Harold Preston: A mentor and 41-year veteran who never lost his love for the job

Houston Police colleagues remembered the veteran officer as a calm and steady presence. "We all looked up to him"


By St. John Barned-Smith
Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON — Harold Preston had just bought a breakfast taco at a Whole Foods in south Houston on Tuesday when the call came in: two officers at a domestic dispute on Holly Hall needed help.

The 65-year-old Houston Police sergeant headed their way. Preston, who joined the Houston Police Department in 1979, had handled countless domestic calls over his long career.

This undated photo shows Harold Preston as a young Houston police officer.
This undated photo shows Harold Preston as a young Houston police officer. (Photo/Houston Police Officer's Union)

But at 9:25 a.m., a 51-year-old man shot and killed Preston as he tried to escort the man's estranged wife into the apartment to collect her things.

On Wednesday, the impact of Preston's death was still setting in, as friends, family and colleagues mourned a man who gave more than four decades of service, and who was devoted to his community. He is survived by his parents, Annie and Robert Preston, and his daughter, Alison Preston.

Preston grew up in the shadow of Texas Southern University, on Wentworth Street, recalled Houston City Councilmember Carolyn Evans-Shabazz. At the time, she lived one street over, and often saw him she pedaled around the neighborhood.

"I never saw him in an altercation with anyone," she said. "Which is sort of unusual, especially when you're growing up."

Preston attended Jack Yates High School, graduating in 1973, then went to Texas Southern University. He studied sociology and graduated in 1978. A year later, he joined the Houston Police Department.

He was a member of Academy Class 86, and spent the first 14 years of his career working assignments in northeast Houston, the department's former jail, and North Patrol. In May 1999, he transferred to Southwest Patrol, where he stayed for the rest of his career.

Colleagues remembered him as a calm, steadying supervisor, who never lost his enjoyment for the job and loved mentoring new patrol officers.

 

Michael Jackson, a now retired officer, met Preston when the sergeant transferred to Southwest.

He tried to mimic Preston's unflappable, reserved manner, particularly as he became a more veteran officer who new patrol officers looked up to when they first arrived at Southwest.

Sgt. Jennifer McQueston met Preston in 2010 during one of her first assignments at HPD, as a Southwest Patrol officer.

She returned to the station years later. Preston, a "real mellow" supervisor, had never left.

He was a creature of habit, starting every shift by going to Whole Foods to get breakfast tacos and drinks — so much so that it became a long running joke. "Man it's time to go to Whole Foods," he'd crack.

As he did for many other officers at the tight-knit station, he quickly became a mentor.

"This station is different, it has a family feel," she said, recalling how Preston addressed practically everyone he met as 'Hey guy!.'

"We all looked up to him," she said.

They bonded over photography, one of his favorite hobbies — though they disagreed on whether Nikon or Canon made better cameras.

He loved stepping outside, to shoot pictures of the department's helicopter — Fox, as it's called — landing on the helipad behind the Southwest Patrol Station on Nitida.

Though he could have retired years ago, or looked for an assignment that didn't require street work, he never stopped patrol work, subordinates said.

"He was running and gunning with all of us," McQueston said.

During the protests against George Floyd's death earlier this year, the entire department mobilized on 12-hour shifts, and many had to be ready to quickly deploy to demonstrations around the city.

McQueston was dispatched to one protest, but Preston ordered her to stand down.

"I got it," he said.

In recent months, he had decided to put in his retirement paperwork, and he told subordinates he'd bought a motorcycle over the weekend. He ordered one with in simple silver, because he wanted to have a custom design — of a camera aperture — painted on its side.

Special Victims Sgt. Drunnie Ward-Boxie first met Preston as a rookie on patrol in 1999. By that point, he'd already been on the force for 20 years.

"He was the veteran who knew everything," she said.

Preston was a laid-back, quiet officer, a mentor to new cops and newly promoted sergeants, she said.

After a stint in other assignments, she returned to Southwest in 2017. Preston was still there.

She used to joke with him about when he would finally retire.

Preston always demurred.

They held a surprise party for him on his 40th work anniversary, shortly after he returned from a months-long absence recovering from double knee surgery. They surprised him with a cake and a plaque.

"Are you all trying to push me out?" he teased.

Jay Chase, a retired Houston Police lieutenant, worked with Preston in Northeast, where he was an administrative sergeant.

Chase remembered him as a steady, "extremely helpful" sergeant who avoided gossip and could be counted on to get the job done.

"Anything I needed, he'd go above and beyond," Chase said. "I never saw him angry. He may be the most gentle soul I've ever met."

Decades later, after getting married and raising a daughter, Preston moved back into his childhood home to help support his aging parents.

On Tuesday, he'd planned to turn in his retirement papers, said Evans-Shabazz, though he'd told friends he was hoping to return to TSU to work there training new police officers.

"He still wanted to serve, but in a different capacity. That's how I know him: As a servant, a pleasant person, always willing to offer assistance," she said.

"He went full circle. He was raised in Third Ward. He went to school in Third Ward," she continued. "He was doing police work in District D, in Third Ward. He was totally dedicated to the community and law enforcement."

On Tuesday evening, Jackson returned to the station to visit his old comrades. He saw dozens of people Preston had mentored; sergeants, lieutenants, even commanders and assistant chiefs who had worked with him.

He thought of the advice Preston gave him, which he didn't understand at first, but which took on greater meaning as the years went by.

"You might go home late, but you'll go home at end of the day."

And he remembered their jokes, as they grew older, about retirement, about all the times he teased Preston that it was time to trade his badge for a fishing rod by a lake.

Preston always responded: "Probably next year."

(c)2020 the Houston Chronicle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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