The pelican papers

A big bird’s eye view

Archive for July, 2016

Leon Griggs: A death in blue

Posted by Ron George on July 28, 2016

Fallen Officer by Christopher Lane

Fallen Officer
by Christopher Lane

Leon Griggs was the first friend I made at the Houston Police Department in 1969. Unfortunately, he was the first but not the last law-enforcement friend to die in the line of duty.

Leon was a jailer. I was a cub reporter for the Houston Chronicle, fresh out of college, married with children. We hit it off right away when we were introduced by longtime Chronicle police reporter Jack Weeks. Leon was a big man, but I didn’t realize it until we shook hands as he sat behind the intake desk. His huge right hand enveloped my larger-than-most right hand in an gentle handshake. Then he stood up to his full height, two or three inches taller than my 6’2”.

Wanna see the jail?” he asked.

Show him around,” Weeks answered with a knowing smile.

I had no idea what was coming. I was to be properly initiated into the press corps of police reporters.

There wasn’t much to see, really, but when we got to the empty holding cells, Leon asked me to step in to see how it felt. The door closed behind me with a steely clank.

See ya,” he said and walked away.

I got it. This was planned. Thanks, Jack.

There was no place to sit. As I stood looking at a high, barred window, the silence began to descend oppressively. Seconds then minutes ticked away, then I began to wonder how long Leon would be gone. I was just on the verge of shouting to be let out when Leon returned with a broad grin on his face.

Doesn’t take long, does it?” he said.

Nope, I said. I have no idea how long I was in that cell – three minutes? – but it felt like hours. I heaved a sigh of relief as Leon opened the cell.

I saw Leon from time to time as I filled in for Jack and on the weekends. The jail was a routine stop several times a day, not just for a look at the log but to soak up some gossip on what was going on behind those locked doors and elsewhere at police headquarters. Leon never broke the code, but I learned a lot from him about how things worked at Houston PD – and God knows I had a lot to learn. He wasn’t really a news source, but we became friends. I apparently was one of many young journalists Leon had mentored. Turns out, I was to be the last.

On Jan. 31, 1970, a Saturday, I was working in the Houston PD pressroom as police-radio monitors crackled in the background. Then came that awful, most-feared of all police-radio messages: “Officer down.” Every channel began to scream with sirens as officers reported they were en route. I hitched a ride with a TV reporter to a small grocery store on Blodgett Street.

Officer down: Canadian police constable Mike Klarenbeek was gunned down at his courthouse post in Brampton, near Toronto. He rose to return fire, killed the suspect, then was rushed to hospital. He survived.

Officer down: Canadian police constable Mike Klarenbeek was gunned down at his courthouse post in Brampton, near Toronto, on March 28, 2014. He rose to return fire, killed the suspect, then was rushed to hospital. He recovered.

Leon had been swept away to Ben Taub Hospital by the time we arrived. He’d been working an off-duty security job at the market. Store personnel told us Leon had been shot several times, at least three times with his own weapon as he lay in a spreading pool of blood from having been shot in the back. Two men robbed the store, they said.

I stood where Leon had fallen trying to imagine how it had gone down. The store was eerily quiet – street noise in the background, doors opening and closing, store personnel weeping quietly in each others’ arms. TV cameraman Jack Cato walked up and said, “Leon’s dead, Ron.” Tears rolled out of my eyes. I felt as though I’d been kicked in the stomach. I imagined Leon’s handshake, his smile, that first day we met.

Then I had to find a phone, call the city desk and get back to the work of newsgathering.

Leon’s was the 31st murder that month. My colleague Jim Curran was working a Sunday story about our murder-a-day city. It was just a recap with some law-and-order commentary from city officials, but Leon’s death made Jim’s story the page-one lead. We shared a byline, which was rare in those days at the Chronicle, at least for rookie reporters. Somehow, though, I just couldn’t feel good about our minor journalistic coup. I don’t recall ever reading story. When I saw the headline at home on Sunday morning, all I wanted to see was Leon’s smile and to feel that big man’s gentle handshake, and all I could feel was the pain of his absence.

Police officers’ emotions run high when officers die in the line of duty – grief, anger, fear and not necessarily in that order. High emotions were palpable in the homicide division after Leon’s death. There were some bad arrests, some rough handling of suspects and more than few racial epithets that didn’t seem to honor the detectives’ fallen African-American brother in blue.

The face of grief Green by Rufolf Lehmann

The face of grief
Green
by Rufolf Lehmann

1970 turned out to be a tumultuous year in the history of Houston’s police department and the city’s black community. Among other things, Houston patrol officers beat a black traffic suspect to death in the Galena Park police station and were later acquitted; and a radical black-community activist was shot to death with a hunting rifle by a Houston PD criminal intelligence officer.

I doubt that any one event drove the profound deterioration of trust that resulted in these killings, but I am sure Leon’s death didn’t help. He would have been appalled to suspect that the concept of law and order could deteriorate into revenge.

Shootings of police officers and by police officers always dredge up deep emotions in me, and they’re always accompanied by images of Leon Griggs as well as others I have known who died in the line of duty – but none as important to me as Leon, a father of five when he was killed at age 41, my friend and my first loss as a crime reporter.

We say such men and women give their lives to protect and serve, but I disagree: Their lives are taken from them. They know the risks, but the odds are in their favor – until death comes without warning to the few we honor as heroes, and rightfully so. But they didn’t sign up to die; they honorably pledged to take on the risk of wearing a badge and a gun so that criminals don’t rule society.

It’s a noble calling, dangerous and patently heroic, but in an ordinary way. How many times have I heard a police officer say, “I was just doing my job”? That’s exactly what Leon Griggs was doing the day he left his family at home and didn’t return.

The Officer Down Memorial website has a page devoted to Leon. There’s just one reflection on the page, but it is poignant beyond words in our time of upheaval between black communities and police departments across the nation.

It says: “In this time of so much conflict, I am thinking of you and your sacrifice. I wish I had known you.”

It’s signed: “Leah Griggs Pauly, Granddaughter, July 12, 2016.”

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments »