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.

The Indo Mart became the first store in Houston to close voluntarily for a set period in lieu of being foreclosed upon. The owner agreed late in May to close for five months and upon reopening to stop selling crack-pipe kits, small manila envelopes for holding marijuana, and other drug paraphernalia.

"It's like offering them six months in the hospital or sudden death," Aguirre says. "They say, 'I'll take the six months in the hospital and try to get well.' For the most part, they walk the line after this because they know this is a stopgap measure between losing their business and complying."

When it came to graffiti, he assigned one officer to deal exclusively with the problem, cruising the area, getting help from businesses, making cases on repeat offenders. And on weekends, Aguirre and others will regularly take up their paintbrushes or paint scrapers and tackle the problem more directly. "We knock out 15 locations in two hours; it's a lot of fun. That's a genuine feeling of satisfaction," he says. ("The sad thing is they'll come back in on Monday and half of them will be painted [with graffiti] again," an Aguirre supporter says.)

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.

When it came to trash, he also assigned HPD's only officer dedicated solely to garbage. And the city's solid waste department has two garbage trucks at that officer's disposal.

Cruising the neighborhood with Officer Michael Frazee is definitely not a typical HPD ride. For one thing, he talks in italics, and for another, his streets are made mean by such things as the inability of citizens to know exactly when heavy trash day is.

"I write tickets for trash; I take people to jail for trash. I don't have a problem with that," says the effervescent Frazee.

Sometimes the offenders are contractors who drive their trucks into blighted neighborhoods to dump loads on vacant lots. Frazee recently caught one such crew that didn't realize it was doing anything illegal. The boss asked what the problem was; Frazee says he simply replied, " 'Two days.' And he said, 'There is no way we can get all this stuff picked up in two days,' and I said, 'I bet you can.' And I tell you, two hours later they had a huge Dumpster out there and everybody was out there, even the head construction guy, and they were loading it up. So, you know, don't tell me it's impossible."

Aguirre got two companies to donate goods and services so that 20,000 calendars -- featuring shots of local well-kept homes and individualized with the heavy trash dates for each neighborhood -- could be distributed. Lots of times, though, people don't want to wait for that once-a-month pickup, Frazee says.

"You're trying to change the way these people think, and it's very hard," he says. Frazee says he was writing a ticket to an illegal dumper recently when he noticed "a 98-year-old woman" watching from her porch across the street.

"I walked up to her and said, 'Ma'am, as long as I am out here doing the position I am doing now, you will not have to look at that.' And she said, 'That's normal.' I don't want my grandmother out on the porch having to look at trash all day long, so why should you?"

Frazee spends much of his time trying to figure out who owns the vacant lots where trash, or dozens of used tires, has piled up. "My job seems kind of easy, but believe me, it keeps me very busy just because I'm trying to track a lot of these owners," he says.

One thing he doesn't do, for the most part, is answer the standard patrol calls.

"I don't answer calls in service unless it's a code -- something in progress," he says. "If I'm in the area, of course, I'm going to go by and help out. But I don't run regular calls."

That causes some grumbling. "You get all these specialized units and they don't have to respond to calls unless they want to do it out of graciousness," one officer says. "And that just means calls will stack up for everyone else."

Aguirre also took officers off the beat to deal with what he saw as one of the biggest problems in the division: the Greyhound bus station at Main and Gray.

He hates the fact that newly freed convicts from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice hop on the bus in Huntsville and get dropped off in his turf, usually with nothing to do before reporting to a halfway house the next morning. Taxi drivers, he said, are lined up all day "drinking, shooting dice, smoking weed, taking people to do drugs and meet prostitutes."

The drivers, he says, would refuse to take elderly residents from the nearby condo building to the Medical Center because the fare would be too low.

There is security at the station -- off-duty HPD and sheriff's department officers -- but Aguirre is unimpressed. "These guys are hiding in a damn closet in there, they're not doing anything. See no evil, hear no evil. I guarantee you, every time I've gone in there they've got a little office, that door is shut."

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