Code Cops

Is a special police unit breaking criminal havens -- or just plain harassing?

Councilman Bruce Tatro joined in the praise for the program. In a message to Bentley, he said, "My personal experience has been that HPD DRT works, and Neighborhood Protection is merely an ideal means of becoming frustrated with the inability of the city to effectively address code violations."

Not everyone is so enamored with the DRT program. Critics say DRT allows police officers the wide latitude to be judge and jury by being highly subjective in issuing citations for violations.

Lawn grass that is over nine inches high -- normally only a concern of a community association, not a sworn police officer -- makes an occupant subject to a citation. Officers have ticketed owners for frayed wiring or exposed garbage. Other popular strategies include issuing citations for illegally operating a repair shop or leaving spilled oil on the ground. Or a business owner might get hit with tickets for failing to have a fire extinguisher.

Some meetings of the Houston Property Rights Association have featured regular protests about DRT tactics. Those critics complain that regular city building inspectors will often work with owners to informally solve problems, or will issue only warning tickets, but that the police unit is purely in an adversary mode.

Beyond that are deeper concerns about the program and fundamental constitutional rights. Inspectors have access to private property, where they may find other violations or even get affidavits for later use in obtaining criminal search warrants. One critic complained that DRT is no more than a sanitized version of the old police practice, largely abandoned decades ago, of hassling unwelcome residents into moving elsewhere.

Allan Vogel, who owns a home in Westview Terrace, says he was repairing his dilapidated house with a work crew when he got into an argument with a building inspector. Later that day three DRT officers arrived in a squad car and demanded his identification and birth date, presumably for a background check.

When he hesitated, he says, one officer told him that "maybe a couple of thousand dollars in tickets would get your attention." Officers left without any action, but he says, it felt like "casual intimidation."

Vogel compares DRT's tactics to past vagrancy laws that were overturned by the courts. "They are often harassing people who are especially vulnerable because they are poor," he says. Vogel fails to see how police "should be proud of chasing down petty violations instead of real crime."

He says the program amounts to "micromanagement" and "groupthink" about how an individual homeowner should fix property. "They can stick their foot in the door to intimate and threaten you in some cases."

DeFoor insists that the program's operations are aboveboard and strictly legal. Officers do not act unless there is strong reason to believe the location is being used for criminal activity, he says.

While DRT, and its targets, have kept a relatively low profile in the initial years of the program, the units are setting their sights beyond traditional criminal activity. Residents learned that DRT will be diverting focus temporarily to crack down on local auto businesses -- used car dealers, auto repair shops, parts stores and salvage yards.

DeFoor estimated that hundreds of these businesses are operating without licenses. Not only do some of these shops deal in stolen vehicles, they also fail to pay sales taxes, licensing taxes and franchise fees, DeFoor says.

To go from dope dealers to used Dodge dealers seems unusual for the team tagged Robocops, but Councilman Tatro and DeFoor say it is warranted.

And Bentley would be betting on success for them.

"The majority of criminal types are very rude, very inconsiderate people in the neighborhood," Bentley says. "It never occurs to them that anyone is going to come down on them....That's the benefit of DRT."

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