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.

"We worked better as boyfriend and girlfriend," says Aguirre, who still hopes to have children someday. "Her mom said we were two chiefs and someone needed to be an Indian. And it wasn't going to be me being the Indian, I can tell you."

Aguirre played a role in two high-profile task forces designed to clean up high-crime areas in Gulfton and the Stella Link/Loop 610 area.

He was working at the jail in February 1990 when he got a call to help out on the Gulfton project from a supervisor who recalled his enthusiasm for the job. "It was in a moribund state, and I received a call from my captain to come over and get it off the ground," he says, "and that was very unusual, because I was not even working in that division at the time. I asked if I could bring some people with me, and we just went over there and made a tremendous, tremendous impact."

Union chief Hans Marticiuc says Operation Renaissance endangers officers.
Deron Neblett
Union chief Hans Marticiuc says Operation Renaissance endangers officers.
Officer D.M. Camp's job is to battle graffiti.
Deron Neblett
Officer D.M. Camp's job is to battle graffiti.

The project included assigning patrol units to stay in hot areas and crack down on loitering, public drunkenness and other offenses, coupled with drug raids and other aggressive actions.

The effects were "ephemeral," he says. Once the task force ended (federal funds had been paying for officer overtime costs), the crime returned.

And Aguirre went back to his climb up the HPD ladder, regularly acing the civil service exams. (He's a great reader, loving biographies of people such as Churchill, MacArthur, Napoleon, even noted socialist Eugene V. Debs. Some might say that's a list of monomaniacal fanatics, but Aguirre prefers to think of them as people "who speak to issues of leadership, how to get the most out of people and be true to yourself.")

Slowly, he says -- "like a frog being boiled alive without realizing it" -- things in the department began to change. The officers he came in with got enough seniority and began migrating to the plainclothes divisions. Not Aguirre. "Damn, I just love the street," he says.

But his gung-ho attitude began to grate on fellow officers. He developed a reputation as a by-the-book, balls-to-the-wall eager beaver genetically designed to be a king-size pain in the ass to anyone who had a more relaxed view of the job. There were no major incidents, just an ever more apparent disdain for those he thought were slacking off.

By 1999, he was in his fourth year working in the personnel section, and "champing at the bit to get back on the street."

He aced yet another civil service exam and gained his promotion to captain, and Aguirre finally got his chance. He was assigned to head the South Central Division, which included his old Third Ward stomping grounds.

The captain arrived at division headquarters -- a low-lying building, now slated for demolition, that squats beneath the Southwest Freeway and the Pierce Elevated -- and quickly saw how things had changed.

"When I came back, I was shocked at some of the things I saw. Open-air narcotics dealing…as well as the mounds of trash that were ubiquitous, absolutely everywhere, even across the street" from the police station, he says.

He began meeting with community leaders, church officials and business owners. A skeptical Julian Cortinas, president of the Second Ward Association, says he warned Aguirre of the problems he would be facing.

"All we used to get was lip service from [HPD] upper management," says Cortinas, a longtime community activist. Things like unlicensed cantinas in the East End had been neighborhood blights for years, but little had been done about them.

"We had years and years and years of government dragging their feet," Cortinas says. "I don't think [Aguirre] knew what the challenges were when he came over to the area. I told him, 'You have problems in the community, problems internally. You're going to have to modify every single area. It's a bear of a problem.' He was about to hit 20 years' service, so he had to decide for himself on whether he would be able to make the commitment."

Cortinas says residents had heard all the we-want-to-help promises for years. He asked Aguirre "whether his was going to be a real effort and a strong effort and not just a PR, BS program to hype the community, where you do it for two weeks and then hide under a desk."

The answer came quickly.

Never one to think small, Aguirre envisioned a five-point program, dubbed Operation Renaissance. It was based to a large degree on the tactics used by the earlier Gulfton task force, but this time Aguirre was determined to implement changes permanently rather than for a limited time. The language was grandiose ("Out of this desire to stem the tide of putrefaction, Operation Renaissance was born…a holistic approach in addressing the insidious plague which is devouring our neighborhoods"), but the details were down to earth.

Officers were to be divided up, with maybe one-third to a half of each shift assigned to the normal duties of cruising and answering calls. The rest would be part of "directed patrols" devoted to areas high in criminal activity; to a Division Nuisance Abatement squad dedicated to fighting public drunkenness, prostitution, loitering and other problems centered around the bus station; and officers assigned to getting rid of trash and graffiti.

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