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Stephen Dicker parks his blue-and-white on the side of a deserted street in northwest Houston, climbs out from behind the wheel and steps into the afternoon heat. With his black HPD "raid" jacket and a pistol on his right hip, the veteran cop looks as if he is ready for anything.
Before getting down to business, Dicker unlocks the trunk of his patrol car, removes a pair of skintight plastic gloves and slips them over his hands. He walks over to a light-blue garbage bag he'd spotted lying by the side of the road, stoops down and without hesitation begins sifting through its contents.
"Most police officers don't really care to be messing around in trash," says Dicker. "I myself never go out without my protection."
What Dicker is doing is not very different from what a detective would do in a murder or burglary investigation: he is looking for clues that will help him catch the culprit responsible for tossing the bag. And he finds what he is looking for -- several stained invoices with a still-legible name and address. He carefully slides each soggy piece of paper into a large plastic zip-lock bag, which he seals and places in the trunk of the car.
"This is just regular trash that should have gone out for regular pickup," explains the officer, shaking his head. "But if we can stop this little stuff, it will make people more aware, and we will have better success in stopping the big stuff."
Rummaging through someone else's garbage probably isn't the way Stephen Dicker pictured big-city police work when he signed on with HPD 14 years ago. But the self-described "dumb flatfoot" views his willingness to forage through dirty diapers and rotten food -- and to perform even dirtier work, like exposing himself to the vapors and residue of toxic chemicals -- as an essential element of crime prevention, especially in the city's poorer neighborhoods.
"Look at River Oaks," Dicker says. "You're not going to find many crack dealers standing around on the corners over there. If you go to a neighborhood that has been let go and nobody has done anything with it, you'll find the crack dealers. Unfortunately, many times you find that the people who live there have just become resigned to it. And if that's the case, they aren't getting the support they need from the police and other agencies, because nobody's showed any interest."
In 1993, Dicker and two other HPD officers were assigned to work off and on with the Rat-on-a-Rat program, the environmental equivalent of Crime Stoppers, operated by the city's Neighborhood Protection Division. Rat-on-a-Rat pays rewards of up to $200 to callers who report illegal dumping. In return for the use of the officers, Neighborhood Protection picked up the tab for training them in environmental investigation.
After three years, the cops, working with four inspectors from Neighborhood Protection, had issued almost 1,000 citations, made more than 700 arrests and were responsible for the cleanup of close to 3,000 illegal dump sites -- at a savings of more than $700,000 to the city, at least according to Neighborhood Protection. The effort proved so successful that three months ago HPD formally established an environmental investigations unit, assigning Dicker and three other officers to work full-time with Neighborhood Protection.
The inspectors primarily handle solid waste complaints, for which misdemeanor citations can be written, and the officers are assigned all investigations of air and water pollution, which can result in Class A and B misdemeanors and possibly felony charges. Those misdemeanors carry a maximum jail sentence of a year or so, but the accompanying fines can run as high as $200,000. The officers also get the call if a suspect is found to have a criminal history or is thought to be potentially dangerous.
Before Rat-on-a-Rat, Houston police filed almost no pollution-related charges, and most cases filed with Roger Haseman, chief of the District Attorney's pollution division, originated with Harris County Pollution Control and the city of Pasadena. The criminal charges that were lodged by the city of Houston were usually Class C misdemeanors, which carry minimal jail time and fines. Those minor charges resulted from citations written by inspectors from the city's various regulatory divisions, including Neighborhood Protection.
"The inspectors were oriented toward compliance," Haseman says. "The officers are more oriented toward enforcement."
Dicker acknowledges that the new unit was formed because some of the inspectors and regulators from other city departments were reluctant to pursue criminal charges against polluters.
"Those other people are making money for the city by issuing permits," he says. "We have more of a mindset to put people in jail. That's why the unit was created."
Knute is a poorly paved road in northeast Houston that runs north from Attwater and dead-ends into a vast field piled so high with junk that it looms three or four feet above the surrounding 21-acre tract.
Dicker heads right into it, carefully steering his patrol car along a dirt path strewn with worn-out tires, flattened hubcaps, glass bottles and almost every other type of trash imaginable. As other officers and inspectors arrive, Dicker warns them to don protective footwear in case they stumble across something toxic lurking amid the debris.