In the early hours of a cloudy morning in May, a 23-year-old Mexican American man found himself surrounded by six Anglo Houston police officers. By then, the man, José Campos Torres, had been badly beaten. He stood on the edge of a drop of about twenty feet overlooking the murky waters of Buffalo Bayou, near downtown Houston. “Let’s see if this wetback can swim,” one of the cops said, in what were likely the last words Torres heard before he was pushed into the bayou. His body was found two days later, on May 8, 1977, drifting near the water’s edge. Such a story had been and would remain a familiar one in American life: law enforcement officers holding the power of life and death over a young man of color.
In 1970s Houston, however, there were many citizens who didn’t assign much meaning to Torres’s death, even as the story made the front pages of the newspapers. Most of the city’s inhabitants were focused on Houston’s sunny future, just rising on the horizon. Oil prices were exploding, and the most sophisticated civic and business leaders were intent on transforming a small but ambitious city into a world-class metropolis, with fancy restaurants, international boutiques, teeming freeways and business deals 24/7.
That much of the Houston Police Department was out of sync with Houston’s more forward-looking dreams was something that many were willing to overlook. Or, maybe, some of HPD’s officers got a different message, the one transmitted by those deeply invested in the established power structure of what was, in many ways, still an overgrown East Texas town. Latinos, even those born in Houston, as Torres was, were often dismissed as “Mexicans” in those days. They made up 15 percent of the city’s population but only 6 percent of its police officers. Black residents, who comprised 26 percent of the population, accounted for just 5 percent of the force. The tone set by the department brass meant that the worst cops had a free hand to treat Houston’s minorities any way they pleased, under the aegis of maintaining law and order.
That was certainly the attitude of the police officers who arrested Torres on that cool spring night. He was a Vietnam veteran who had grown up in a large, poor family in Houston’s East End barrio. Torres’s official military photo, the kind displayed with pride in first- or second-generation Mexican American homes, was widely circulated after his death; it showed a handsome young man in uniform allowing himself a hint of a smile. But Torres didn’t have an easy time of it. He had trouble finding and keeping work after his discharge from the Army, and when he drank heavily, which he did often, he became at best hostile and at worst aggressive.
Torres was in that latter state at an East End cantina when police were notified about his behavior sometime near midnight. An HPD officer arrived, and then radioed for backup. Two more cops showed up, and the first one left. There has never been any record of what Torres said, but soon enough he was handcuffed and, cursing the officers, wrestled into the back seat of a patrol car.
Instead of taking Torres to jail, the officers drove him to a secluded spot on Buffalo Bayou east of downtown nicknamed “the Hole.” It was a well-known locale for law enforcement officers; many cops went there regularly to decompress—or do things they didn’t want to be seen doing, like abusing a suspect, taking a nap, or, it was widely believed, meeting a prostitute. In this case, four more officers had arrived, and all but one of them, a rookie named Carless Elliott, proceeded to beat Torres bloody.
He was battered so badly that when two officers loaded him back into their car and tried to book him into the city jail, the sergeant on duty refused to take custody of him. Torres needed to go to a hospital, he said. But the officers didn’t want to spend the rest of the night waiting for Torres to be seen by overworked county doctors; instead, they took him back to the Hole, where the same six cops who had been present for the first assault reassembled. That was when Torres was freed of his handcuffs—and tossed in the water. It was later posited in news accounts—as a curious excuse—that the officers assumed he would swim to safety. Instead, Torres drowned.
Under normal circumstances, that would have been that. As reporter Tom Curtis wrote in Texas Monthly later that year, the Houston cops who used excessive force had been operating unchecked for a long time. In the three years before Torres’s killing, members of the HPD had wounded or killed 25 civilians, without any charges returned from a grand jury. “There is something loose in this city that is an illness,” the young, progressive mayor, Fred Hofheinz, declared in a press conference ten days after Torres’s death.
But this time, the rookie cop, Elliott, who had been present at both scenes, had an attack of conscience. He had been on the force only two months and had not yet been inculcated with the code of silence many other officers shared. He told his father, who was also a police officer, what had happened, and the father, in turn, took the story to the assistant chief of police, B. K. Johnson. Within a few weeks, a grand jury indicted two officers on charges of murder, and a third on a charge of misdemeanor assault. Two more were given immunity from prosecution in exchange for testifying against the others. All five were fired, while Elliott went back to work among his fellow officers, likely fearing for his life.
The case then went to a jury devoid of a single member of color. It found the two ringleaders, Terry Denson and Stephen Orlando, guilty not of murder but of negligent homicide—and sentenced them to just one year’s probation and a fine of one dollar each. The U.S. Department of Justice didn’t do much better, bringing civil rights charges that resulted in three officers being sentenced to a year and a day in prison. (Thus, the term “misdemeanor murder” came into use in Houston.)
These actions—or, more precisely, the lack of more substantial action—sparked what came to be known as the Moody Park Riot, which took place almost exactly a year after Torres’s killing, and just weeks after the light federal sentences were handed down. On that day, members of the Latino community had gathered in Moody Park to celebrate Cinco de Mayo and demonstrate against police brutality. Police arrived in riot gear, many of them seemingly unable to distinguish between political protest and criminal activity. The crowd began jeering and chanting, and the situation escalated when the cops started making arrests.
It was then that the most inflamed members of the crowd, already frustrated by Torres’s killing and the wrist slaps administered to those responsible for it—and now facing the possibility of more unchecked police brutality—set fire to buildings, looted stores, and flipped over cars. Property damage from the day reached $500,000 (about $2.2 million today), and dozens of protesters were arrested.
In the aftermath, the Latino community found its voice, in much the same way the Black Lives Matter movement grew out of the murder of Houstonian George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. Public pressure soon forced the HPD to set up an internal affairs division; in the first six weeks it received more than 180 complaints. The city has since had police chiefs of color—the first, in 1982, was Lee P. Brown, who went on to become mayor—and minority officers now make up 61 percent of the force, roughly half of them Latino. But, as in many other cities, people of color continue to be killed by police in disproportionate numbers.
In the decades since Torres’s death, however, Mexican American political power has grown exponentially in Houston. By 2021, Latinos made up more than 44 percent of the city’s population and now occupy offices at virtually every level of the city and county government, as well as in the city’s seats in the state legislature and the U.S. Congress.
The Torres family never received the justice afforded to George Floyd’s relatives, but the city eventually came together to make certain that Torres’s life and his death will not be forgotten. In 2021 Houston’s Black police chief, Troy Finner, publicly apologized to the family for what he called “a straight-up murder,” and in 2022 the city renamed a plaza and a running trail in Torres’s honor. That tribute is located near the downtown courthouse complex, a stone’s throw from the Hole, where the dank waters of Buffalo Bayou still flow slowly, unless there’s a heavy rain.
This article originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Killing of José Campos Torres.” Subscribe today.