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The chauffeur-driven black Ford Expedition glides north on the Hardy Toll Road, against the grain of Monday-morning rush-hour traffic. Inside, the police chief of the fourth-largest city in the United States is explaining why his mother never baked him a birthday cake.
In a squeaky falsetto, Clarence Bradford imitates his mom: " 'Even the laziest person in the world has a birthday. All a birthday proves is that you managed to breathe for another year. We'll celebrate when you accomplish something.' "
Bradford, of course, has had plenty to celebrate. From a black farming family, he started at the Houston Police Department as a lowly patrol officer; as if becoming the department's chief were not enough, he picked up a law degree along the way. To this day, the 43-year-old Bradford doesn't bother to mark his birthdays.
The chief enjoys telling the birthday-cake story, and seems to drop it casually into conversation. But the anecdote -- so favorable to Bradford, so perfect for a reporter -- seems too good not to have been planned; and certainly, Bradford says and does little without thinking matters through. By his own admission, he is measured and calculating; he has managed his adult life with five- and ten-year plans. Not much is left to chance, including his legacy as chief.
Every chief wants to leaves an imprint on the department. In the late 1970s, Harry Caldwell brought accountability to the HPD at a time when its officers had earned a national reputation as being dangerously out of control. In the 1980s, Lee Brown introduced the much imitated concept of neighborhood-oriented policing and injected the department with a sense of professionalism. And for much of the 1990s, Sam Nuchia sent his troops into the streets with orders to kick ass and take names -- to do whatever it took to cut crime.
Now, almost two years into his tenure as chief -- and undoubtedly with an eye toward his future -- Bradford is anxious to make his own mark on the department, to accomplish something worth celebrating. He aims to make the department more open, both internally and externally; to mold a warts-and-all department more receptive to input from the rank-and-file and more accessible and accountable to the public. Despite HPD's progress since Bradford graduated from the police academy almost 20 years ago, some of the old blemishes remain.
At 8:30 a.m., the black Expedition stops in front of the Houston Police Department training academy, a building that could be mistaken for a public high school. On the sidewalk, a couple of white-shirted cadets greet the chief, who is flanked by several members of his command staff. The assistant chiefs, like their boss, are in their full-dress uniforms: navy blue suits with gold bars on their shoulders, white shirts and dark ties, and immaculate white military-style officer caps with shiny dark brims. The effect is impressive.
HPD's Cadet Class 174 is beginning its first day of instruction. Behind a podium in the cinder-block auditorium, Bradford peers through his small rimless glasses. Before him, he sees 69 anxious faces, the next generation of Houston cops.
Nineteen years ago, Bradford himself was an HPD cadet. And just six years ago, he was an HPD sergeant. In 1992, though he had no experience in any of the department's investigative divisions, former chief Elizabeth Watson raised eyebrows by promoting him from sergeant to assistant chief. Since then, Bradford has spoken to every HPD cadet class.
As usual, after jokingly informing the cadets that they will soon have the opportunity to work for the best police chief in the country, he begins his talk by asking for an indication of how many of the new recruits have college degrees. Almost a third of the cadets raise their hands. And, following Bradford's next question, about a quarter of the recruits indicate that they are bilingual. As those hands are lowered, Bradford informs Class 174 that competition for HPD jobs is stiff, and he warns those who failed to respond to either question that they are already at a disadvantage. He exhorts the group to start planning their careers immediately -- or in other words, to behave as he has.
Later, back in Bradford's wood-paneled office on the 16th floor of the new downtown police headquarters, the chief muses about his own past as a young officer -- and his career that almost didn't happen.
He grew up in Newellton, Louisiana, not far from Vicksburg, Mississippi. His mother, Thelma, completed one year of college before agreeing to marry Jack Bradford, and to provide him with enough sons to help him raise cattle, cotton and soybeans on his 100 acres of delta topsoil. Unfortunately for the Bradfords -- especially Mrs. Bradford -- their first five children were girls. Clarence Bradford was their first of six consecutive boys, followed by one more girl.
"Even today, my mother still stands by her decision," says Bradford, "but it is not one that she recommended to her children."
The Bradford children took note; all 12 earned college degrees. "I made good grades in school, but let me tell you why," says the chief. "Because I learned at a very early age that I would rather be in school any day than at home working on that farm." (His brothers shared that sentiment. When their father retired in 1978, he offered each of his sons a chance to take over the family farm. Each son turned him down.)