Breaking and entering: Meet 4 mighty women in Houston Police Department history

We tip our hats to these Houston greats

Group with Eva Bacher (Image courtesy of the Houston Police Department Museum)

Here we highlight the lives and legacies of four trailblazing Houston women whose names you might not recognize — but who nonetheless made a profound impact on the Houston Police Department.

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Eva Bacher: HPD’s first female police officer

Group with Eva Bacher (Image courtesy of the Houston Police Department Museum)

Houston’s famed woman sleuth, Eva Bacher began her career in Chicago before moving to Houston in 1913.

In Houston, she found work as a house detective for local merchants and department stores. Over the next several years, she earned a reputation for apprehending several shoplifters a day, according to the book “Houston Blue: The Story of the Houston Police Department.”

In an article written about trailblazing Houston businesswomen, Historian Anne Sloan described Bacher as a no-nonsense woman who developed her own “special formula for success” – Bacher would “make friends with suspected crooks, talk nice to them, and then ease them out.”

Bacher’s method of apprehension was to grab the suspects with her right thumb. She said she broke her thumb a dozen times, but wouldn’t let them loose.

In 1917, Bacher accepted a job with the Houston Police Department, becoming the first woman hired by the force. Bacher carried badge #10 and reported directly to the superintendent of police. She was part of the Public Moral and Safety Division, a precursor to the department’s Vice Division. Bacher’s HPD career was cut short in 1929 when newly elected mayor Walter Monteith forced the department to fire its female employees and get rid of its horses. When Bacher came back from a vacation in 1929 she was told she was let go for “the good of the service.”

After she left HPD, Bacher returned to Foley’s where she worked as a detective until she retired in 1945 at age 70. Bacher died in San Antonio on May 5, 1961 at the age of 84. She is buried at Forest Park Lawndale.

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Margie Duty: HPD’s first Black female officer

Margie Annette Hawkins Duty was the first Black woman to be employed as a police officer in Houston.

In the 1950s, some white police officers in Houston were reluctant to work in predominantly Black neighborhoods. As the city grew, the department sought to hire additional Black officers that could be assigned to these areas.

Duty learned of the openings at the department and applied in 1953. After she was hired, she underwent three months of training, but was not allowed to attend the police academy. Her original job title was not “officer”; it was “matron.” At the time there were only a few male Black officers in the department. Upon being sworn in, Duty was immediately assigned to the Juvenile Division, where she’d work for the first 23 years of her law-enforcement career.

Duty said she initially applied for a job with the department because she simply needed to find work, but once she started training she began to believe that she was truly doing the Lord’s work, according to “Houston Blue: The Story of the Houston Police Department.”

Duty’s work assignments included interviewing young Black female crime victims and overseeing Black female inmates.

In later years, Duty transferred to the Jail Division where she worked as a uniformed officer before retiring in 1986 after 34 years of service.

Duty retired in late August 1986, one day after her 64th birthday. Duty died on April 23, 2001, at age 78. Because her husband had served in the United States Air Force in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, she was buried at the Houston National Cemetery.

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Jo Bankston: One of the first women to graduate from the Houston Police Academy

Faced with a rise in criminal reports involving children, Police Chief Jack Heard sought out female cadets who could assist with these cases. In 1955, Jo Bankston became one of the first four female graduates of the Houston Police Academy. The other three women were Emily Vasquez, Mercedes Halvorsen and Jean Smith. Only Bankston stayed on the force long enough to earn retirement.

Bankston and the others passed a physical, went through an interview with the head of the academy and provided letters of recommendation from friends and neighbors. “They asked me if my husband would be jealous of me working with a male partner and if he would have objections to a night or evening shift,” Bankston said in interview for the book “Houston Blue: The Story of the Houston Police Department.” “How stable was our marriage?”

“You had to have ‘good moral character,’ " Bankston said. “You couldn’t have bad credit reports. They did a thorough background check to make sure you weren’t a prostitute. As for your morals, you had to have letters from neighbors – references.”

Described as the “first guinea pigs in the academy,” the women did not have to climb ropes and were required to wear skirts, not pants. Once they graduated, the policewomen earned the same pay as their male counterparts but were initially assigned to Records, the jail or the Juvenile Division and the women were assigned male partners, which were present when arrests were made to keep the women out of harm’s way. The police chief’s advice to the policewomen -- “Always remember you are a police officer, but first you are a woman.”

Bankston served 23 of her 30 years on the force in the Juvenile Division. During her career, she was a maternal figure for younger female officers.

In retirement Bankston remained active in the Houston Retired Officers Association. She died in 2019.

Elizabeth “Betsy” Watson: HPD’s first female police chief

Deputy Chief Elizabeth Watson, 40, addresses the media in Houston where she was named by Mayor Kathy Whitmire, right, to head the Houston Police Department, Jan. 19, 1990, in Houston. Former Chief Lee Brown, center, is taking over as police commissioner in New York City on Monday. (AP Photo/Donna Carson) (Associated Press)

Elizabeth Watson was sworn in as Houston’s first female police chief on Feb. 8, 1990. With the appointment, Watson became the first woman to head a police force in a major American city. Watson replaced former Chief Lee Brown, who left Houston to take over as police commissioner in New York City.

Watson, 40, was the daughter of a NASA space engineer and a mother with strong ties to law enforcement. Watson’s maternal grandmother was an officer in Philadelphia, as were her mother’s brothers and two cousins. After graduating from Houston’s Jesse Jones High School, Watson began working as a stenographer at City Hall. When she learned HPD was seeking female cadets for its next class, she applied during her lunch break. Two weeks later, she started Police Cadet Class No. 57. She finished second in her class.

By the time Mayor Kathy Whitmire appointed her chief, Watson had more than 17 years of experience and had achieved an amazing list of firsts. She became HPD’s first female captain, first female deputy chief and head of the city’s first command station, according to the book “Houston Blue: The Story of the Houston Police Department.” While chief, Whitmire revamped the department’s call system, reducing response time from 11 minutes to less than five, helped her officers win a six percent pay increase, and made minor changes which helped improve officers’ lives.

A little more than two years after she took over the Houston Police Department, Watson was forced by a new mayor to step down to assistant chief. Bob Lanier, who defeated incumbent Whitmire, was elected on pledges to toughen law enforcement. He named as Watson’s replacement Samuel M. Nuchia, an assistant United States attorney and 21-year veteran of the Houston Police Department.

Lanier said that though he had a “generally a positive impression” of Watson’s performance, he had decided that “the new administration would be better off with a new police chief and break rather clean with whatever may have been the problems in the past whether they were Chief Watson’s making or not.”

Is there a woman in Houston law enforcement history you want to recognize? Share her legacy in the comment section below.

Information for this article is from the Houston Police Department Museum, “Houston Blue: The Story of the Houston Police Department” by Mitchel P. Roth and Tom Kennedy, “Altering the Fine Edge of Respectability: Business Women in Houston, 1880-1920″ by Anne Sloan, “Houston Mayor Removes Female Police Chief” by Roberto Suro, “Jo Bankston, HPD’s first female cadet, faced strict upbringing but earned lasting respect for graciousness and professionalism” by Tom Kennedy and the “Handbook of Texas” by the Texas State Historical Association.

About the Author:

Briana Zamora-Nipper joined the KPRC 2 digital team in 2019. When she’s not hard at work in the KPRC 2 newsroom, you can find Bri drinking away her hard earned wages at JuiceLand, running around Hermann Park, listening to crime podcasts or ransacking the magazine stand at Barnes & Noble.