Thirty-five years ago, young deputy sheriff Sam Kittrell would be by himself, patrolling in the rural Vidor area. His police radio wouldn’t even be in contact with the sheriff’s office in Orange.
He learned brains were more important in law enforcement than weapons. And that professionalism and treating even crooks with respect leads to successful police work, and a good community.
In May, Kittrell will mark his 21st anniversary as police chief of the Orange Police Department. He has now set a record of being the longest-serving head of a law enforcement agency in Orange County’s history. Sheriff Chester Holts, who left office in 1969, served 20 years, 10 months and two days.
Kittrell has worked through the years to hire officers and employees who are educated, trained, professional, and dedicated to their jobs. Plus, he worked for years to build the city a modern police-courts building that would handle the needs of Orange for another 50 years.
For his accomplishments and dedication to the community, which include serving as Orange city manager, when needed, The County Record has named Sam Kittrell as 2008 Person of the Year.
“Sam is well deserving to be named Person of the Year. He has maintained an excellent police department for many years without controversy. His accomplishments are many and his service to the people of Orange is without question,” said Roy Dunn, Publisher of the Record Newspapers .
“I think it’s certainly a deserving honor,” said Orange Mayor Brown Claybar. “He has been an outstanding chief. And he’s stepped into city management roles when asked by City Council. He didn’t seek those roles; he did it for his community.”
Kittrell is proud that his department has little turnover. Two years have passed since the last police officer was hired because no one has quit or retired to leave a vacancy.
Most of the vacancies in the past years have been through retirements, something that was rare early in Kittrell’s law enforcement career. Even in the 1980s, few officers retired because few ever reached enough years of service to earn retirement. Most officers left the business for jobs in the private sector.
Kittrell’s parents were Claude and Doris Kittrell, and he was born and raised in Orange. He attended Anderson Elementary, Carr Junior High and Stark High School, where he was graduated with the Class of 1970. After high school, he took classes at “Tilley Tech,” the then-new college run by Lamar Tech in the old Riverside school. Lamar Tech is now Lamar University and the little college is now Lamar State College-Orange.
Through the years he took college classes in Orange and Beaumont, studying criminal justice. When he was hired as police chief by Orange City Council in 1987, he agreed to finish the hours needed to earn his bachelor’s degree from Lamar.
Perservance is part of his character. He took a variety of jobs when he was as young as 14, and when he was still a teenager, he was driving a taxicab in the downtown area. At the time, Green Avenue and Simmons Drive were alive at night with activity from the shipyards and the U.S. Navy base. When he was a senior in high school, he had saved enough money to pay cash for a new car.
He decided on law enforcement as a career and has not regretted the choice, or his choice of staying at home.
“I’ve never had a day I didn’t want to go to work,” he said. “Even in the bad times, I knew they would be over.”
He joined the Orange County Sheriff’s Office in 1973 at the age of 20 and first worked as a dispatcher. He learned first-hand the dangers of the business. He was dispatching on the night in June 1974 when Orange Police Captain Danny Gray was killed in a shootout in the old city police station, only a block away from the sheriff’s office. Kittrell and Gray had been taking college courses together.
After working in the sheriff’s office as dispatcher, jailer and patrol deputy, he went to work at the Vidor Police Department, eventually working his way to assistant chief. He broke the case of the 1976 murder of an on-duty Dallas police officer in a case that 12 years later would bring Kittrell a bit of fame.
Kittrell, while an officer in Vidor, got to know David Harris, a teenager who often broke the law. Harris was only 16 and trusted Kittrell. He told him about hitchhiking to Dallas and riding with a man who shot and killed a police officer. He even showed Kittrell where he had thrown the gun into the bayou outside of Rose City.
Randall Dale Adams was convicted of murdering the Dallas officer. But the case took a turn when a then-unknown documentary film maker, Errol Morris, made the movie “The Thin Blue Line.” Kittrell was featured prominently in the movie and depicted as an honest, small-town cop.
Kittrell was then interviewed by television networks and big-city newspapers and magazines.
Morris has since won an Academy Award for his films. Adams’ conviction was overturned after the documentary raised questions about whether the Vidor teen actually did the shooting. A best-selling book was written about the case.
The Vidor teen, David Harris, never left his life of crime and by 1988, when the Dallas cases was overturned, Harris was on Death Row for shooting and killing a Beaumont man during an apartment break-in. Again, Harris confessed the crime to Kittrell.
Before Harris was executed in 2004, he wrote a letter to Kittrell asking to see him. Kittrell drove to Huntsville for their last visit.
The chief tries to give respect to everyone and his motto is “No one is better than me, and I’m no better than anyone.”
Claybar praises his honesty. “He is a squeaky-clean, squeaky-straight guy,” Claybar said.
Kittrell applied for the chief job in Orange after Jack McClelland resigned. Through the years he has seen a big change in technology. Gone are the times when a lone officer would be out of range of a radio dispatch. Now, officers have radio microphones attached to their uniforms at all times when they are on duty. Patrol cars have video cameras to record officers and their contacts with the public, including criminals. Kittrell has been firm on not allowing any police brutality or even rudeness during his tenure. A new patrol officer on probationary terms won’t last if he or she shows any unnecessary aggressiveness.
Also, he has hired more minorities and women in the department than any other time in the department’s history.
Kittrell is also “a very good communicator and he is a very good writer,” Claybar said. “He has a tremendous ability to gather a large number of facts and turn them into a coherent report.”
While serving as city manager, Kittrell took the engineering study the city had commissioned on the possible annexation of the unincorporated part of the Little Cypress area. Claybar said Kittrell analyzed every aspect and cost of the now-controversial issue and wrote a paper on the subject.
Kittrell also helped lead the city after Hurricane Rita, during the immediate aftermath, and during the recovery.
Kittrell said he likes to listen to all sides of public issues and law enforcement.
“We can’t do what everyone wants, but we do listen, I promise you we listen,” he said.
And with all his years in law enforcement, he still worries about his officers, particularly at night, before he goes to sleep. He knows the job can be dangerous, even in the daylight, but it’s at night when he worries the most.
He has no plans on retiring at this time and he sees Orange coming into a new growth.
“I do love this city,” he said. “I’ll do whatever I can for this city.”