Stephen Dicker parks his blue-and-white on the side of a deserted street in northwest Houston, climbs out from behind the wheel and steps into the afternoon heat. With his black HPD "raid" jacket and a pistol on his right hip, the veteran cop looks as if he is ready for anything.
Before getting down to business, Dicker unlocks the trunk of his patrol car, removes a pair of skintight plastic gloves and slips them over his hands. He walks over to a light-blue garbage bag he'd spotted lying by the side of the road, stoops down and without hesitation begins sifting through its contents.
"Most police officers don't really care to be messing around in trash," says Dicker. "I myself never go out without my protection."
What Dicker is doing is not very different from what a detective would do in a murder or burglary investigation: he is looking for clues that will help him catch the culprit responsible for tossing the bag. And he finds what he is looking for -- several stained invoices with a still-legible name and address. He carefully slides each soggy piece of paper into a large plastic zip-lock bag, which he seals and places in the trunk of the car.
"This is just regular trash that should have gone out for regular pickup," explains the officer, shaking his head. "But if we can stop this little stuff, it will make people more aware, and we will have better success in stopping the big stuff."
Rummaging through someone else's garbage probably isn't the way Stephen Dicker pictured big-city police work when he signed on with HPD 14 years ago. But the self-described "dumb flatfoot" views his willingness to forage through dirty diapers and rotten food -- and to perform even dirtier work, like exposing himself to the vapors and residue of toxic chemicals -- as an essential element of crime prevention, especially in the city's poorer neighborhoods.
"Look at River Oaks," Dicker says. "You're not going to find many crack dealers standing around on the corners over there. If you go to a neighborhood that has been let go and nobody has done anything with it, you'll find the crack dealers. Unfortunately, many times you find that the people who live there have just become resigned to it. And if that's the case, they aren't getting the support they need from the police and other agencies, because nobody's showed any interest."
In 1993, Dicker and two other HPD officers were assigned to work off and on with the Rat-on-a-Rat program, the environmental equivalent of Crime Stoppers, operated by the city's Neighborhood Protection Division. Rat-on-a-Rat pays rewards of up to $200 to callers who report illegal dumping. In return for the use of the officers, Neighborhood Protection picked up the tab for training them in environmental investigation.
After three years, the cops, working with four inspectors from Neighborhood Protection, had issued almost 1,000 citations, made more than 700 arrests and were responsible for the cleanup of close to 3,000 illegal dump sites -- at a savings of more than $700,000 to the city, at least according to Neighborhood Protection. The effort proved so successful that three months ago HPD formally established an environmental investigations unit, assigning Dicker and three other officers to work full-time with Neighborhood Protection.
The inspectors primarily handle solid waste complaints, for which misdemeanor citations can be written, and the officers are assigned all investigations of air and water pollution, which can result in Class A and B misdemeanors and possibly felony charges. Those misdemeanors carry a maximum jail sentence of a year or so, but the accompanying fines can run as high as $200,000. The officers also get the call if a suspect is found to have a criminal history or is thought to be potentially dangerous.
Before Rat-on-a-Rat, Houston police filed almost no pollution-related charges, and most cases filed with Roger Haseman, chief of the District Attorney's pollution division, originated with Harris County Pollution Control and the city of Pasadena. The criminal charges that were lodged by the city of Houston were usually Class C misdemeanors, which carry minimal jail time and fines. Those minor charges resulted from citations written by inspectors from the city's various regulatory divisions, including Neighborhood Protection.
"The inspectors were oriented toward compliance," Haseman says. "The officers are more oriented toward enforcement."
Dicker acknowledges that the new unit was formed because some of the inspectors and regulators from other city departments were reluctant to pursue criminal charges against polluters.
"Those other people are making money for the city by issuing permits," he says. "We have more of a mindset to put people in jail. That's why the unit was created."
Knute is a poorly paved road in northeast Houston that runs north from Attwater and dead-ends into a vast field piled so high with junk that it looms three or four feet above the surrounding 21-acre tract.
Dicker heads right into it, carefully steering his patrol car along a dirt path strewn with worn-out tires, flattened hubcaps, glass bottles and almost every other type of trash imaginable. As other officers and inspectors arrive, Dicker warns them to don protective footwear in case they stumble across something toxic lurking amid the debris.
Dicker and his colleagues are here to take pictures and soil samples. The day before, Sergeant Mike Walsh, the former supervisor of the environmental investigations unit, came across the landfill while trying to set up surveillance to catch whoever had been dumping 55-gallon drums of oil along Knute. What he discovered instead was a man hauling debris that he claimed had been collected off freeways by a contractor who has written agreements with Metro, the city and the state.
"All this stuff needs to be in a landfill because it's obviously not dirt," observes Tom Collins, the assistant chief inspector of the Neighborhood Protection Division. Collins says the hauler claims he thought he was simply transporting inert fill dirt -- in other words, dirt that wouldn't decay into something else -- and had arranged with the owner of the property to dump it there for $1,000 a month. The owner, says Collins, maintains that everything in the field is inert.
"We'd hold up an old tire, and he'd say, 'Yeah, that's inert,' " says Collins, laughing and shaking his head in amazement. "In his opinion, everything is inert."
Collins estimates the dumping has been going on for at least a year. Doing some quick math in his head, he calculates that about 10,000 cubic yards of garbage has been deposited in the field. Since it would have cost approximately $50,000 -- or five dollars a cubic yard -- to dispose of the debris properly. Collins figures that the subcontractor already has come out about $38,000 ahead.
He also figures that it will cost the responsible parties about $250,000 to clean up the mess, in addition to any fines or jail time that might be imposed on the hauler or the property owner. Both will likely be charged with illegal dumping, a Class A misdemeanor that carries the possibility of up to a year in jail and $15,000 in fines. Additionally, if test results reveal that toxic material has been deposited in the landfill, they could face stiffer federal charges.
Collins, who has a Ph.D. in urban planning from Texas A&M, joined Neighborhood Protection in 1991 and is the person primarily responsible for the creation of Rat-on-a-Rat and HPD's environmental unit. He also has plotted the concentration of auto body and mechanic shops by City Council districts, believing those businesses have a deleterious effect on neighborhood stability through their improper disposal of paint, motor oil and car batteries.
"There are 4,000 auto body and mechanic shops permitted through the police department," says Collins. "And for every one that is permitted, I guarantee you, there are three that aren't."
One of the heaviest concentrations is in District I on the east side, represented by Councilman Felix Fraga.
"It's true [that those shops] are a big problem in our district," says Fraga. "And if we could ever control that, I think it would reduce crime significantly. Because when things look cleaner and better, there's less negative behavior of all kinds. It ought to be a priority for the city."
But Fraga also believes that many polluters would stop if they were made aware of the damage they're causing.
That's exactly what Collins plans to do. He recently received approval of a $30,000 grant from the federal Environmental Protection Agency to teach small businesses in low-income and minority communities how to be better neighbors.
"Most of these people hopefully will want to come into compliance once you educate them," says Collins.
There are no houses on the dump site at the end of Knute Street, but Collins is concerned about the residential areas surrounding the 21-acre tract.
"Landfills have to be permitted and are usually located away from people," he says. One reason is the danger posed by methane gas generated by the trash. "You have the potential at any time for an explosion from the gas if it gets an ignition source. This could never be permitted as a landfill."
Trouble could also be lurking below.
Behind the head-high Johnson grass on the north end of the property are two water-filled sand pits full of old tires and bottles. Collins says the water table in the vicinity is fairly shallow, and some of the nearby residents still get their drinking water from wells. He fears that whatever has been dumped here could have seeped through the spongy soil into the ground water.
"They may have very well contaminated the drinking supply out here. There's no telling what's been brought in here."
Across the field, Dicker yells for one of the inspectors to photograph two small mounds of dirt and debris. He was drawn to them because, unlike the rest of the trash strewn haphazardly about the field, they seem to have been carefully piled on top of two large blue canvas tarpaulins. Such tarps cost about $1,200 each and are used to cover the loads of 18-wheelers. That the dumpers apparently felt the need to put the expensive coverings down gives Dicker pause.
"Maybe they knew what they were dumping was too bad to just put on the ground without some protection," says Dicker, who has also uncovered a plastic bottle among the debris. A label indicates the container once held something called Nalco-94 and warns that the empty bottle itself should be "considered hazardous waste because it retains constituents of the product."
"When you get a nice warning label like that on there," Dicker says matter-of-factly, "it's a good indicator that it's bad stuff."
Long before there was an HPD environmental unit or a Rat-on-a-Rat program, Stephen Dicker had taken careful note of how crime and blight seemed to go hand in hand in the neighborhoods of northeast Houston that he patrolled. He began to see his job as more than basic crime prevention. Anything he came across that didn't measure up to city standards resulted in a ticket: high weeds, abandoned cars, piled-up tree limbs. Dicker would first give residents a warning. If they didn't clean up their messes, they were cited. At the time, though, Dicker didn't realize he was dealing with an environmental problem; he was just hoping to generate civic pride in neighborhoods where it sometimes seemed to be lacking.
Dicker first focused his attention on the ethnically mixed north-central neighborhoods near Northline Mall, where, he recalls, his efforts initially were met with resistance.
"But after we went in and started doing a lot of cleanup work, people started coming out of the woodwork," says Dicker. "Once they find out someone cares, they call and give us tips about all sorts of things that are going on."
Among them was Dottie Watthuber, the president of the Melrose Civic Association. Located directly to the east of Northline Mall between Interstate 45 and the Hardy Toll Road, the World War II-vintage subdivision was fraying about the edges by the early 1990s.
"After Officer Dicker left, I bawled and squalled," says Watthuber, "because we're a 51-year-old community and we've never had any attention from HPD. We had beaucoups of junk cars and trash. We also had people come in who thought they could just open up junky old garages anywhere without a license. And we needed someone with authority to address all this."
The year or so that Dicker worked in Melrose saw big changes, both in the physical appearance of the subdivision and the attitude of the people who live there. After Dicker was assigned to Rat-on-a-Rat, representatives of the civic association met with Chief Sam Nuchia and insisted that he continue what Dicker had started in their neighborhood. It took three years, but two officers are now assigned to work out of a small building donated by the association.
After departing the illegal dump, Dicker decides to follow up on the previous day's report from an employee of a lumber trucking company on the Gulf Freeway near the University of Houston.
Two weeks earlier, while renovating the company's warehouse, construction workers removed two layers of floor in the rear of the building. Under the second they discovered a vat of old liquid used to treat lumber by the company that had previously occupied the warehouse and still owns it. The current renter of the building contacted a local environmental consulting firm, which removed about 500 gallons of liquid from the vat and stored it in a polyethylene tank. The consultant sampled the liquid at the scene and determined it was pentachlorylphenal -- or, as Dicker puts it, "ethyl methyl death" -- a substance that had been used to treat doorjambs and window frames until it was banned. An EPA warning describes pentachlorylphenal as "fatal if swallowed or inhaled or absorbed through the skin."
Although the vat was scrubbed with high pressure hoses and the runoff was also stored in the tank, no other precautions, such as the installation of air monitoring devices or prohibiting workers from entering the contaminated area, were taken. Nor did the company or its consultant bother to notify authorities. It wasn't until after a worker was hospitalized with nausea that one of his co-workers alerted the fire department, which dispatched its hazardous materials unit to the scene.
HazMat investigators determined that a patch of ground behind the vat had also been contaminated by the chemical -- possibly from a leak in the vat itself. HazMat notified HPD's environmental investigations unit. Upon his arrival, Dicker ordered that the contaminated ground -- where a deck was under construction -- be covered in plastic to reduce the vapors and that air monitoring devices be put in place. He also instructed the company to keep workers out of the area.
Dicker has returned this afternoon to reassess the situation. What he finds does not please him. The air monitoring devices have still not been installed.
"If he was doing things the way he should have done, he would have had air monitoring out here from the get-go," Dicker says. "He should have called the [EPA] national response line to notify them that there was a spill."
Not only could the company face federal charges for failing to properly dispose of the chemicals, but the consulting firm could also face possible fines of $10,000 for each day it failed to notify authorities about the mess.
Depending on how much of the ground around the warehouse has been contaminated by the chemical, Dicker could decide to contact officials with EPA's criminal investigation division. Indeed, Dicker has been working to establish good relations with federal pollution authorities. For example, he was able to get HPD radios for the EPA investigators based in Houston to facilitate communication between the two agencies.
But despite Dicker's congenial overtures, the head of the EPA's Houston office sounds as though he views the HPD pollution-fighters as novices.
"They're still going through growing pains," says resident agent-in-charge Stephen K. Wells, who suggests that some officers may be overly enthusiastic and too eager to wade into potentially dangerous situations. Nevertheless, he is glad to have the help.
"Not every case warrants federal attention," he says. "We have to go after the bigger ones."
Since the consulting company has failed to set up air monitoring devices -- the consultant tells Dicker by phone he can't find any -- Dicker contacts the city's Bureau of Air Quality Control and Health and Human Services Department. He questions some of the construction workers while waiting on the inspectors from the two departments to arrive.
The hardhats relate that they've suffered headaches and blisters on their feet while doing construction work near the vat. They all have the same question: "How bad is it?"
Dicker cautions that it's too early to draw any conclusions. For now, they should just stay out of the contaminated area.
"We try to quell the fears as best we can," says Dicker. "If you had been exposed to that chemical for five years, especially if you had health problems, you'd want some compensation, too. I don't encourage them, and I don't discourage them."
After about an hour, two men from the Bureau of Air Quality Control, carrying what look like steel attache cases, arrive at the warehouse. They quickly set up their equipment and begin testing the air. The samples will have to be taken back the lab, and the results won't be known for at least a day.
The contaminated ground is now covered with heavy sheets of plastic and surrounded by yellow caution tape. The fumes have subsided since Dicker was first called to the scene the previous evening, and there are no other active businesses or residential areas nearby. So, after conferring with a city health officer, Dicker decides not to seek an injunction to temporarily close the business.
"We've recommended to the owner that he might want to shut the whole operation down," says Dicker. "But they can't afford to do that. They are delivering lumber to construction sites. If they don't deliver that day, they lose the contract. They can't afford that. So they've done what we feel is adequate at this point -- pending the tests results."
Six weeks later, the criminal investigation was still continuing, but Dicker says there has been some "remediation" of the threat. The contaminated dirt was exhumed and replaced by fresh soil. Both the chemical and the contaminated dirt were taken to a site in Oklahoma for disposal.
"Let's go look for the guy who blew himself up," says Dicker as he accelerates onto the North Loop.
Normally, Dicker has his suspects arrange appointments at Neighborhood Protection headquarters. This morning, though, he's making a courtesy call on a man who had been working in the back yard of a house on Mosswood, bleeding off the small amounts of gas that remained in several ten-gallon propane bottles. After they were empty, he took a hacksaw and cut the valves off the bottle to sell them later for scrap metal.
"People do stupid stuff sometimes," laments Dicker. "Stupidity and dollars and cents seem to go together in environmental crime."
But there's stupid, and there's stupid.
Not only was the guy cutting up propane canisters with a hacksaw on a windless day: he apparently decided at one point to break for a cigarette. As soon as he struck the match, the propane gas lingering in the yard ignited, leaving him with second- and third-degree burns on his face, hands, arms and chest. And that was the good news; a ten-year-old boy who was playing nearby also was badly burned on his legs.
Dicker is waiting to hear whether the district attorney has decided to file air pollution or illegal dumping charges against the suspect. But Dicker also wants him prosecuted on the felony charge of injury to a child.
The suspect, dressed in loose-fitting shorts, a T-shirt and sandals, is waiting at the front door when Dicker arrives. He invites the officer inside and offers him a chair. He moves slowly, apparently still in great pain. His burns are still visible.
Dicker asks if the man had been lighting up just before the explosion.
"I know better than that," he replies emphatically. He suggests that the spark might have come from a water heater at the rear of the house. Dicker tells him that statements from witnesses and photos of the burn pattern taken by fire investigators indicate the blaze started around where the suspect had been sitting. Unfazed, the man sticks to his story as his young son and elderly mother wander about the house, occasionally stopping in the living room to eavesdrop on the conversation. Not wanting to embarrass the man's relatives, Dicker ends the interview and arranges for the suspect to come by headquarters. He'll wait until then to lay out the legal scenario.
"I didn't want to accuse him of lying in front of his family," says Dicker. "He'll come by the office next week and we'll get the true story."
The true story will be left for a jury to decide. Both the injured man and his employer have been charged with illegal disposal of hazardous waste -- a felony. But to Dicker's disappointment, the district attorney decided not to pursue injury to a child charges.
Stephen Dicker and his colleagues envision big things for their new unit. They see themselves going after the major polluters of water and air -- and that, according to Neighborhood Protection chief Bea Link, is exactly what the city has in mind for them. Unfortunately, those big busts have been slower in coming than those closest to the project had hoped. And, although Chief Sam Nuchia approved the creation of the environmental investigations unit, one of his recent decisions is blamed for slowing its progress.
In August, citing a lack of sergeants in the patrol division, Nuchia ordered the controversial transfer of many sergeants from the investigative divisions back to the streets. The environmental unit's Sergeant Mike Walsh -- one of the original members of the Rat-on-a-Rat program -- was one of those transferred.
"They took the guy with the most experience and put him back on patrol," says one official involved with the new unit. "The new sergeant is a good policeman, but knows nothing about environmental investigations. So he can't train the new hires. So they're all sitting around there looking at each other."
Meanwhile, says the official, the number of cases being sent from the environmental investigations unit to the district attorney's office for charges has slowed to a trickle. (A spokesman for Nuchia acknowledges that every division in the department affected by the transfers will undergo a period of adjustment.)
But even if the new unit had 25 officers fully trained in environmental investigations -- as opposed to the current five, some of whom are still on the low end of the learning curve -- Dicker says they would stay busy. He likens HPD's fledgling attack on environmental crime to the way it belatedly reacted to the gang problem.
"The street patrolmen knew what was going on," says Dicker. "But it took a little more time to convince the upper-ups that it was going to be a problem."
The same, he says, holds true for environmental justice.
"We'll eventually get caught up," says Dicker. "We're moving up the food chain slow but sure."
Until then, he realizes, there are going to be times when he finds his head in a sack of garbage.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.