective, his mother is a police dispatcher, both his older brothers are Houston cops. Like so many of his fellow officers, he drives a pickup truck and says his main hobbies are hunting and fishing. Also, like most of the other officers, he has experienced the frustrations of police work.
“You’re out there risking your life – for what?” he asks. Orlando feels hurt and resentful that most of the people he has encountered while in uniform don’t really respect him. Now 22, he still appears unformed, eager to please, obliging, the sort of guy you’d want on your softball team, someone you’d swap stories with over a beer. He seems, in fact, to be the sort of man who, given some leadership, would make a good cop.
Only Orlando isn’t a cop anymore. Last May he was fired from the force and then indicted – along with another Houston policeman – for the murder of Joe Campos Torres, Jr., a prisoner in their custody.
Torres’ death is just the most spectacular example of a recent deluge of violent police incidents. After the Torres killing, Mayor Fred Hofheinz, obviously anguished, said: “There is something loose in this city that is an illness.” Criminal lawyer Percy Foreman called Houston “a police state.” Today, he says, the Houston Police Department is worse, and its officers more violent and unchecked, than any comparable police force in the country. And Foreman is not a bleeding heart. He has defended scores of policemen charged with police brutality, and his own son is a Galveston lawman. Foreman lays the blame squarely on former District Attorney Frank Briscoe, who held office from 1961 to 1966, and his successor, incumbent DA Carol Vance. Both, he says, have “white-washed every charge against policemen,” thus encouraging even more police violence by letting police know that they are free from the sanctions of the law.
Vance, for his part, insists that he has always taken all the facts he has had about police misconduct to grand juries. He acknowledges, however, that most of the facts involving shootings by police or other charges of brutality usually are provided by the police department itself. Still, he, Briscoe, and other Houston leaders say that these incidents, while regrettable, are merely isolated blotches on an otherwise superior record. Briscoe says specifically that the two murder indictments in the Torres case “shoot the argument in the head” that police escape prosecution.
In the three and a half years since Hofheinz has been Houston’s mayor, more than 25 cases in which police have shot and killed or wounded citizens have gone without charges to Harris County grand juries. Only one officer has been indicted during that period: an off-duty policeman who wounded a businessman after their cars collided on a freeway. In the first six weeks after June 15, when the HPD officially opened an internal affairs division to investigate police misconduct, it received more than 180 citizen complaints.
The question remains: Are the Houston police out of control?
WILD IN THE STREETS
One incident involved a man armed with a Bible.
Milton Glover had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it cost him his life. A 27-year-old black warehouseman receiving Army disability pay for mental injuries suffered in Viet Nam, Glover was walking in the 7800 block of Hirsch Road in northeast Houston on the night of March 21, 1976, when officers in a patrol car spotted him and decided he looked “wild-eyed.” The police swerved across the road to confront him, blocking the path of a Volkswagen van driven by Allen Robinson. Robinson’s wife described what happened next: “He [Glover] put his left hand down and his right one up and the next thing was I saw him fall.” A stray bullet pierced the Robinsons’ windshield, spraying glass in her husband’s eye.
Another witness said, “The police officer got out of his car, Glover raised his right hand and said something to the officer, and the officer fired one shot. Glover fell to his knees and the officer continued firing.” The medical examiner’s report showed that police had pumped eight shots into Glover, seven from one gun. The officer who shot first, Richard L. Watson, is white, 25, and had been on the force two years. He said that when confronted, Glover began to pull something from his pocket that “in the dim lighting I believed to be a pistol.” It turned out to be a Bible.
The Glover case was routinely referred to a Harris County grand jury without charges. Only Watson, his partner Diane Miller, and the prisoner they had been hauling were called as witnesses, and the grand jury did not return any indictments. Subsequently, Glover’s family sued the city charging that officials responsible for the police department, specifically Mayor Fred Hofheinz and Police Chief Pappy Bond, had failed to see that policemen were “adequately trained and suited by temperament” for the job and had failed to deter “lawless behavior by employees of the Houston Police Department by means of prompt discipline and prosecution” of those who violate the law. This summer a federal grand jury began probing the Glover case for possible violations of his civil rights.
Sanford Radinsky was a wealthy lawyer in his middle thirties, although the source of that wealth, a family-owned finance company specializing in automobile loans, had seen better days. So, for that matter, had Radinsky: friends, including a number of able Houston lawyers, say that he was a regular user – but not a dealer – of illegal drugs, some of which had dissipated his health. His death in February of this year illustrates what can happen when police fail to distinguish between serious and trivial affronts to the peace and dignity of the community.
In late January, Radinsky,