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.

Aguirre and officer Ken Wenzel, who's on the team assigned to the bus station area, want the facility moved to the north end of downtown next to the Amtrak station. "You could have state-of-the-art security, airport-stuff type of security," Wenzel says.

Dallas-based Greyhound would consider moving if adequate real estate were available and affordable, a company spokesperson says, but it also doesn't care for the characterization of its passengers. "Crime in that neighborhood is a neighborhood issue, not a bus station issue, and we think our customers deserve to be in an area with less crime," Lynn Brown says.

She says the station generates a lot of police calls partly because it offers a 24-hour-a-day phone that can be used to report crimes that happen off the premises. "Ninety percent of the arrests made there are of Houston residents," she says, not travelers from other cities.

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.

And the recently released inmates? "We prefer to see them as people who have paid their debt to society," she says, "and the vast majority of them are going home, not stopping in the area."

Aguirre's tussle with Greyhound -- he has accused the company of "breaking its social contract" by ignoring problems -- has raised the ire of some City Hall staffers, who don't like to see a large corporate constituent offended. Greyhound's "intention is to work with the neighborhood, but all they've heard from him is that he wants to drive them out," one says.

"That's the last thing in the world we want to do," says Wenzel.

"Some politicos have been downright hostile" to his efforts to clean up the area, Aguirre says. He's uncharacteristically shy about naming names -- "Because I'm going to have to go back to the trough" for support, he says -- but he's been known to contact staff people and city councilmembers directly to plead his case.

Another effort that has engendered controversy involved the homeless. Aguirre set up a squad to deal with what he calls "the so-called homeless" population in the Midtown area.

"We weren't messing with anyone merely because of their status, I want to stipulate that," he says. "But these people were engaging in nuisance crimes."

Other vagrants, he said, were wanted on felony counts across the United States. "We found out a lot of the so-called homeless are not harmless."

Aguirre's officers rousted loiterers, following them on a "relentless march" through their various gathering places. "My officers are willing to get their hands dirty," he says of the unit involved. "A lot of these [homeless] guys, they defecate on themselves, they use drugs and have needles in their pockets; it's not a glamorous job. However, it is something that needs to be done, and they do it without complaint."

Aguirre's efforts haven't enthralled advocates for the homeless. "There are experts on dealing with the homeless, and Captain Aguirre is not one of them," says Sandy Kesseler, executive director of the SEARCH facility. "These are people, many of them are mentally ill, and he's trying to make them understand civility by being forceful…When you have this forceful no-tolerance attitude with the homeless, they just become better at hiding, and they become more fearful."

Aguirre, of course, is not apologizing for anything. The homeless effort "was the centerpiece, the crown jewel of our program," he says, "because that's what got us started."


Operation Renaissance has drawn rave reviews from local businesses and residents. "Citizens love it," says City Councilwoman Annise Parker.

Aguirre has the statistics: In the 27 months it's been in effect, he says, there have been 180,377 arrests or tickets handed out; 8,268 illegal dumps eradicated; about 2,300 used tires removed. The numbers dwarf those of other divisions, he says, even bigger ones (HPD discourages comparisons between divisions and even individual beats because of the varied demographic makeup of the areas.)

"Crime has plummeted," Aguirre says.

In the first three months of the program, he says, aggravated assaults dropped by 80 percent, and robberies were cut in half. Since then, "we began competing against ourselves, so to speak, and it was a question of how low can you go. We've had a series of spikes up and down."

HPD stats show less dramatic cuts in crime than Aguirre claims.

Changes in population, such as the gentrification of the Midtown area of South Central, can also affect statistics from year to year. Citywide, the crime rate has been increasing as the booming economy has slowed.

Others are not convinced about Operation Renaissance. "He does have pretty good stats, and he gets his support from his statistical outcomes," says union chief Marticiuc. "But statistics can be manipulated to say anything."

Even HPD spokesman Robert Hurst mentions "the success or perceived success of Operation Renaissance." (He quickly adds, "Don't get me wrong, Captain Aguirre has done a wonderful job, and the citizens and businesses support it.")

Arrest numbers may not tell everything. "The only thing I'm unsure of is that you shouldn't have to be doing the same things over and over again," says Parker. "If there's illegal dumping, figure out who's doing it and get them, don't just write ticket after ticket. Whether that's the case is something I don't know."

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