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First Hispanic detective in Austin recalls police life

November 14, 2018

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — When Sgt. Leonard Flores Jr. joined the Austin police force in 1954, each cop was, to a certain extent, on his own.

“We couldn’t call for backup,” explains Flores, the city’s first Hispanic detective, “because there was no backup.”

The Austin American-Statesman reports once, Flores responded to a call from a bar on East Seventh Street where a patron had grabbed money out of a cash register.

“So I went there, got out, walked up to this little house turned into a bar,” Flores recounts. “There was this guy standing on the porch, bag in one hand, knife in the other. I said, ‘Drop that knife.’ He said, ‘Make me!’ What could I do? I had a gun. But I wasn’t going to shoot him. I just walked up and knocked him on the hand with my billy club. Took the money back in and gave it to the bartender. Everybody was sitting around drinking beer. Nobody tried to help me. I took him to jail.”

Flores, born and reared on cotton-and-corn farms in Williamson County, joined the department after serving in the Army. At first, he walked a street beat, including three years on East Sixth Street.

“It was a pretty peaceful place,” he says. “There were bars, cafes and stores. I walked up and down the street and never had any problems. Sure, I arrested drunks who wouldn’t go home. I can remember only one shooting.”

One man Flores found repeatedly in the vicinity of the 400 block of East Fourth Street was persistently inebriated.

“I told him to go on home,” Flores says. “He turned around and went on. I’ll be damned if he didn’t go around the block and came back. I had to put him in jail that night.”

In 1960, Flores rose to the rank of detective sergeant, assigned mainly to the homicide detail. His routine changed substantially once he became an investigator. Often in that job, he dealt with death.

“We got a call that someone had committed suicide,” Flores says. “Walked in and looked around. Thought he’d be in the bed or on the floor. I brushed up against a sleeve in the closet. It was him. He had hanged himself.”

At other times, he and his partners found themselves pumped up on adrenaline as they chased down criminals. For instance, sometime between 2:30 a.m. and 3 a.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 1961, two youths from San Antonio gunned down attendant Walter Henry Dabelgott at the Refinery Outlet Gas Station on Guadalupe Street.

An all-points bulletin went out later that morning. By 9:30 a.m., a posse of peace officers had converged off the Lockhart Highway near Creedmoor, where a farmer had been robbed at gunpoint.

“We were in an unmarked police car, and it was raining,” Flores says. “We had the description of the stolen car, saw the license plate, and turned around to give chase. They didn’t speed up, but they didn’t stop. We shined a light on them. My partner was driving and said, ‘Shoot out the tires.’ But we were in this little town with people on the side of the road. I carefully shot — supposedly at the tires — but hit the trunk. They pulled over right away and threw a gun out the window. They were about to run. I told them to lie on the ground, then I picked up one loaded gun, and my partner found the other. We arrested them.”

Today’s Austin Police Department would seem almost unrecognizable to Flores. Out of 1,194 officers, 269 are Hispanic, and 75 of the “detectives and corporals” rank are Hispanic, according to a police force spokeswoman.

“I wouldn’t want to be a policeman now,” he says. “Back then, they respected the cops. Now they don’t.”

On the other hand, he encountered racism not infrequently during a time when all African-American police officers were assigned to the area around East 11th and East 12th streets, and if one of them flagged a white driver, a white cop was called to issue the ticket.

“One morning, we were told to be on the lookout for a car of so-and-so color with so-and-so license number, driven by a Mexican male,” Flores recalls. “One officer asked, ‘Was the car reported stolen?’ Another said, ‘Must be stolen. Have you ever seen a Mexican with something he didn’t steal?’ I called him a liar. I was the only Mexican in the room. For a long time, I was the only Mexican there.

“I ignored things,” Flores says. “Some of them were always trying to get a rise out of me. I wouldn’t let them.”

He also witnessed some pretty brutal scenes.

“One officer drove the paddy wagon,” Flores says. “He would ‘take them for a ride.’ You’ve heard the saying ‘You might beat the charge, but you can’t beat the ride.’ But it was really dangerous banging around in the back of the wagon.”

On Aug. 1, 1966, Flores had asked off to take his baby to the doctor. On the way back, he could hear the shooting as Charles Whitman took aim at passers-by from the University of Texas Tower.

“I dropped the baby off and went to work,” Flores says. “But by the time I got to the scene, they had shot Whitman.”

He never dealt directly with the notorious Overton Gang, which pulled off bank robberies across the state and organized all sorts of nefarious activities in Austin, its home base. One member of the crime family, however, did make a veiled threat on his home phone.

“Mostly, the vice squad took care of them and Hattie Valdez,” Flores says, referring to the infamous madam associated with the gang. “We had a wire on the Overtons’ house. One time I was assigned to stay and listen. That night they didn’t say anything interesting.”

Flores took his crime-fighting job seriously, but at times he found his authority challenged, even if only mildly.

“I arrested whoever needed to be arrested,” he says. “It didn’t matter who they were. I arrested a bunch for drinking after hours under the Montopolis Bridge. They said, ‘Why are you taking us in? We’re Hispanic. You’re Hispanic.’ I told them, ‘If the white people let the white people go, and the black people let the black people go, we wouldn’t have any law enforcement.’”

Life before the police force, for Flores, was comparatively quiet.

He was born near Jonah, an unincorporated village on the banks of the San Gabriel River on Texas 29 between Georgetown and Circleville. Leonardo Flores and Aurora Montelongo Flores — Leonard’s parents — came from Zacatecas, Mexico. Like so many other ancestral Mexican-American families in Central Texas, they arrived at the time of the Mexican Revolution, which lasted roughly from 1910 to 1920. The chaos, however, continued well into the 1920s, when the Flores family left.

Early photos show a young Leonard, the eldest of eight siblings, visiting farming country in Zacatecas, including one snapshot of him posed somewhat unsteadily on a burro.

Leonard’s father worked on the railroad, but also for farmers such as Williamson County Commissioner Will Stern.

Life on the Flores family farm was fairly predictable.

“We had to work all the time,” Flores says. “Got up to milk the cows, stayed out in the fields until sundown. We did that every day for the 20 years that I was there. It was a great life.”

He attended a two-room country school dropped into the middle of a cotton patch.

“On one side was the elementary school,” Flores recalls. “On the other was the high school.”

He also attended schools in Coupland, Elgin and Granger, but he didn’t graduate.

“I made pretty good grades, but I just didn’t go anymore,” Flores says. “Dad was a real believer in getting us educated. He gave me the choice of school or go to West Texas to pick cotton. ‘I’ll go to West Texas.’ Went one year and never went back. But I didn’t go to school.”

Flores eventually earned his GED in 1960.

What did he and his siblings and friends do for fun in rural Williamson County?

“As far as I remember, there wasn’t much fun,” he says. “Taylor was the place to go. We’d go dancing there. There was a church with a bandstand, picnic tables, bingo. We’d make beans and rice for dinner, rice and beans for supper. I still like to cook rice and beans.”

How did the generally segregated rural communities get along?

“Mostly, Hispanics did their thing,” Flores says. “Whites did their thing. I never had any dealings back then with the black community. Most of the Mexican people came over at the same time. All of them were friends. Daddy and others formed a club, bought land and laid a concrete slab for dancing.”

The Flores family arrived in Texas during one of those cyclical periods when the state’s farmers really needed Mexican labor, so their status here was legal.

“Daddy had to go to the post office once a year to fill out a card,” Flores says. “In cotton season, truckloads of people from the Valley helped pick the cotton crop. We didn’t have to migrate. A priest talked Daddy into doing his own farming. He sharecropped. At first on ‘halves’ — which meant giving half the harvest to the landowner, who also supplied the machinery and the seeds — then on ‘thirds’ on cotton or ‘fourths’ on corn, once Daddy bought his own machinery and seed.”

Flores came of age at the end of World War II and received a draft notice.

?‘We want you!’” Flores recalls with a laugh. “I went to the post office to report. They said, ‘You guys can go home. The war is over.’ Four years later, they dragged me in again. I spent 23 months in the Army. Trained in California, shipped to Japan during the armistice. I spent nine months in Korea on the front lines, but no fighting. And I’m glad.”

Flores returned to Williamson County in September 1952. Three months later, he married Consuelo “Betty” Avila at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in East Austin.

“I met her in Taylor,” Flores says. “Her daddy used to run a hamburger joint. We bought our first house on Kay Street in Govalle. I didn’t have a job. She didn’t either. I went to school on the GI Bill, and we lived off that for a while, but my first real job was as an orderly at Brack. With a regular salary. We were in high cotton. One day I was reading the paper, and I saw they that were hiring police officers. We had to go to University Junior High, take a test and sign up. They hired me.”

His brother Esau joined Austin Police Department later and eventually retired from the U.S. Border Patrol. Leonard rose to the level of senior sergeant in Austin.

Betty and Leonard had four children. Cynthia Gonzales works for the city of Austin; Deborah Zamorano is retired from the Texas Department of Transportation; Leonard Karl Flores is a retired Travis County deputy sheriff; and Michael Flores, who earned a degree in business administration, now works for a builders supply company in Conroe.

After 62 years of marriage, Betty died in 2015. Private caregiver Linda Gonzalez, who helped Betty in her later years, now looks after Leonard in his impeccably maintained one-story house. In retirement, he continues to volunteer in the community, especially at St. Louis King of France Catholic Church on Burnet Road, where he cooks for the Friday fish fries and the early-Sunday breakfast.

In 1989, he retired to his family’s modest 1950s-era home in the Georgian Acres district north of U.S. 183.

“It’s supposed to be a high-crime neighborhood,” Flores, 90, says. “But I don’t see it.”

Flores notices, however, the patrols. Whereas today’s Austin Police Department operates hundreds of patrol cars, Flores remembers when it fielded a total of six for the whole city.

“One south, one north, one east, one west,” he says. “And two extra ones — a traffic car, and another we called the ‘Eastside Car,’ driven by a black officer. Now we have more cars than that right here in this area.”

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Information from: Austin American-Statesman, http://www.statesman.com

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