The War Within

Mark Aguirre is an aggressive Houston cop who won civilian support by fighting crime. But the abrasive captain could lose his biggest battle: the one raging over him in HPD itself.

Houston police Captain Mark Aguirre fights his battles on many fronts.

From a battered office in the aging depths of the South Central Division's headquarters, under the large "Don't Tread on Me" flag that dominates one cheaply paneled wall, the stocky 45-year-old oversees 18 square miles of the city. About 90,000 people live within the borders of the area he and his 150 or so officers are charged with protecting, from the gentrifying yuppies lofting into Midtown and Montrose to the established urbanites around Rice University and outside Bellaire, to the more hardened city dwellers near South Main and the east side.

There are the additional tens of thousands who come each day to work or visit the Medical Center. There are the untold numbers of new and not-so-new immigrants in the Asian areas. There are the hundreds of former prison inmates who get dropped off each month at the downtown bus station.

Aguirre says half of HPD is made up of "malingerers."
Deron Neblett
Aguirre says half of HPD is made up of "malingerers."
Community activist Julian Cortinas says residents got only lip service before Aguirre arrived.
Deron Neblett
Community activist Julian Cortinas says residents got only lip service before Aguirre arrived.

There are hot-sheet hotels on OST. There are stores in the Third Ward selling empty baby-food jars to hold liquid codeine or jeweler bags to hold crack.

There's graffiti on Dumpsters and buildings. There are vacant lots filled with abandoned furniture or appliances or tires.

So Aguirre has plenty of battles to choose from.

He never thought his toughest one would be fighting his own department.

But the navy veteran, the guy who can't remember a time when he didn't want to be a cop, has managed to annoy, offend and exasperate both the police brass above him and the rank-and-file below. He has accused the police chief of perjury; he treats his officers "with total disrespect," according to one police union leader.

The department, Aguirre says, is "filled with political stooges and amoral careerists" who hate to work hard. "The ones that like to work hard, I'm their hero," he says; "the other half are malingerers, crybabies and whiners."

They can all -- the chief, the officers, other divisional captains -- take their place in the complaint line behind the City Hall staffers, the advocates for the homeless, the Greyhound bus company, the civic groups that don't have the proper volunteer spirit: everyone Aguirre has managed to piss off one way or the other in his 22 years on the force.

Aguirre couldn't care less what they think. He insists he knows what works when it comes to policing, and if the city would just listen to him, instead of taking up his time with petty-ass bullshit internal-affairs complaints against him, instead of forcing him to deal with butt-covering politicians in and out of elected office, he could damn well show the world.

He'll probably never get the chance, though. After three years of shaking up the South Central Division, and much of the rest of the Houston Police Department, he may just have had enough.

Aguirre doesn't know where his lifelong urge to be a cop comes from. "It's just always been an intrinsic desire, and as I grew older it just solidified," he says. "I don't know, maybe in a previous life I was an officer or something."

The urge certainly didn't come from the "gang-infested neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago" where he grew up. "Officer Hidalgo," the local cop in that Hispanic section, "was seen as a traitor to the neighborhood -- he was just real rough with people, and he was from the neighborhood originally," Aguirre says. "People always thought he was just going around settling old scores."

Aguirre ignored the temptations of the gangs -- again, he doesn't know exactly why, it just never seemed an option to be considered -- and headed for the navy after graduating from high school in 1974.

Serving as a signalman on a destroyer escort and an aircraft carrier, he spent two years in Japan and reveled in the discipline and order of military life. He got out in 1978, pretty much broke, and went to live with his parents. His father, a blue-collar installer for Illinois Bell, had by then taken a job with Southwestern Bell, and the family had moved to Houston.

Aguirre found he "loved the climate." He waited out the one-year residency requirement before joining the Houston force in 1979 as "a young skinny policeman" patrolling the Third Ward.

"It was everything I thought it would be," he says of those early days as a cop. "I didn't want to go home and take off my uniform at the end of a shift. I could really relate to baseball players or football players, people who get paid to do something they love."

The department was different back then, he says. It was about half the size it is now, and officers stuck together more. They cared about their jobs more, too; although, Aguirre says, "That's what everyone says when they get old -- 'The kids today aren't like we were.' People have been saying that since time immemorial, so I don't know. But it seems there was more of a sense of brotherhood back then."

He got married, but like a lot of police marriages, it didn't take. She was a college classmate of Aguirre's sister, but after three years, with no kids, the couple split.

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