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Remembering José “Joe” Campos Torres’s Last Cinco de Mayo

On my honor,
I will never betray my badge,
my integrity, my character,
or the public trust.
I will always have
the courage to hold myself
and others accountable for our actions.
I will always uphold the constitution
my community
and the agency I serve.
[1]

Law Enforcement Oath of Honor
International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP, Est. 1893)*

As today is May 5 (or Cinco de Mayo) and as we make our way to Memorial Day, I would like to draw some attention to a little-known case, one of many forgotten chapters of American history: The Case of José Campos Torres.  José, often referred to as Joe, was a Vietnam veteran; but his death did not take place in Vietnam, at the hands of enemy combatants. It took place in Houston, Texas at the hands of police officers.  Joe’s body would be found on Sunday, May 8.

On May 5, 1977, Joe was 23-years old when he was picked up for disorderly conduct at a bar, located in the East End District–a sector of Houston, Texas which was densely populated by Hispanics.

Given that there are numerous discrepancies, I would encourage readers to do further exploration. (Ernesto León has put together a compilation of oral histories, titled The Case of José Campos Torres: A Miscarriage of Justice Oral Histories Project.) The essence of the case is that at some point, after being picked up, Joe would find himself in the hands of various police officers. According to a brief account written by Tom Kennedy for the Houston Police Officers’ Union (HPOU),

a total of six officers in three patrol cars carried Torres to a rundown warehouse area just across Buffalo Bayou from the Harris County Courthouse complex. They drove down an embankment to the south bank of the bayou, below street level and out of sight.

There, each one of the officers except one rookie officer took turns striking Torres while he was handcuffed. One of the officers, Terry [W.] Denson, remarked that he had always wanted to watch a prisoner swim the bayou. The group then took Torres to the city jail where the duty sergeant told them to take their prisoner to Ben Taub General Hospital for treatment prior to his official booking.

According to the HPOU’s account, Officer Stephen Orlando contemplated releasing Joe instead of taking him to the hospital where he would likely have to spend “several hours and then only being able to charge the prisoner with being drunk and disorderly.” Instead of taking him to the hospital to treat his wounds, he was taken by the six officers to a site where he was made to stand “perched on a location about twenty feet from the oft-polluted waters of Buffalo Bayou.” Then Denson–who had mentioned earlier that “he had always wanted to watch a prisoner swim the bayou,” -shoved him over the edge.   He is quoted here, and in many–if not all–of the accounts, as saying: “Let’s see if the wetback can swim.” Reports from the time period dispute whether Joe was handcuffed or not, at the moment he was pushed into the bayou.  The HPOU includes a chronological report that is attributed to Texas Monthly. I managed to locate a fairly substantive article that was published in September 1977 by Tom Curtis, which was titled “Support Your Local Police (Or Else).”

The report attributed to Texas Monthly was derived from an investigation produced by the Internal Affairs Division (IAD) of the Houston Police Department. Apparently Joe’s was but one of various incidents of police misconduct. In fact, Curtis’s article states that Joe’s “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.'” Thus, pervasive abuse–at the time Joe’s tragedy took place–seems to be the reason that Houston was already taking steps to remedy the situation with the creation of the IAD.  According to The City of Houston, Official Site for Houston, Texas, the “Houston Police Department Internal Affairs Division was created in 1977 and is mandated to investigate allegations of misconduct against employees of the Houston Police Department.”

Image from Google News, courtesy of The Victoria Advocate, Wednesday, October 31, 1979, p. 7A

Image from Google News, courtesy of The Victoria Advocate, Wednesday, October 31, 1979, p. 7A

According to an article by the Houston Associated Press titled “Former Policemen Given One-Year Terms,” which appeared in The Victoria Advocate on Wednesday, October 31, 1979, in

September, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission conducted a hearing on alleged police brutality in Houston, the nation’s fifth largest city.The commission has not released its findings, but indicated that there were no major problems in Houston. (p. 7A)

Finding primary sources for this blog post proved quite challenging, as official records on this case remain unreleased. So, research has relied heavily on media reports and secondary sources.  In a book titled, Race and the Houston Police Department, 1930 – 1990: A Change Did Come, Dwight Watson includes a chapter covering the case under the title “The Storm Clouds of Change: The Death of José Campos Torres and the Emergence of Triracial Politics in Houston.”

 *Follow these links to learn more about the IACP and its Legislative Agenda for the 114th Congress.

 

[1] For more information on the Law Enforcement Oath of Honor, see Resolution IE019.a00, submitted by the Police Image & Ethics Committee and Adopted at the 107th Annual Conference, in San Diego, California on November 15, 2000.

One Comment

  1. Leonor
    December 26, 2015 at 8:01 pm

    I have come across incidents in Texas also regarding Hispanics that date back before the Civil Rights Movement that could be described as being in the same category as this one. There is a guy that posts them on Facebook but I have never bothered to check any of them for historical accuracy. His posts involve lynching.

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