The City of Houston proclaimed Dec. 7, 2016, as Chuck Brawner Day, presented by Houston City Council member Mike Knox (left) and Houston City Council member Brenda Stardig.
The longtime police chief was a working officer at SBISD before the district had a police department, working with Romel, the first drug detection dog in Spring Branch ISD and one of the first school drug dogs in the nation in 1970s.
But when Brawner retires on Dec. 31 as SBISD Chief of Police, he’ll have spent the lion’s share of his law enforcement career working with the school district, the last 20 years as chief. Between his work with Romel and his full-time career with the district’s police force, Brawner has some 45 years working in and around Spring Branch ISD.
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The story starts with Brawner as a young man in the 1960s, working as a clothing manufacturer’s representative for a friend of his parents, who was transferred from East Texas to Houston. But Brawner didn’t much care for sales.
“Factory representative work was boring to me,” Brawner said, knowing even then he wanted to work in firefighting or law enforcement. He was able to sign on as a reserve officer with Spring Valley Police Department and a volunteer firefighter with the former Spring Branch Fire Department (now Village Fire Department).
And while firefighting was exciting, he said, it wasn’t “exciting enough” and he made the move into full-time law enforcement, working a more years with Spring Valley police before making the move across I-10 to the former Village Police Department (now Memorial Villages Police Department), which included Hedwig Village and Memorial High School.
That’s when his career arc changed. It was the early 1970s and the district -- and in particular then-principal of Memorial High School Wayne Schaper Sr. – was worried about the influx of illegal drugs on campuses.
While going through the Sheriff’s Academy, Brawner had written a paper on military drug dogs and their use in Vietnam, interviewing a former Navy dog handler as part of the assignment. Brawner thought maybe a drug dog was the answer. He went to Schaper and made his case. Schaper was on board.
“I wasn’t trying to be the first (drug dog on a school campus),” Brawner said. “I just thought it was the right thing to do, based on the research I had done.”
One person – an MHS parent – bore the costs, Schaper said, administered through a special corporation set up especially for the program. Costs included the dog and training, a modified vehicle to transport the dog, Brawner’s salary and other administrative costs.
Chuck Brawner was about to meet Romel.
Brawner with Romel, the first police dog to work in Spring Branch ISD and one of the first in the country to work in a school system. Undated photo from 1970s.
Brawner and Romel, like all handlers and their working dogs, became a pair, with Brawner participating first in Romel’s training then becoming Romel’s caregiver, taking him home at night where Romel became part of the family.
Romel loved kids, Brawner said. His own kids would “ride (Romel) like a horse.” And Romel loved going to presentations with Brawner, where he’d sit patiently in his work halter, always calm but always on alert.
“Romel was a tremendous asset to the school district,” said Schaper. “He was loved – and hated – by kids. The kids with no drugs were happy. The kids with drugs – they weren’t so happy.”
And Romel was finding drugs – first on SBISD campuses, in lockers, in cars and other stashes and later for Houston police, the Department of Public Safety and other area agencies.
Brawner, Romel and SBISD were getting a lot of attention then – first with local media then when national media started calling. Romel and especially his school work were something of a sensation.
One of Brawner’s proudest moments with Romel, he said, came helping DPS bust an operation in Waller County that they’d observed for some time. Police stormed the property – Brawner with Romel – but found nothing during their search.
Brawner took Romel to a barn on the property where he watched Romel’s tail curl, an indication that he had alerted on something. Tugging at boards underneath hay and manure, Brawner found some that were loose and underneath, sealed plastic bowls filled with marijuana, heroin and other illegal drugs.
“That one meant a lot to me and the way Romel worked,” said Brawner.
Romel saved Brawner’s bacon, so to speak, several times as an attack dog. Brawner tells the story of “not knowing what he was getting in to” with one suspect, who chose to put up a fight as Brawner was attempting an arrest early one morning. Brawner was struggling with the suspect when Romel came out of the patrol car and “tore that old boy up,” Brawner said.
Brawner was able to begin to subdue the suspect and had a single handcuff on him when he began fighting again. Romel came over to help once again, aiding in the arrest.
Romel retired from service in 1981, living out his remaining days with Brawner and his family in Katy. Romel is buried in the pet cemetery in Alief.
Back to the FutureAround the time Romel retired, Brawner left law enforcement for several years to focus on a growing landscape supply company he’d started. But after only a few years he’d begun to miss the excitement again. He spent a few years as a volunteer firefighter in Katy but he really missed law enforcement. Applying at different agencies, he asked Schaper if he could use him as a reference. Schaper said SBISD was hiring officers – why didn’t he apply here?
Brawner did and was hired with another officer in December 1986, doubling the SBISD Police Department to four. Officers during that time worked days, patrolling four quadrants around the district’s high schools.
“We didn’t have many resources,” said Brawner. “Our communications were on the bus channel, and we operated from a desk at the (administration) building.”
But trustees and administrators began seeing the value of a working police department as more shifts and officers were added, and the police department began monitoring the district’s fire and burglar alarms, saving the district significant money.
The department continued to grow into a working police department, Brawner said, while he continued to take courses, including the leadership command program at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville.
While at Huntsville he heard an opportunity that he considers another hallmark of his career – he was selected for the Olympic Security Team at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, one of 900 officers from around the world brought in to police the Games.
Brawner was assigned as team leader for the 24-7 security of the equestrian facility (one horse alone was worth $60 million, he said), leading a team with officers from as far away as Australia.
“It was a great time until the Centennial Park bombing,” he said. “Then we tightened everything up.” Still, Brawner said, “it was worth it. I learned a lot.”
In 1995, Brawner was named Chief of Spring Branch ISD police, a position he’ll hold for just a few more weeks and the department has become even stronger under his watch.
SBISD police moved into their new building on Ruland in 2007, moving out of the renovated Grob Stadium fieldhouse they occupied for years. The building was a special project for Brawner, who said he walked it every day during construction, watching everything.
Retired SBISD Police Chief Chuck Brawner shakes hands at his retirement ceremony on Dec. 7, 2016, with former SBISD superintendent Duncan Klussmann (left), retired administrator and trustee Wayne Schaper Sr., current Board President Karen Peck and Houston City Councilmember Mike Knox.
“I’m a very religious person, and I think God has a plan for all of us,” he said. “Mine is to serve people – that’s why I didn’t stay in clothing (as a manufacturer’s rep). God put me in the best spot (for me) and I stayed.”
That service aspect informed his decision in 1986 to return both to law enforcement and to Spring Branch ISD.
“I wanted to come back and make a difference,” said Brawner, “to help create a safe, secure environment for teaching and learning.
“The children in our schools now are the most valuable commodity to our country,” he said. “You’ve got to have an environment you can learn in.”
He still has some service left – he was elected to the Katy City Council several years ago and today is mayor pro tem. “There again,” he said, “I’m serving citizens.
But with three grown children and four grandchildren, Dec. 31 is his retirement date and he’s sticking to it, he says.
“It’s time to do other things.”
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by Rusty Graham