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In the Spotlight: Elizabeth Mullen

Former kindergarten teacher serves as one of TDCJ’s top cops

Elizabeth Mullen with U.S. flag in background
Elizabeth Mullen studied to teach school but switched to a career in law enforcement after a fateful trip to Houston. She is the first woman to serve as deputy director of investigations for the Office of Inspector General.

Photo by David Nunnelee

By chance or by design, former kindergarten teacher Elizabeth Mullen somehow found her way into law enforcement and then to a career as a top cop with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

“Call it fate or whatever, but I do believe that things happen the way they’re supposed to,” said Mullen, who last October became the first woman to be named deputy director for investigations with the TDCJ Office of Inspector General. “I do believe that we’re here for a purpose, and I think I’ve found my purpose. Whether I stumbled into it or not, somehow something led me here. I can’t explain it, but once I got here, I knew that this was it.”

Mullen herself says she never dreamed of becoming a peace officer, even though she says she enjoyed shooting her brother’s rifle and watching cop shows as a kid. Instead, as a lot of young women did in the late 1960s and early 1970s, she went to college to get her degree in education so she could teach school. Her first job out of the University of Missouri was teaching a kindergarten class in a small Missouri town.

“A kindergarten cop, huh?” Mullen joked in reference to the 1990 movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

After a year in the classroom, Mullen moved to Mississippi and took a job as a therapeutic recreation teacher with the North Mississippi Retardation Center in Oxford. For the next five years she worked with physically and mentally challenged children and eventually became assistant director of the center’s recreation department. While there, though, she took a life-altering trip to Houston one day with a friend.

“I liked Houston,” said Mullen, who grew up in Wentzville, Missouri, a tiny town that touts itself to tourists as being the birthplace of rock-n-roll legend Chuck Berry. “Houston was the biggest place I’d seen in my life.”

At that time, Mullen planned on returning to Mississippi and working toward a master’s degree in therapeutic recreation. But while in Houston, someone mentioned to her that the city police department was hiring officers.

“It just sounded like something exciting, something different,” Mullen said about her snap decision to switch careers. “I must have just had this spirit that I wanted to do something different with my life, so I gave it a shot. Most everyone I knew back then became a teacher.”

Mullen entered the Houston Police Academy in November 1975 at the age of 26. She was the only female in her class.

“At first they try to run you off,” she said about the academy instructors. “They want to see what you’re made of. They give everybody a hard time, but I really had a hard time being the only female. They rode me pretty hard until they saw that I was serious about the job and that I could do it.”

Indeed, Mullen graduated near the top of her class and became one of just a few female officers then patrolling the streets of Houston. She worked in the HPD’s Accident Investigation Division for four years and then split her time with the department’s Hit-and-Run Detail and Special Operations Division.

Mullen left HPD in 1981 and moved to Huntsville where she worked in various jobs before applying for employment as a TDCJ correctional officer and as an entry-level investigator with what was then the agency’s Internal Affairs Division. She was offered either job, and because of her law enforcement experience, opted to work as a unit investigator. It was 1988 and only three other women were working as Internal Affairs investigators for TDCJ at the time.

“Back then, we were not doing criminal investigations,” Mullen said. “It was predominantly administrative. Local law enforcement agencies investigated crimes that occurred on the units.”

But in December 1989, Mullen was among the first 25 TDCJ investigators to become state commissioned peace officers. She was assigned to the Special Investigations Team, which conducted covert operations and investigated high-profile cases. By 1994, all OIG investigators were commissioned, and today investigate all major cases involving offenders and employees. The office reports directly to the Texas Board of Criminal Justice.

“We’re focusing on what we need to be doing now,” Mullen said. “We’re investigating the serious criminal offenses and the serious administrative violations.”

Mullen said it hasn’t always been easy for her to work in a field long dominated by men.

“There have been ups and downs, but it’s best not to dwell on the lows because the highs are so much better,” she said. “This is a great job, and this is a great place to work. The organization has come a long way in the time I’ve been here.”

Mullen has, in fact, experienced many highs during her 21 years with TDCJ. Besides being the only woman ever to hold her current position with OIG, she was the first female promoted to the rank of commander in that office. She was also the OIG’s first female bureau chief. And in October 1995, she became the first OIG-sponsored employee to graduate from the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia. The second was her current boss, Inspector General John Moriarty.

“I’m very honored and humbled to have this job,” Mullen said of her promotion to the second highest-ranking position in OIG. “I think it’s a victory for all women who work here and should inspire them all, or at least confirm in their minds that if you want this job, you can have it one day if you work hard and if you have integrity and ethics and practice them.”

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