By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
By Jeff Balke
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
For months, Captain Mark Aguirre of Houston's South Central Patrol Division carried around a videotape of late-night drag racing along Westheimer that made his blood boil. It starts with shots of racing cars taken from inside one of the vehicles. Occasionally, there's a glimpse of the camera operator in the side-view mirror, a nine-year-old boy riding shotgun in his brother's car going 109 miles per hour.
Then the video compilation moves to surveillance tapes a little farther down Westheimer outside a supermarket where a huge crowd has gathered. It looks like a nighttime festival, with puffs of gray smoke going up every now and then, signifying a burning off.
Aguirre, a no-nonsense kind of tough guy, promised to do something about this. It spoke to who and what he is: an action figure who takes no guff, whose parents probably should have given him the first name "Controversial." On August 17, Mark Aguirre did what he does. He let the chips fall where they may.
It has become the stuff of legend. And the chips have hit the fan.
The plan was to stop the street racing and arrest drag racers. But when the police arrived en masse about 1:15 a.m. at the Kmart and Sonic in the 8400 block of Westheimer to execute Operation ERACER (Eliminate and Remove Autos Causing Environmental Ravagement), there was no drag racing going on. So they improvised. The area was cordoned off, the exits sealed. Bystanders -- some 273 of them -- were arrested, nearly all for the class C misdemeanor offense of criminal trespass.
There was no warning. Onlookers were not given the option to immediately leave the scene, as departmental policy states. Rather than issuing citations -- the usual way trespassing charges are handled by HPD -- officers loaded up the folks into vans and cars and took the 231 adults and 42 juveniles into custody, finishing up about 4:30 in the morning. The night before, on Saturday, 25 people had been similarly arrested at James Coney Island at 5745 Westheimer. Most spent at least one night in jail. Some pleaded guilty just to get out, they said.
With a blowout this big, there was no way to keep this out of the media. But instead of the usual congratulatory news reports when law enforcement cracks down on crime, coverage was critical. This was the way to keep the streets safe? It seemed Houston had become a police state where the phrase "zero tolerance" had garbled itself into zero common sense.
One teen told the Houston Chronicle she'd gone into Kmart to get a hair accessory and still ended up jailed. The pathos of the scrunchie defense summed up the meaninglessness of the entire enterprise.
A Chronicle photograph showed two girls the morning after their overnight, looking sad and shaken. They could be anyone's kids. Good kids, now with trouble to work through. Adding to the painful loss of time and money, arrested onlookers found that many of their cars had been towed.
Parents screamed. Residents called police and City Hall. Police Chief C.O. Bradford ordered an investigation. Some officers talking to the Chronicle anonymously criticized Aguirre, who was in charge. They said the arrests weren't warranted, but that an out-of-control Aguirre ordered them made, in complete disregard for the law.
Aguirre got himself a lawyer. Supporters said he'd done a tremendous service to the community in his prior crime-fighting efforts. They said he was being singled out as a scapegoat after a recent written reprimand from Bradford alleging Aguirre used foul and threatening language to subordinates. In return, Aguirre filed a complaint with the Harris County district attorney's office alleging the chief committed perjury when he testified he has never used profanity to his subordinates -- a claim contradicted by an assistant chief.
Five internal affairs division officers visited Aguirre at his home on August 24 to tell him he was relieved of duty and placed on paid leave. Twelve other officers were relieved of duty. The total came in at two captains, two lieutenants and nine sergeants. Some officers alleged that Aguirre had tried to "coerce and influence" them about the statements they were making to IAD, which has interviewed 71 of the 78 officers believed involved.
Then Chief Bradford appeared before City Council August 28 in a morning grilling that lasted more than two hours.
In an extraordinary public misstep, Bradford told councilmembers he didn't know about the raids until he saw a report on what had happened on Fox News at Nine that Sunday night. Bradford made this assertion despite a May 13 internal memo to Bradford from Aguirre about Westheimer drag racing in which Aguirre outlined a zero-tolerance policy that called for arrests rather than citations. A subsequent August 13 memo from Aguirre was titled "Anticipated Mass Arrests from Operation ERACER." Bradford said he never got the memo; it stopped at Executive Assistant Chief J.L. Breshears. So much for chain of command. So much for scuttlebutt.
Obviously shooting for exoneration, Bradford instead looked inept, a chief who has no idea what his department was doing.