Racial Injustice in Houston, Texas: The Mexican American Mobilization Against the Police Killing of Joe Campos Torres

Melanie Lorie Rodriguez, University of Texas at El Paso


This study examines the Houston Police Department’s (the HPD) relations with the ethnic-Mexican community across four decades to consider how the police killing of Joe Campos Torres sparked a wave of protest that ensured that city’s long history of police brutality against ethnic Mexicans and other minorities (especially African Americans) came to the forefront in Texas, if not the nation in general. The HPD was a mechanisms of the city’s status quo that reinforced the racial dominance of white Houstonians. From 1940 to 1970, the HPD found it necessary to implement effective police models to control wayward minorities and uphold the racial structure of white supremacy. By the 1950s and 1960s, policing helped racialized the ethnic-Mexican community as criminal and larger amounts of police oppression were permitted. Mexican-American activists increasingly found their voice excluded in the policing of their communities. In the late 1960s, following the passage of the Civil Rights Act and several Supreme Court rulings that emphasized due process, the HPD incorporated the practice of “street justice”—that is an informal systemic method of racial oppression meant to control the minority communities in the aftermath of Jim Crow’s demise — as part of its subculture as a means to defy what it perceived were greater rights for criminals. The HPD’s use of street justice against Joe Torres on the night of his death, and the judicial injustice that followed in the state and federal trials, provides a window into larger issues of race and racism that reinforced white dominance and shaped ethnic Mexicans’ experience in East Texas throughout the twentieth century. This heightened police aggression and lawlessness against the ethnic-Mexican community (as well as African Americans) ensured that citizens would live in fear of law enforcement officers and that any opposition to their power would be silenced. The 1977 police murder of Torres, thereby, represented a culmination of police lawlessness that over three decades racialized the people, oppressed the community, and silenced activists’ voice from the affairs of discriminatory policing practice. It also was the moment when police violence, institutional racism, and the absence of justice galvanized ethnic Mexicans under an effective strategy to reform the police and seek justice. Thus, this study seeks to understand the circumstances that allowed for Joe Torres’s killing and the reforms that followed his unjust death. It is fundamentally concerned with understanding how the Houston Police Department’s power grew, the corruption that followed in the guise of police brutality against ethnic Mexicans, and how community activists and city official reined in that abuse and reformed the department in order to better serve the citizens of the Bayou City.

Subject Area

American history|Criminology|Hispanic American studies

Recommended Citation

Rodriguez, Melanie Lorie, "Racial Injustice in Houston, Texas: The Mexican American Mobilization Against the Police Killing of Joe Campos Torres" (2017). ETD Collection for University of Texas, El Paso. AAI10282127.