35 Years on police force
Cheif Avant will retire June 30
by Mike Norman
James H. Avant, who answered a newspaper ad for policemen here in 1941 and then rose through the ranks to serve 5 1/2 years as chief of police will retire next month.
The 63-year-old police chief’s plans were announced to the City Council yesterday afternoon by City Manager Marvin Townsend, who gave Council members copies of a letter in which Avant said he would retire June 30.
Townsend said after the meeting he will name an acting chief of police “probably in the middle part of June.” He said he will advertise “both inside the city and outside” to find a permanent chief.
Avant had been working for Rainbow Bakery here 35 years ago when he noticed a morning newspaper ad saying policemen were needed.
“I sure never thought when I saw that ad that I would someday be sitting behind this (police chief) desk,” he said. “This job has been real good to me.”
The police chief said yesterday he wants to retire because “there’s just some other things I want to do.”
“I’m not doing this because of my health or anything like that. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I want to do this now, so I can do some things while I still have my health,” he said.
Avant is an avid hunter and fisherman. He spends much of his leisure time at his lakeside home near Mathis. He said one of the chief joys there is tending his garden.
He said he wants to be able to spend more time with his wife. “I owe a lot to her. Without her support, my long police career would have been impossible.”
He also wants to spend more time with his family, including two granddaughters, and do “a limited amount of traveling to some places in this country I haven’t seen, and to visit some people I have know for a long time.”
Avant has been the police department’s leading advocate, as well as its administrative head, and said he is proud of the department’s record during the years he served as chief.
“I think we’ve made more progress here in the past five years than has been made in the history of the department,” he said.
Avant was named Acting Chief on Oct. 8, 1970, following the resignation of R. T. Runyan. Four months later, he was officially appointed chief of the department.
The federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, the agency through which federal funds are funneled to local law enforcement agencies, came into its heyday during Avant’s term in office, and his efforts were instrumental in garnering more than $2 million in federal money for the department.
Five specialized bureaus were added with the funds, including the Nueces County Organized Crime Control Unit, the Crime Prevention Unit, Community Relations Bureau, Youth Bureau and a Planning and Research Bureau.
“When these grants first started coming out, a lot of cities held back. I didn’t - I went for all I could get,” he said.
Asked what he considers the department’s most pressing need now, he cited “immediate expansion of the facilities.” He said many parts of the Police Building are overcrowded and the Crime Prevention Unit and stolen property warehouse are housed outside the building.
“I think if we don’t expand our building pretty soon, we’re going to have to start looking for some more outside space,” he said.
Avant had a puzzled look but a quick reply when asked why he first went into police work. “I don’t know,” he said. “I guess it was for the excitement. It took me a couple of years to find out there was more to it than excitement.”
He said he almost didn’t follow though with his application because he was sick the day he was scheduled to take the police exam. “I decided to get out of bed and take it anyway, and I passed,” he said.
A few weeks later, he was hired and traded in a shotgun to buy his service revolver.
He said there was no training for officers at that time. “I didn’t know any law. They just gave me a badge and a uniform and told me to get out there and enforce the law,” he said. “I would just hear people yelling and call that disturbing the peace. People would be staggering down the street and I’d call that drunkenness and when a fight was going on I’d call that disorderly conduct.”
During Avant’s tenure as chief, the Corpus Christi Police Academy, though which local officers are trained, was expanded to provide 17 weeks of training.
Avant has a high school education. Today, there are five men on the police force with masters degrees.
At the time Avant joined the force, there were three “beats”: one on Corpus Christi Beach (then North Beach), one in the central city and one “out south,” which meant the Six Points area. Now there are 11 patrol beats in the city.
“They first put me out on the beach, and I got to like it. Then they sent me out south where I didn’t know anybody or anything. I couldn’t see any sense in it, and I got so mad I almost quit. My partner and I both thought the same way. Then a little bit later they gave me a new partner and I got even madder,” Avant said.
Some of the loudest grumbling heard at the Police Department during the past few years have come from the officers who are mad at Avant and his frequent shuffling of personnel. He has said his policy is to give officers experience in all areas of police work and all sections of the city.
Avant said when he first joined the department police cars were equipped with one-way radios. The police dispatcher cold relay assignments to the men in their cars, but they couldn’t respond.
The police communications system a few years later came to use two-way radios, but for many years it operated with only two channels. As the number of cars grew, the channels became overcrowded.
Shortly after Avant was named to head the department, a federal grant of more than $234,000 was added to $78,000 in city funds to expend the communications system to four channels. Through a later grant, a computer data retrieval retrieval system was tied in so that officers could obtain criminal history information rapidly by radio.
Avant worked in all sections of the police department, but said he liked the patrol section best because he “loved to catch burglars.”
“There were some days when I would rather catch some burglars than eat,” he said.
He rose through the departmental ranks rapidly and was named assistant chief in 1951, only 10 years after he joined the force. He was the first man in the history of the department to hold every rank from patrolman to chief.
Avant was philosophical about his experience on the force. “I think everybody should try to make a mark in this world, even if it’s just a scratch. This has been mine.”
Townsend said yesterday when announcing the retirement to the Council that he tried “vehemently” to get Avant to change his mind about leaving. “I wish he would stay with us a little longer,” the city manager said.
Council members suggested holding a party or dinner to honor both Avant and retiring longtime City Water Supt. Atlee Cunningham. Townsend said he would arrange the event.