Code Cops

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

Mary Bentley chased gang members out of her Spring Branch neighborhood almost four years ago, but she believed they had come back when she turned down her narrow street on a dark night almost a month ago.

There was no gunfire or graffiti, no mysterious hand signals or symbolic colors -- only a two-door car filled with teenage kids parked in her path on the way to her modest frame house in Westview Terrace.

Bentley, a retired accountant who has lived in the same home for 30 years, was returning from an evening prayer meeting. The headlights of her car crossed the idling auto that refused to move.

Rather than confront the occupants, Bentley put her car in drive, steered into the shallow ditch and pulled around the car. She was greeted by whoops and laughter from the crowd.

"They stood there and laughed at me," says Bentley. "It's the kind of insolence and rudeness that you just don't find in normal neighborhood children."

Even Bentley will admit that the incident, a car temporarily blocking a street, and her suspicions of gang activity would hardly draw a serious response from ordinary law enforcement. But her complaint didn't go to regular officers. She took it to the Houston Police Differential Response Team, a special and sometimes controversial patrol unit that some critics brand as the Robocops.

Officers with DRT have broad power to target suspected criminals with a varied arsenal of civil as well as criminal authority. In Bentley's case, DRT targeted the house with the wayward youths. Those police made regular surveillance runs and on-site inspections, snooping for illegal activities as they checked for the simplest of city code violations that could merit a citation.

They informed the landlord of the rent house of suspected drug activity or prostitution. Within weeks the problem was gone. That's because the occupants of the house were gone.

Such tactics have endeared DRT to many residents in the areas served by the program. However, what its defenders view as dynamic enforcement action has been labeled by opponents as nothing more than heavy-handed police harassment.

Some members of the Houston Property Rights Association wonder if it is the forerunner to a police-state mentality, an assault on fundamental personal privacy rights.

Assistant Police Chief Jerry DeFoor, the creator of the four-year-old DRT, says the team only follows the law. It issues tickets only for valid -- if often petty -- violations in inspections that can yield evidence of serious crimes. Repeated citations, he says, "are used as leverage to get the criminal out of his lair."


Bentley calls DRT's work the broken-window strategy.

A minor infraction that is no more than nuisance, such as a broken window or junk car, can be DRT's excuse to look for further violations. The approach makes sense to Bentley, who says a growing number of rental properties over the last decade has brought unwanted crime to her older working-class neighborhood located just west of Loop 610.

DeFoor began the program when he was a captain assigned to the North Shepherd substation. DeFoor had been involved in neighborhood watch and other HPD programs aimed at improving relations with residents. His theory is that police can rid an area of most crime if they can get rid of the kind of environment that breeds it.

He says the police storefront program officers initially planned to take the omnibus role of the later DRT, but the work of storefront officers evolved more toward public relations and community service, giving grade-school lectures and being accessible at meetings.

"When you're a police officer out there, you're trying to improve the quality of life," DeFoor says. "I wanted to train the officers to think outside the normal parameters -- the expected calls and normal reports -- to think about the bigger issues involved and identify the ongoing problems. We needed to strategize and collaborate with community people, and from that devise some way of intervening in whatever issue was causing this crime issue."

The DRT pilot project began with nine officers taking on a wide range of code enforcements. They serve as liaison to five state and federal agencies that can prosecute serious environmental violations.

The project was started in a neighborhood behind Northline Mall and eventually rolled out to five north Houston neighborhoods without police storefronts. More than 200 officers have now completed the 36-hour training, and the program is being expanded citywide.

DeFoor says the record-keeping is only now being standardized, so there are no statistics available. The only capital cost has been the construction of a 43rd Street storefront office.

He cites several early successes. Harris County Probation Department probationers were called out to cut a weeded public lot on T.C. Jester north of Victory Drive, a place were burglars had hidden the discards of stolen property, he says. That ended burglaries in the Inwood Forest neighborhood, he says.

Bentley tells of pre-DRT police taking more than a year to build a case against the occupants of rental property who were involved in drugs and prostitution. In 1998, when similar problems reappeared, a DRT unit needed only two weeks to rid the neighborhood of the offenders, she says.

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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