Breaking the Blue Code of Silence

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.)

Bradford graduated second in his high school class and was offered several academic scholarships. He turned them all down in favor of classes in auto mechanics; he'd already been working part-time at a car dealership, and hoped to build on that experience.

But in 1977, he enrolled at Grambling State University, in Grambling, Louisiana, and majored in criminal justice. That year, during a summer vacation, he got his first taste of Houston and its police department. It wasn't pleasant.

Only a few months earlier, the department had made national news when six of its officers were accused of arresting and then severely beating a prisoner -- Jose Campos Torres -- whose body was found floating in Buffalo Bayou the next day.

Bradford had read newspaper accounts describing the department as out of control. So it was with trepidation that he walked up to the aftermath of a traffic accident at the intersection of West Orem and Hiram Clark.

Before police arrived at the scene, recalls Bradford, a young man went out into the intersection and attempted to direct traffic around the mangled vehicles. As he did his best to keep traffic moving safely, another bystander heckled the good Samaritan.

"This guy was yelling, 'Get out of the street, you fool!' " says Bradford, again using his falsetto. " 'You don't know what you're doing! Get out of the street, you idiot!' "

A police car arrived at the scene. "The very first thing out of the Houston police officer's mouth was, 'Get the hell out of the street. This isn't your job,' remembers Bradford. "And the heckler on the corner, he then had himself a blast. He was laughing and yelling, 'I told you, you fool!'

"I'm standing there thinking, 'This is the Houston Police Department? I better get out of this town.' "

And he did, returning to Grambling to graduate cum laude with an associate degree in criminal justice, in 1979. He wanted to join the FBI; a friend advised him that he'd have a better chance of hiring on if he logged five years with a police department in a major city -- a city like Los Angeles, say. Or Houston.

Bradford says he chose Houston because it represented a greater challenge.

Following his graduation from the police academy, Bradford served as a patrol officer, working the 3-to-11 p.m. shift out of the Beechnut substation. Steve Radack, now the Harris County commissioner for Precinct 3, was then a sergeant at Beechnut and was Bradford's first supervisor. Then, as now, Radack took no prisoners; he didn't mind telling people they were full of crap, and Bradford braced himself for unpleasant encounters. But instead, Bradford remembers, Radack went out of his way to welcome him and the substation's other black officer.

At the police academy, Bradford had struck up a friendship with a white cadet named Lloyd Kelley -- the same Lloyd Kelley who later became a Houston City Councilman and then city controller. Kelley, too, was assigned to the Beechnut substation.

Bradford tells a story about a Sunday afternoon in the early '80s, when Kelley said he had a favor ask. It was the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr.; Kelley planned to give an MLK speech at roll call and wanted Bradford to back him up.

Bradford urged caution. "I said, 'Kelley, you're talking about giving an MLK speech to Houston police officers,' " remembers Bradford. " 'Let's just not get into that.' " Kelley said okay.

But after roll call was completed and the sergeant asked if any of the officers had anything they wanted to mention, Kelley spoke up. He said that, in his opinion, King's policy of nonviolence had probably resulted in fewer race riots during the 1960s and, therefore, had saved the lives of a lot of officers. So to honor King's birthday, Kelley suggested the officers follow the lead of some citizens and drive with their headlights on that afternoon.

At that point, recalls Bradford, the squad room burst into chaos. Some of the white officers screamed racial epithets and were climbing over chairs to get at Kelley. Bradford and a couple of other officers had to escort the future politician out of the room.

"Now, what he did was proper," says Bradford. "But I had a bad feeling up front that Houston police officers were not ready for that at that time. And they surely demonstrated they were not."

And it would be years before they were -- if, in fact, they are now. Aggressive recruiting of minorities over the past 20 years has drastically changed the complexion of the Houston Police Department. But even today, the issue of race continues to hamstring the force.

In 1994, former chief Sam Nuchia, the city's legal department and minority officers reached an out-of-court agreement to promote 134 black and Hispanic officers to the ranks of sergeant and lieutenant over a five-year period. That agreement, however, was successfully challenged by the predominantly white male Houston Police Officers Union.

In what was viewed by the union as a retaliatory move, Nuchia began transferring sergeants out of prestigious investigative divisions and back to street cop duty. The relationship between Nuchia and the union -- which had hailed his arrival -- grew bitter, attempts to resolve the lawsuit have stalled, and a federal judge has ordered the parties involved to attempt to reach a mediated settlement.

Under Bradford, the labor climate has changed drastically. "I believe the city is bargaining in good faith," says firebrand Houston Police Officers Union president Hans Marticiuc, who openly admits he couldn't be in the same room with Bradford's predecessor without damn near getting into a fistfight.

Ironically, it was only after the appointment of Chief Bradford -- a black man -- that lines of communication between the city and the white union leaders improved.

As chief, Bradford makes it his job to mediate between the department and the outside world. He personally reviews every internal-affairs report involving allegations of criminal wrongdoing by a Houston police officer. Though he's a former street cop, he fights the long-standing blue code of silence, the unspoken rule that cops don't rat on other cops.

Earlier this year, a rookie at the northeast substation informed his supervisor that a sergeant had failed to report wrecking his patrol car. An internal affairs investigation ensued, and the report was sent to the chief.

"The file comes to me, and it's about this thick" -- Bradford indicates three inches -- "on the rookie." The report accused the rookie of lying because he first said he had overheard a conversation about the accident, then later stated that someone had told him about it directly. It was recommended that he be suspended without pay for four days. As for the sergeant, the report suggested that he merely be ordered to receive counseling.

Bradford intervened, and instead of suspending the rookie, Bradford called him and told him to keep up the good work. He gave the sergeant a written reprimand.

Not all problems can be solved so easily. This past July, six Houston police officers burst into the southwest-side apartment of Pedro Oregon Navarro, fatally shooting him in the back. Oregon was apparently unarmed, and the officers reportedly raided the apartment without a warrant, on the word of a street snitch who claimed that Oregon was a drug dealer. No drugs were found in the apartment.

For the past month, the Harris County District Attorney's office has presented evidence about the shooting to a grand jury. The officers are suspended from duty pending the outcome of that investigation.

Though the criminal aspect of the case is no longer in the hands of the police department, Bradford acknowledges that if serious indictments are not returned against the officers, the HPD's credibility will suffer.

"Most citizens that I've had a chance to speak to think that these officers erred severely," Bradford says candidly. "And if most citizens think that, and if there is not some clear and convincing evidence to change their perspective, we'll have trouble in this city."

Bradford works hard to avoid such trouble. In June, Quanell X, who describes himself as leader of the new Black Muslim Movement, announced that he was declaring war "by any means necessary" against rogue police officers who, he charged, were chasing Third Ward children from basketball courts, harassing innocent people and stealing drugs and money from area residents too afraid to report the crimes. A few days after that declaration of war, Bradford fielded the complaints at a Third Ward neighborhood meeting. Little if anything was resolved at the gathering, but the chief's willingness to attend left the activist with a favorable impression.

Bradford, says Quanell X, "is a wonderful and good man," but contends the chief is in charge of a force "with many corrupt officers."

Beyond a group of mediators who could salve the wounded feelings of citizens who don't like an officer's tone of voice, Quanell X wants an honest-to-God civilian review board -- one with teeth, unlike the current Citizen Review Committee.

Before her election to the City Council last year, Annise Parker chaired one of the three CRC panels, and she was sometimes critical of the amount of information the department provided. With no subpoena power or authority to launch independent investigations, the committee depends on the department's good faith.

"The department felt it had to have some civilian input and oversight," says Parker, "and it came up with the minimum amount that it could possibly get away with."

Bradford disagrees with Parker on the specifics -- he doesn't think the CRC needs more power -- but he does support her call for openness. Never mind that he is a cop's cop who rose up through the ranks; never mind the blue code of silence. Silence, to Bradford, is the enemy.

On the 23rd floor of the HPD's downtown headquarters, Bradford, his assistant chief and legal advisers sit around a horseshoe-shaped table. Fifty or so uniformed officers occupy the folding chairs that fill the rest of the room.

Every other Tuesday morning, Bradford conducts what he calls an open command staff meeting, during which any officer in the department can speak his mind. Recently, officers were speaking their minds about DARE, which stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education. Last year, the Houston Police Department spent $3.7 million -- most of it in officers' salaries -- so officers could deliver an anti-drug message to fifth graders. But in August, the University of HoustonDowntown issued an independent report assessing DARE as a failure.

At the meeting, about a half-dozen officers who work in the program had come to defend DARE -- and their comfortable, low-risk jobs. They told warm, fuzzy stories about interaction with the children they teach. And they told the chief they are personally offended by the report, which they contended is obviously flawed.

Bradford disagreed, and he pointed out that other studies around the country have reached the same conclusion: DARE does not prevent drug abuse.

"I am not interested in challenging the study," said Bradford. "I want you to tell me where we go from here. Because the reports do not support that DARE has done the job. And if the citizens decide not to spend money on DARE, we have to yield to that."

The DARE officers didn't seem to hear him; during the hourlong discussion, they remained intent on discrediting the study. They were so overwrought, it's doubtful that any of them would have noticed if someone had lit a joint in the middle of the room.

Even so, the rank-and-file respect Bradford, and note that his willingness to listen to dissenting opinions stands in stark contrast to Nuchia's my-way-or-the-highway management.

In fact, says a longtime City Hall player, Bradford's openness was precisely one of the deciding factors in his selection as chief. Political consultant Dave Walden, formerly mayor Bob Lanier's co-chief of staff, says Lanier saw Bradford as a tough law-and-order guy, but also as a bit warmer than hard-nosed police chiefs like Nuchia and Harry Caldwell.

"You just feel real comfortable talking to him," says Walden, who seizes the opportunity to jab at an old political enemy. "If Bradford can get along with Lloyd Kelley, he can get along with anybody."

That includes his current boss, Mayor Lee Brown -- himself, of course, the former chief of the HPD. One councilmember, who asks not to be identified, observes that the pair have a complicated relationship: "Although most people say Bradford is Brown's guy, there were a lot of rumblings that Brown was going to replace him. I don't think that there is any question that it is difficult being chief under a former chief like Brown."

Bradford, of course, maintains that working for a former police chief presents no special problems, and that he and Brown have a good relationship. And instead of worrying about whether or not Brown plans to keep him around, Bradford must soon decide for himself if, in fact, he wants to stay.

Last December, Bradford began mapping out a new ten-year plan for himself. This is the first time that his wife, Dee, has been involved in the process. Bradford married her five years ago. She's his first wife. He notes that before, he'd been too busy with his career to start a family; a wife wasn't in his earlier five- and ten-year plans.

Next September, Bradford will mark his 20th anniversary with the Houston Police Department and will be eligible to retire with benefits. He has given himself until early next summer to reach a decision about his future with the department, and even about whether he'll stay in Houston. If he does retire, Bradford envisions possibly returning to his law practice or teaching at a university. He insists that, as of now, politics is not an option.

"I've heard people say that," he admits. "But right now, it's not something that interests me. If something happens later to motivate me, I'll deal with it at that time."

A seasoned politician could not be more ambiguous. Political observers insist that politics is Bradford's most likely next move, and speculate that he might be eyeing the mayor's office. Obviously, he would not be the first chief with mayoral aspirations.

About twice a year, Bradford volunteers for four hours of guard duty at the Houston Police Officers Memorial. Usually, Bradford takes a shift late at night or in the very early morning -- before commuters have begun to zip down Memorial Drive. There in the quiet, with the granite memorial rising next to the downtown skyline, he reflects on the officers who made the ultimate sacrifice.

"You sit there by yourself and think about the lives that were given," says Bradford. "There's just no other place in the police department or the city that brings about those types of thoughts: What have I done? Could I have done?"

And what's left for him to accomplish -- what's left to make his mother proud.

Send e-mail to Steve McVicker at


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