Shotgun Squads

In January, 1986, the Houston Chronicle reported that Pilgrim Cleaners had begun hiring off-duty police officers to protect the company's 300 stores from robbers. General manager, Guy Robertson, Jr., said, "We've been robbed a lot. We've been losing too much money, and I can't keep my employees." Just in the previous week, four of his stores had been robbed.

But the announcement that the squads were returning brought a firestorm of controversy.

The guards were called "executioners" by a local police chief, and many departments in the area forbade their officers to work the squads.

Most business owners and Houstonians, however, tired of crimes going unpunished, backed Robertson who noted that the squads had been used periodically since the 1960s. He credited their success with helping to keep the company in business.

A police spokesman stated that Houston Police Chief Lee P. Brown would never allow his officers to "lay in wait to ambush" suspected robbers. Clyde Wilson, the private detective responsible for hiring the guards for Pilgrim Cleaners, responded. "I'm not concerned about the rights of criminals," he said. "I'm concerned about the rights of my clients, their employees, and their customers."

Robertson explained how the shotgun squads worked. Each store had large mirrors installed on the walls near the cash register. Some were, well, just mirrors; others were two-way mirrors fronting a hidden room. "The robbers are just going to have to play Russian roulette," Robertson said. In the rooms behind the two-way mirrors, off-duty cops sat with shotguns waiting for a robber to appear. He could then shoot through the mirror and incapacitate the thug.

Over the years, the shotgun squads were highly effective in reducing armed robberies in many cities. In the late 1960s, guards in Dallas killed 11 armed robbers. In Los Angeles, 35 robbers were killed by the squads.

Harris County District Attorney Johnny Holmes acknowledged that squads were legal. "I don't think there's any question that they're a deterrent to crime," he said.

Despite the controversy, Robertson hired several shotgun guards. Within a few weeks, the robberies of Pilgrim Cleaners had ended.

The last report of shotgun guards being used in Houston was in 1992 when Lt. J. W. Fry killed a parolee who had just robbed a Stop 'N Go convenience store. Fry, a Pasadena cop (since Houston PD wouldn't allow their officers to work the squads, stores imported guards from other jurisdictions), was no-billed by a grand jury. An autopsy revealed that the robber, who was carrying a knife, had cocaine in his blood. He'd been recently paroled after serving a twenty year sentence for--you guessed it--armed robbery.

The shotgun squads are a little-known slice of urban Americana. While so-called civil libertarians, liberals, and criminal rights activists decried the use of the squads, many citizens supported them.

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