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Interview with: L.E. Chamberlain
Interviewed by: David Goldstein
Date: April 25, 2008
DG: Today is April 25. We are here today with L.E. Chamberlain, a 30 year veteran of the Houston Police Department. We are recording this interview for the Houston Oral History Project. My name is David Goldstein. Mr. Chamberlain, how are you today?
LEC: I am doing fine, thank you.
DG: Good. Let's begin at the beginning. Tell us where you were born.
LEC: Now, according to documents that we as kids were not privy to when our parents were in control, I was born in Los Angeles, I was raised here in Houston all the way up to my junior high school years and then relocated to Louisiana, where I graduated high school, went to college, recruited by the Houston Police Department, and I have been here ever since.
DG: When did you first come to Houston?
LEC: It was in 1977.
DG: What are your earliest memories of the city?
LEC: The earliest memories . . . I grew up in South Union, right here off of Scott. At that time, there was no 610 Loop but at that point, the Astrodome was being built and then again, I guess the 8th wonder of the world was being born at that time. But, you know, we from the community, with no 610 Loop, we could look and see that the Astrodome was being constructed. In the 1960s, there was really not a lot to be seen back in the day. The population wasn't as heavy. That part of the city was considered as the rural area, country. And as a kid, we had fun. We were restricted to some things in life but one thing that really stood out is on Sundays, we used to catch the old U Strand Bus Service system to go downtown to the theater, and then walk over to the Humble Building which, at that time, was the tallest building in Houston, and go all the way up to the top and view things from up there.
DG: You said you were restricted in some things. How so?
LEC: Well, because of our youthfulness, we just didn't have a lot of mobility to get around. I am still trying to figure out how is it that our parents allowed several kids to get on the bus service and go to the movies? But we did. There were a couple of movies downtown they would not allow us in. And, you know, we couldn't understand that. We didn't have the mentality to understand why we were not welcome in one of the movies downtown but there was a movie on the outskirts of town off of Preston somewhere - I can't recall the name of it - that we walked over. As kids, we walked everywhere we went. I don't care if it was 20 blocks or 20 miles. It just seemed like that was a part of our array of getting around. And then would walk all the way to the Humble Building and go upstairs and paid a little nickel or a dime to look in the view camera to see all the outskirts of downtown and other parts of the city.
DG: Where did you go to school?
LEC: Well, I went to Whidby Elementary here off of 610 Loop and Spring Hill. Then, I went to Addicks Junior High, relocated, went to Kilburn High School and then Northeast Louisiana University.
DG: Other than going downtown to see movies and stuff, what else did you do as a kid?
LEC: Well, I was a boy scout, cub scout, eagle scout, and basically just things in elementary school to stay busy. I went to middle school, junior high at that time - I played in the junior high school band. And when I relocated to Louisiana, well then, I had some skills in the musical instruments, played in the band there, played basketball, baseball, you know, some things that athletes do, kids do while in school.
DG: What instrument did you play?
LEC: Trombone during the marching season and bass trombone during concerts.
DG: That was a time of great change in Houston when you were growing up here. Were you aware of any of that as a kid or were you just sort of in your own world?
LEC: I think we were in our own world because kids, you know, we are so impressionable. We don't see the whole picture. Today, I can tell you that kids see things far more better than we did as kids. I think the Green Hornet and Batman had just come out on TV and there were only like 3 channels, and just to see those TV shows while we were kids was just a thrill. I mean, other than that, go outside and play, you know? We just had to make use of the time that we did have as kids. We just played. I mean, kids played then. Now, they don't play. They are on the computer, they are on the games. They are not exercising their bodies in the outside world. They are on the inside world exercising their brains. And they are quite advanced, I think. I have a 5 year old granddaughter. It surprises me some of the words that come out of her mouth that we could not even articulate when we were kids. And I asked her, "What does that mean?" and she tells me. I mean, kids today are just phenomenal.
DG: So, did you have any memories of LA before you moved?
LEC: No, none whatsoever.
DG: But you had some of Louisiana? How did you think about Houston when you ended up in Louisiana? Was Houston a place you couldn't wait to get back to or the place you were glad to leave?
LEC: It was a place I couldn't wait to get back to. Being naive as a youngster, I think Louisiana woke me up. I think dealing with elements of the Ku Klux Klan, growing up in a country town where, first of all, I was an outcast, O.K., because I am a city boy. Country kids have a different perspective of city kids. And then, after dealing with that . . . and that was the first time I ever went to school with white kids. Integration. And I am going like, all my school days in Houston were in a segregated school. And I think that was the first year of integration, in 1970, in Louisiana, and boy, did I learn some things! We were not called upon in classrooms. It just seemed like there were 28 kids in 1 class but only 1 segment of the class got taught. And if you did say something, the response from the teacher at the time was not a favorable response. It was either a negative response or "Get out of my classroom," or "Go to the office." I am going like, for asking a question? And the first time I ever saw the Ku Klux Klan, it was on the side of the highway. I had never seen these people before. And they dressed up in all that white and they are burning this cross. And I am going like, man, who are those people? That is cool! The guy that I was riding with from town . . . I said, "Can we go over there?" He said, "You don't want to go over there." "Why not?" "Those are the Ku Klux Klan." "What is the Ku Klux Klan?" He sort of like explained it to me. Prejudice - yes, there was plenty, plenty to see.
You are talking about a wake up call at a young age? Something that will allow youngsters to become prejudiced because they are in a prejudiced community and it weighs heavy on the heart. And so, now, the development of prejudice has now been born. You see it, you hear it. Did I have to go through a lot of prejudice in high school? Yes, I did. Along with several other kids. Do I think I had to go through a lot of prejudice in the Houston Police Department? Yes, I did. Maybe because I had something that city people didn't have. When I say city people, I mean probationary police officers. They grew up in the city. This is the land of opportunity. But them not seeing it on a wide scale and recognizing it, I think was a disadvantage to them. But it was something that I saw already that was being implemented towards us once minority black officers began to influx into the police department.
DG: When you were in Houston before you went to Louisiana, did you have any incidents where you became aware of race?
LEC: No. I grew up in a black community. White people, we did not see unless we went downtown and that was the only time when we were not welcome. I want to say it was the DeLux Movie Theater, and that could be the wrong name but, I mean, we were told we couldn't come in. And we were so naive; we didn't understand why we were told we couldn't come in.
DG: So, you get to college. What was your major?
LEC: Criminal justice.
DG: When do you first remember wanting to be a police officer?
LEC: It had to have been somewhere around the mid 1960s when I saw something pull up in a blue car and these guys got out, these two white guys got out and they were wearing these uniforms and they had guns on them and I am going, my God, who are these people? What are these people?
DG: How old were you?
LEC: Somewhere around 8 or 9 years old, maybe. Somebody said, "Those are the police." "O.K., what are the police?" because at that time, you did not see the police in the community unless there was a problem. I am going, man, when I grow up, I want to be just like those guys. I want to be able to help. And that stayed on my mind; I guess you could say the rest of my livelong days as a youthful person and coming up.
DG: I think most boys go through a phase where they want to be a police officer or a fireman and then they grow out of it and do something else. Why did it stay with you? What was it about it as you got older that made you still want to be a police officer?
LEC: When I was a senior in high school in Louisiana with a class of 28 seniors . . . that was another thing - I am going, like, this is it? This is all we have? 28 seniors? And the school counselor, she called me in, she sent for me. She said, "I have talked to all the other seniors but you have not made an appointment to come see me." I am going, like, "Why?" She said, "Well, what do you want to do in life?" I said, "I don't know. Why do you want to know?" At this time, I am very, very prejudiced, I have lived in the element with people that mistreated black people, and I am glad to know that I am graduating. That is one thing . . . I am getting away from here. And I think it had gotten to a point where my mom was going like, you know, I will be glad when you graduate and move on in life. You are too young, you are too vocal, you are too forceful and a lot of people don't appreciate that. But she talked with me and I told her, I said, "Well, I am definitely going into the Army." Where do country kids go to get out of the country? They go to the Army or one of the branches of the Armed Forces. So now, I am thinking country kid. And she said, "Well, do you think that is a good idea?" and I am going, "Well, why not? Everybody else here does it." She said, "Is there anything else in life you would like to do?" I said, "Yes." She said, "What is that?" "I want to be a Louisiana state trooper." She said, "Well, then, in that case, why don't you go to college and major in criminal justice to be a Louisiana state trooper?" And I am going, "Can I do that?" I mean, "Is it for me to do?" She said, "Yes, I will get the paperwork together for you, process them and everything, get you a grant," yada, yada, yada, and the next thing you know, I am sitting over there at Northeast Louisiana University majoring in criminal justice. So, I going, like, I am on my way, of which the largest city was like 60 or 70 miles from that small country town of subcity atmosphere and on a college university campus.
DG: For the benefit of this generation and future generations, what opportunities were and weren't available to you at that particular time? You mentioned the Army as an option for a lot of people wanting to get out but did you have a sense that there were some things that you just couldn't do?
LEC: Yes. In the small town in which I grew up, minorities were not allowed to eat in the front of a restaurant. I could not understand it to save my life. I am like, "Why do we have to go to the back?" I am a city kid, you know. "Well, we are not welcome in the front, to go in the front doors." I am going, "Like, why?" Mind you, this is early 1970s. I am going, like, "They do it in Houston, in the city. Why can't you do it here?" I think it took somebody had to say, "Have a seat and let me talk to you. Let me bring you up to speed on what goes on now in the world in which you are now living." And I am going, "Like, I can't believe this." In my mind, I am thinking we are in modern day society but there were still elements of people living in backwoods environments.
DG: That was the early 1970s?
LEC: I graduated high school in 1975 and at that time, when I left, you still could not go into the front of the restaurant to eat.
DG: So, you get to college. What was that experience like?
LEC: Fun. Great. I could let my hair grow as long as I want to. I can sleep as late as I want to. I mean, not getting up going to school 8 o'clock every morning, staying until 3 o'clock. I mean, now, you are in a free environment. Free to come and go as you please. And like I said, it was in a subcity type atmosphere, bigger than a country town, and I felt free. I felt exuberated. I felt like this is what society is all about, and even if there was discrimination going on, to me, it was so well hidden, I did not see it. I am like 19 years old, you know, and it got to a point where my parents even called us up, "You've been gone a whole semester. We haven't heard from you. You haven't come home. What's going on with you?" I am going, like, "Oh, has it been that long? I don't want to come back. I'll come back and see you when I get a chance," but it was getting those last years of exuberance out of your system.
DG: So, you graduated with a degree in criminal justice?
LEC: No, I didn't. I had to make a choice, realizing that I am there on a grant, and a government grant to be exact. Country people just didn't have the money to do this thing for me. They had called me - I went home one week and they talked to me and they said, "Look, we are going to have to make a decision. We realize that you want to do something. I don't know whether or not we can pay the half grant that you got back." And I am going, like, O.K., now childhood is over. Decision making has come about. At that time, fate walked up. Recruiters for the Houston Police Department came about. I talked with them and I'm going, like, go back to Houston? Is that a great idea? Louisiana State Trooper? No, go back to Houston. So, what I did, I said, I will catch a bus, come there, fill out the application, go through the agility training, etc., and in about 4 months, they sent me a letter and said, you have been accepted into the Houston Police Academy. You are to report in about a month or two later. That is how, in my opinion, fate came about, that things do work for those who think things are not workable.
DG: Did you check out the situation in Houston or did you just know I want to be a police officer and there is a chance to be a police officer?
LEC: Law enforcement was my dream. Houston is where I grew up in the early years. It is not like I was going back to a foreign country. I was going back to a city that I had some idea of, I had relatives here and I was excited. Law enforcement? Pooey on the Louisiana state troopers. Go back to the foundation from which you came. I have no regrets. I thought it was the best opportunity in the world for me. It made my parents feel that O.K., now he is growing up and becoming a man - he is going to have to depend on himself.
DG: There was a period of a lot of friction, a lot of tension between the black community and the Houston Police Department. It was before you came into the Academy but were you aware of that? Did you come back to the city with any sense that you were walking into a police department that had some issues?
LEC: I left Houston in the summer of 1970. I came back to Houston in 1977, and I am sure there may have been something going on but I was not aware of the police department and the black community, but when I arrived back here, there were issues going on between the Hispanic community and the Houston Police Department. I think Joe Campos Torres was an issue when I came back and I am lawful . . . I mean, what is going on, what is happening with this? I think we even had a situation with a gentleman, kid, whatever, who stole a vehicle from Shreveport, Louisiana in a high speed chase. I am going, like, what is going on? Basically, it was involving the Hispanic community and the Police Department.
DG: O.K., so you come back and you go in the Police Academy. Tell me about the Police Academy.
LEC: Well, first of all, we had the largest minority occupants at this class. We started out with 77 students, cadets, and only 68 of us graduated. We were coming from all walks of life. Black, Hispanic, white, Asian, and it was an experience for all of us. We were all young and so, therefore, we are the new breed so to speak. It was testing every week. Paper work. Paper work. Study, study, study. Agility. Driving. Shooting. Boxing. Etc. It was about 4 months of rigorous training, academically and physically.
DG: What was the main focus? Physical agility? I just wonder how it might have changed over time.
LEC: I think the Academy is longer now. Every segment of the Academy has certain requirements and you go through an academic period. And I think what happens is that if you can get past a stage and that you look like you are going to be a hopeful cadet, that you are going to make it through this, let's test the mind first, let's test the ability to learn, and then we will start easing in the physical education part of it, the boxing, the driving, the shooting, and most of those good things came at the end or close towards the middle of the end of the Academy but in the beginning, it was all academics.
DG: Did you have a sense that they were training you with a certain philosophy in mind? Were they training you to be community ambassadors or to be law enforcers or to be keepers of the peace? Because, I mean, the concept of the policing in the communities has evolved over time.
LEC: Well, understand, we are sitting in a classroom with a very large diversity of people. We are getting along. We are young, to the point where we are very influential. If we can get along, 77 cadets in this class, without any problems, well then, how can we go out there and police a community that can't get along? We were considered and it was told, this is the thin blue line. You are now a part of a community organization all by itself. The thin blue line. And so, now, here we are. We are a group of people that will be going out into a society to police and enforce issues of law with blacks, Hispanics, Asians, whites, and, I mean, we are ready, we are focused. Discrimination? Prejudices? No, it is gone. We are not thinking like that. We are thinking about getting to the front lines, helping out those coworkers that are already there that have been in the struggle, been in the fight for so many years and we are eager beavers.
DG: What was the hardest part?
LEC: Of the Academy?
DG: Of the Academy.
LEC: The time. The time that you have to go through it. At that time, it was 4 months. It seemed like it just would never come to an end. It seemed like it was going to class 5 days a week, sometimes on Saturdays. It was just . . . the heat. At that time, we went through it in the summertime. It was hot. But it is an experience. It is really an experience.
DG: O.K., so you graduate from the Police Academy, what year?
LEC: It was September of 1977.
DG: What is your first assignment?
LEC: I was assigned to southeast patrol which is located in the southeast section of the city out of Park Place. I graduated on a Friday, we report there on Monday morning.
DG: They don't give you much time to relax!
LEC: We are young, we are vibrant, we are eager beavers. I mean, we were ready to get on the firing line. We were ready to start our quest for helping fight crime.
DG: So, tell me about that first year.
LEC: Why did I do that? I have seen death so much during my rookie probation period. I had gotten married to my high school sweetheart, moved her here. I thought of myself as being less of a man if I went home and complained about what I couldn't accept, what I saw. We are talking about some gruesome things that I have never seen before in my life. People that killed themselves. It took a toll on me in my probationary years. I wasn't a person that was a drinker because I told myself, you know, I don't want to drink. I had relatives that drank and I am going like don't be like them. I began drinking to cover up things. Dreams. Drinking and dreaming of getting into the ultimate shootout. And I begin to wonder, is this really what I want to do? I mean, well, maybe it will get better tomorrow. Maybe it will get better next week or next month. And that is just from the criminal standpoint, things that you see out there. Were we probably faced with seeing a lot of death before we joined the police force? No. Maybe you go to a funeral occasionally. But now, we are seeing it before the funeral. We are seeing the blood and guts before the funeral. And I am not sure if my mind at age 21 was able to accept this. And that was just one aspect. Now, I am beginning to endure evidence of discrimination from within the thin blue line. I am going, like, I thought we were all on the same team? But reality check came back. Just because you are a part of this doesn't mean you are on the same team. And, you know, I was thinking maybe just maybe we were a threat to the older officers. They did not talk to us. They looked like they were always mad. I am going, like, we are on the same team, guys - what is the problem? Did I feel discrimination towards myself and other black officers from my white counterparts that had more seniority, that had more supervision? Yes, I did.
DG: What did that look like?
LEC: Why did I do this?
DG: When they discriminated again, how did that make itself known? I mean, you weren't allowed to do certain things?
LEC: When I was at probation, there were times when we were working in the community that, in the Almeida Mall area, the Sagemont area, white residents did not want me in their house and that was just from the community standpoint. But then, again, there were white officers that did not want me to ride with them because of the color of my skin. And I think when people are conditioned for a period of time and then all of a sudden, change is coming about, it does not mean that they accept the change or want to deal with it but it became inevitable. I mean, it is time to change. I mean, we are in a new era now so if you have some prejudicious thoughts, you need to keep them to yourself but, in the meantime, I felt uncomfortable riding with some of my coworkers that were white.
DG: You stayed for 30 years so something must have changed.
LEC: Oh, yes, it did. Now, I am past the probationary stage. Don't get me wrong - I have come across a lot of great guys. White, Hispanic, Asian, black. I think it was guys like them, and ladies, that would tell you, "Keep an upper chin. Those people are ignorant and they are set in their ways and they won't change." And I think by those people that would keep your morale up, it really helped out when you were at your lowest point.
DG: Did you get that kind of message from supervisors, from people high up in the department?
LEC: No, it had to be the streamline officers. At that time, you did not talk to supervisors unless they spoke to you. I mean, you just didn't have a, hey-how-are-you-doing? type conversation with them. And that is only because we were following the examples of the older officers when we got there, you know, and it seems like don't talk to them until they talk to you. You have nothing to say to them. And if you did talk to them, what are you talking to them about? I am in a situation here, I am going like I don't want to be enemies with anyone. We are not a thick blue line, we are a thin blue line, we are fighting the community - I saw and heard white officers call black people out of their name, they called them niggers, they called them captains, they called them boy and I am going like, no, no, this can't happen but I am the only black officer on the scene. And, of course, a lot of the people looked at me and are going, like, are you going to allow this to happen? I am going, like, well, who am I? I don't even know these guys myself. I just got here. I just got this job. And one night at roll call, I got brave. And after roll call ______, "Does anyone have anything to say before you hit the streets?" I raised my hand and I told them that it wasn't a good thing for minority officers to see that you demean their race of people. They all looked at me as if, you know, like, what are you talking about? Who are you? Don't think I didn't hear about this again because I did but after that speech, there was a gentleman, I will never forget his name - I admire him, an elderly white officer - he came up to me and he said, "You know, I admire you for that. I think something like this should have been said a long time ago." And I never forgot what he said to me and I admired him for it.
DG: So, I want to somehow get from that first probationary year through the next 30 years. Tell me how your relationship with the department changed to where it became something that you wanted to keep doing.
LEC: I don't think the relationship got better. I think it got worse. It got to a point where policing wasn't a problem, fighting crime was not the issue, fighting the thin blue line was. And after a while, you either learned to mind your own business - if it is not happening to you, then keep your mouth shut. A lot of the other black officers that were having problems, being terminated, being fired for whatever reason, I can't help you. I mean, you've got to help yourself at some point. Eventually, they came at me. And I am going like . . . I became resistant, spoke out . . .
DG: Who is "they?"
LEC: Those that were trying to find the elements of reason for pushing me out of the thin blue line. And because I did not go quietly into the night, because I did not go easily, because I struggled and spoke my mind, I guess it was like, leave him alone because he is resistant. But over the years, it got to a point where, you know, I really appreciated them for their racist bias. I fully appreciated them because they made me a better person. They made me a tougher cop. Every time a new probationary would come and they would say, "I am having problems," "Keep your head up, keep your wits about yourself and always stand firm because if they see that you are going to back down in an argument or whatever, then they are going to come after you even more. So, you, yourself, the individual is the mechanism on survival. Is this what you want to do in life? Of course this is what you want to do in life or you wouldn't have wanted to become what you are." So, it was a constant fight. A constant fight. But then, again, here I am 30 years later and I see this guy that, in my opinion, was a racist and, you know, now, I think he is trying to reconcile. "Hey, Lawrence, how are you doing?" Why are you talking to me? The way you treated me. Now you think you can save your soul because you want to be my friend now? You need to apologize for the way you treated me and others because you could, you were in a position to do so. I know you, I respect you for who you are but I am not your friend. So, therefore, it is nice seeing you again - have a nice life and I hope you can get into heaven if you think you are going there. Thank you. Bye.
DG: So, how does your career develop? You get through that first year, you are fighting the battles with the Police Department, you sort of got used to the job of policing. After that first southeast patrol, where did you go, how did you progress?
LEC: Well, you know, I stayed in southeast patrol. Home sweet home. I did some stings in Vice for a few weeks. Some taskforce things. I was pretty much comfortable where I was. I knew the community, I liked helping people. I get in trouble with my wife today because she feels that "you help others too much, concentrate on your family." I just don't know why but I like helping people. I like seeing the pleasure that they get from being helped. At that time, all the office positions were held by white officers when we got there, and I am going like, well, why aren't there any black officers in any of these administrative positions? And only by fate, I got into the administrative position because I was not liked. Isn't that amazing? And I think it was at a point where the person that was kicking me into an administrative position did not realize at that time the significance of what a police storefront would become. And because he did not understand and because he was ignorant of the fact that he could not see progress, he put me in one. I asked, "What is a storefront? What does it do?" "Read the book. Find out on your own. Do you want these days off?" Of course, I want these weekends off. It is 12 years later in my life. "Then make it work." And I was in storefront for 19 years.
DG: What year was that when they started the storefront?
LEC: I went into storefront in 1989.
DG: We take it for granted today but that was a new concept. Where did that concept come from?
LEC: The concept came from Lee P. Brown. At that time, he came in. Now, we are getting from a crime fighting element to a community oriented policing. Communicate with the public. Talk to the people. But before his era, nobody talked to the police and the police didn't talk to nobody. Do you know why? We were crime fighters, not crime deliberators. You do the crime, we come get you. We were trying to solve a crime. And we interviewed people that we needed to, we got back in our cars, we took people to jail and that was it. We did not interact with the public. Now, when Lee P. arrived - interaction. And I think at that time, now we are talking about change which a lot of my coworkers did not like change. Who does? People don't like change. And now, I am put at the forefront of implementing change and I am working in a storefront, I am interacting with the community and the community is interacting with me. They don't know how to accept me and I am going like, man, I am not used to this. I was put in the situation and they turned out to be nice people. They were already nice people and then I had to try to converse my coworkers that, hey, these people want to talk to us. Don't be afraid of them. Just interact with them. They are not going to do you any harm. And then, that was a task in itself. But that concept led to a lot of good things in community services. Now, I think we can see the era that our police department began to become political -- that communicating, moving up in the ranks, and being a better, more diverse police department.
DG: Where was that first storefront?
LEC: I was assigned to the storefront off of Scott Street. I named it the Scott Street Storefront. It didn't have a name. I just couldn't say, "Well, I am at the storefront." "Where is your storefront?" So, I named the storefront Scott Street and it was in a wooden structure that the community provided and I was there working diligently for probably about 10 years.
DG: What was a typical day?
LEC: I think police visibility was one. Whenever the community said, "We don't see enough police here," I made sure that I put enough time in my schedule to drive around their neighborhood, and it was just like clockwork, you know, I would come to your neighborhood, I would drive around there for 30 minutes, I'd get out and talk to the neighbors in the yard, there was a _______. I would go to another neighbor, do the same thing. Meet with them for civic club meetings, implement ideas for crime prevention. It was fun. I mean, it was something different, something new. After about 10 years, we moved to the storefront where I eventually retired from which was the Sunnyside Storefront. And history speaks for itself.
DG: How was Lee P. Brown received by the Police Department when he was appointed to the job?
LEC: Remember now, we are going through a new era here, we are going through change. A black man now is chief of police of the Houston Police Department. Everybody must have thought Kathy Whitmire flipped her wig or something! He was not accepted well by the thin blue line. As a lot of my counterparts would tell the minority officers, "Your chief. Your chief." And we could not understand . . . why all of a sudden he's got to be our chief? The chiefs before him, he was our chief. Now, Lee P. is a black man, he is here in Houston and he's "my chief?" Why can't he be your chief as well? You couldn't get into a real long debate because, you know, I needed these people. You get into a situation out on the street, you call for help, will they come because you got into a debate about race? And there were some times when they did not come. You'd get on the air . . . I mean, we are talking about your life. I have been put in a few situations where I was on the crime scene, I asked for backup, I needed backup, and in my opinion, I think nobody wanted to come. But because I was a black officer in a black neighborhood, of course, dealing with the black community, I was not afraid so I had to be more stern, be more careful, safety, but I think I was given a lesson or two. Since you are so vocal about some issues, let's see how you can handle it by yourself.
DG: When Lee Brown became police chief, there was resentment but were there also attempts to undermine his policies? Were there attempts by the white officers?
LEC: If there were any attempts to undermine, I am not aware of it. I was never put in a position to witness undermining because I am still a street cop, and there are a lot more things for us as street cops that we have to focus on. You do your 8 hours and you make sure you can get to the end of the shift and go home safe and alive. I am sure if Lee P. was sitting here, he would probably tell you maybe so but at my level, we did not see that type of thing to happen.
DG: So, when did you come to Sunnyside?
LEC: I had to request to come to the black neighborhood. Believe it or not, the first 4 or 5 years of my career within that time span, I was in the white community over off of Telephone Road and Broadway and Gulf Freeway. And, you know, I had come across some issues with my home coworkers, black counterpart officers as to why a young, vibrant black police officer is allowed to stay and police a white community; whereas, they were in Southpark policing the black community. "What is it? Why didn't they put you over here?" I am going, like, I don't know. Should I be over there? Should I not be there? I think they felt that just maybe there were some issues . . . maybe I was their black police officer. I don't know - I almost felt discrimination between my own color. I am going, like, I am assigned here not because I want to, because this is where they assigned me. And I had to request . . . hey, I want to go to another district.
DG: Did you open the storefront in Sunnyside?
LEC: The storefront was there as a volunteer storefront by volunteer black officers from the Afro-American Police Officer League - they would come in and volunteer and help the community. But when the storefront then became a police facility, now I was assigned to it whereas the volunteer officers, they could go back to whatever they were doing, their assignments, but especially _______ them because they were doing this on their free time. And now, in 1989, the storefront became a full-fledged police facility.
DG: And how would you describe the years at Sunnyside?
LEC: Scott Street?
LEC: After 10 years of laying the foundation with the community, this was a boost. The police are acclimated to the community, the community is acclimated to the police. I mean, we've got a great working relationship coming, going about. The only thing that we had to keep doing was every time we changed commanders, is reintroduce the community to the commander, the commander to the police, to the community, citizens, and that probably was one of the biggest issues because everything pretty ________.
DG: In your 30 years, what changes did you see in the police department?
LEC: When I was a rookie, we didn't have walkie talkies, we didn't have computers in the cars, we drove at that time Dodge vehicles. I can't think of the name of it. We had wire cages. Now, you are beginning to see changes. We didn't have night sticks. I mean, we had nothing to fight with and trust me, we got in a lot of fights. I mean, it was almost like barehanded fighting. The night sticks became . . . do you remember we had the flap holsters? That was not a safety mechanism to keep a gun from falling out of the holsters in fights. We went through the holster change. We now have walkie talkies. We now have night sticks. We are getting the tools to protect yourself with and the community with. I think when Chief Hurt came, now we are talking 28 years later, now we've got tazers. Every car is occupied with a computer. You either have a retractable baton or a wooden baton. Everybody has walkie talkies. We are talking about modern invention that has slowly come. Every time I look around, we get a new crop of police officers, new cadet class. And you can see yourself aging. You can see yourself aging. And you are going like, you know, I used to run after people, jump fences and wouldn't give up until I caught my person. And now, I just get in the car and drive around on the other block and wait for them to come through on the other side; whereas, rookies would keep chasing them and keep chasing them. You become totally aware that things could be done a little bit easier instead of the hard way.
DG: Has the criminal element changed any in your 30 years on the force?
LEC: Yes. Tremendously. The criminal element is not afraid today. They are not afraid. Most of the elements that are involved in crime, they used to run from the police. Now, they don't run from the police as much. They will face off with you. We are dealing with a different society because we are dealing with a lot of homeless people, we are dealing with a lot of mental people that probably were not quite aware of who you were or what you were. In a uniform, you were the devil, you were the enemy, and they thought they were fighting the devil, not necessarily the police. It came to be quite dangerous.
DG: You have seen Houston at its worst. At times, you probably see it at its best. How do you describe Houston, the city, to people, to your family, to people thinking about moving here - how would you describe Houston?
LEC: You know, I would want to say overpopulated maybe. You have to realize that we were probably 500,000 people less when I joined the police department in 1977. Probably with 500,000 more people, you went from a 300, 400 square mile city to an almost 800 square mile city. I remember between Houston and Galveston was country. Now, that portion of the city is almost connecting. The same thing for Conroe and Houston. You used to go through the country a little bit just to get to Conroe but now, you can see it connecting now and it is spreading and spreading. It is made for a population change, very unique and something quite to deal with on traveling around the city. The people, society changed, people are more acceptable. When I was a rookie, one of the things that my white counterparts could not accept was interracial marriages, and they would really either give the white female a hard time or give the black man a hard time but, you know, 30 years ago . . . "Hey, come over here, I want you to see something." They would call other officers. "Come see this. This is an interracial marriages." I am sure interracial marriages had to go through a whole lot ordeal. But now, it is something that you see 30 years later that, you know, no one says nothing about. I mean, if you love it, I like it, you know, and it is acceptable. Things that were not acceptable . . . for example, gay-ism. Gays pretty much stayed in the closet, and to see one when I was a rookie, you know he got harassed. But 30 years later, the same people that the thin blue line were giving the hard time, you now have them on the force. And I am going, like man, could you see the significant changes . . . I am sure they didn't express their sexual preferences when they joined but, you know, over the years, it has reached out. I mean, do we have interracial marriages within the police department? Yes. Do we have gays in the police department? Yes. Are we a very well diverse agency? Pretty much, yes. So, I mean, we have come a long way.
DG: Speaking of coming a long way, you got an award recently, very recently, from the City for your community service. Can you tell me about that? How you felt receiving that? What it was for?
LEC: In my 19 year quest in the storefronts, I received so many awards from schools. I taught D.A.R.E. for 12 years -- the community, the civic clubs. They have written letters of commendation thanking the department for having me in this position to interact with them, and I guess you can say because of me interacting with the community, over the years, it made me a better speaker, it made me a better person to interact with the police department and the community I was sort of like the guy in the middle trying to get the police to understand the community and then trying to get the community to understand the police. I became favorable with the commanders. "Look, if we need a person to go out and implement something or convey something to the community, call Chamberlain. He knows the people better than anyone." After a while, the first 2 or 3 awards were great, you know, but after a while, you know, you don't have to do this. I am doing this because I love it, it is my job, I want to do it, I thank you for it; you know, I appreciate it. I was just in City Council a couple of days ago and Council Member Wanda Adams presented me with an award for making L.E. Chamberlain's day, you know, retirement. I have gotten my share of awards from the civic community, from the police department and City Council.
DG: What would you tell a young black man looking for a career in law enforcement about coming to Houston and being a Houston police officer?
LEC: A career opportunity. Is this something you are sure you want to do? A lot of times, you have to find out where young people are thinking. Is this something you really want to do or did somebody talk you into doing this, because you've got to want to do this from the heart not because it is a job because if it is a job, you need to go find another job because this job here is life threatening. It is talking about putting yourself in a position to help others. It got to a point in my life, did I feel unsafe on this job in 30 years? Yes, I did. Because I think the element of people that they begin to hire were only thinking about a job for the moment and not a career opportunity. Did the police department become more educated? Yes, it did. And a lot of time, when you get overly educated, then you get very well minded protected people. Everybody wants to go home at the end of the shift and a lot of times, I think the younger generation may be a tad bit afraid of what they may encounter today; whereas, we had no fear. We welcomed crime, we welcomed . . . going and getting in a fight at night? It was just, hey, let's go for it. But now, it seems like the criminal element are beginning to talk down to the police. I would arrive on scenes, here I am 30 years later, "What's the problem?" "Well, this guy" . . . "Do you understand what this officer is telling you? You will follow these commands or you are going to jail, buddy. What part of this don't you understand?" And I think the suspect could see that uh-oh, I've got one that knows what he is talking about. I can't buffalo him. "Yes, officer. Yes, I will do what you" . . . command me and I shall. And I look at the officers, "How can you demand respect from a criminal if they can see fear in you? And if you have fear, you need to go home. This is a rough, tough job and your life depends on your bravery out here in the battle. These are the battle lines. These are the trenches. These are the front lines. Do your job. And if you come into this job afraid, you are not going to leave here standing."
DG: What are you most proud of in your time on the force?
LEC: I am proud of being a Houston police officer for 30 years. I got one heck of a ride in training and learning about people, learning about people - what people will do to other people, how people will treat other people, and how you can treat people. I have no shame in this man's job. The thin blue line has really taught me a lot. It made me a better person. It made me a person that I am proud to say that my family thinks L.E. is a leader. He is not a follower, he is a leader. He commands leadership. A lot of people . . . "Oh, here comes Officer Chamberlain. Oh, yes, sir, Officer Chamberlain," you know, but I treat people the way I want to be treated. And I think I owe a lot to the Houston Police Department, the good, the bad and the ugly parts that made me a better person, a better character.
DG: What is the best thing about the city of Houston?
LEC: The Texans! No, I think the good sides which we don't see a lot of. I think the good elements, people are afraid to speak out on the good elements. I think we always see the negative side, the bad elements, people that do a lot of wrong, that speak out loudly; whereas, those people that are righteous and want to do the right things, they tend to not speak up. But, you know, just to see good people doing good things. I just wish that city government, the community, the police department, fire department, all entities of this government, could be on the same page once in a while. It would be nice to see if everybody was on the same page but there is always some entity out there that never wants to be on the same page.
DG: Mr. Chamberlain, thank you for your time. Is there anything else you would like to say before we conclude?
LEC: I appreciate the system for allowing me this opportunity to express myself. I know there are a lot of other officers that probably have stories to tell, probably even worse than mine, and even better than mine but, you know, I think there is a starting point somewhere. You look at all these cop shows - there is one thing about policemen - we don't like looking at cop shows. It is a 30 minute entertainment show. We are going like, yeah, right! And a lot of times, people get the concept that you can solve a murder in 30 minutes. I am going, like, yeah, right! It has been a nice ride. I am getting experienced in the library system now. What man in his right mind would want to work in a library? I started out doing volunteer work on computer training. When I was still a police officer, I just came over and did one day a week to help the seniors out because I am still helping people. And now, after I am retired, my class grew from 9 to almost 50. And I am going, like, this appears to be a job here. But to learn how the library people feel. I have been police encountered for 30 years; now, I am getting that other side of life on how people see the police rather than how the police see the people. It is a working relationship, I will tell you and the people in the library say, "Well, you used to be the police. You are the police." And I am going, "But I am not anymore."
DG: You could probably help them collect some delinquent fines!
LEC: I think because a lot of times, some of the younger generation come in here and they see a man in here with them, they probably feel like, look, this guy doesn't even look like he is going to take any mess off of us. And the women here, they feel a bit safer. There are no men here at this library but by me being here 3 days a week, I think they feel a little safer.
DG: Mr. Chamberlain, thank you again.
LEC: And I thank you.