Myths and Legends

Police Chief C.O. Bradford tells city councilmembers how he heard about the raids on TV.
Troy Fields

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.

Attorney Terry W. Yates's attempt to get a temporary restraining order removing the investigation from Bradford's supervision was turned down by state District Judge John Donovan.

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.

Bradford said the officers on the scene should have refused to obey any unlawful orders. Outside in a hallway, Houston Police Officers Association president Hans Marticiuc said officers didn't know they weren't doing the right thing. But Marticiuc did think mistakes were made and that people ought to start looking at Aguirre and his superiors if they want to find the culprits.

So basically what we have here is this scenario:

People got thrown in jail because they picked the wrong night and place to do their shopping and get a burger. (Some were probably there hoping to watch a little racing, although technically this isn't a crime.)

Despite years of legal training and fieldwork, the officers who arrested all those people didn't know they might be stepping all over probable cause.

One captain may have single-handedly commanded the biggest mass violation of human rights in terms of one night's arrests this city has ever seen.

The police chief of the fourth-largest city in the country steps out for a week of special training and apparently is so alienated from his department that no one tells him what's going on and he learns about it on TV.

Bradford misses any heads-up even though word of the raid is broadcast over every police scanner in town that night. And even though there were 25 people arrested the night before.

Dysfunctional, yes. Believable? In a pig's eye (if you'll pardon the expression).

It was hammer time when C.O. Bradford appeared before City Council. Only Shelley Sekula-Gibbs and Michael Berry defended the mass arrests. In fact, Berry had been along on the James Coney Island raid and didn't question anything at the time. He knew ahead of time that Kmart was next. He told the Chronicle he didn't speak up during or immediately after the raid because he didn't know what the correct police procedure should be and all the officers seemed comfortable with what they were doing.

Bradford expressed his own disappointment and embarrassment over what had happened, laying the blame rather squarely at the feet of those in charge at the scene, which of course would be Aguirre.

Houston police had a "street racing initiative," Bradford said. But when there was no drag racing, something else transpired, and that something else had not been approved, the chief said.

The plan called for mass arrests, Bradford conceded, but insisted that in police terms that means any arrests above the number seven. He never anticipated that 200 to 300 people would be arrested, he said. He never wanted spectators arrested, he said.

Bradford did say he knew after the fact that two parts of Aguirre's original plan were not approved and the plan was changed but he couldn't say how. Eleven days after the incident, he said, he still had not had a chance to check on that.

Basically, Bradford said, City of Houston policy is that people who are on private property must be told they aren't wanted and given the chance to leave immediately, before any action is taken. "Just being on private property is not a violation of any law," Bradford said. The violation occurs when someone is told to leave and does not, he said.

"There must be ample notice," Bradford said, adding that he can find no documentation that Kmart ever filed an affidavit saying it didn't want people on its lot at night. To the contrary, Bradford said, the fact that it is open 24 hours implies that Kmart wants people to come by at all hours of the day and night.

Councilman Gordon Quan said it disturbed him that there were so many officers, police cars and tow trucks involved in such an operation but word of it never got to the department's command staff.

Wrecker drivers were told ahead of time to keep their rigs off the lot and out of the way of police officers that night. The city jail was alerted that it could expect an influx of prisoners. "Everyone knew that people were going to be transported to jail," Councilwoman Ada Edwards said, adding pointedly: "I'm very concerned that wrecker drivers know more about what's going on in our police department than our police chief."  

Retail stores and services love teenagers and young adults. They target advertising to them. They put on special sales for them. They want every bit of that discretionary income coupled with poor impulse control to make its way into their pockets.

They love their money. But they don't love them.

A lot of teenagers and young adults don't just march into a store or fast food joint, do their business, plunk down their money and leave. They tend to congregate and hang. Sometimes the law calls this loitering. This makes some older adults nervous, and truth be known, it is uncomfortable to walk through large crowds of teens who might be laughing at you, might be saying words you don't like and shouldn't have to hear.

But to equate youth with "bad" is discrimination no better than any other prejudice. And when law enforcement anywhere, not just in Houston, makes it a practice to hassle and arrest younger people, because they can, and prosecutors make it a habit to strong-arm them through the system to punishment, then that's being a bully and that's an abuse of power.

It is understandable that residents around Westheimer don't want to contend with drag racers. So arrest the racers. It's understandable that businesses don't want potential customers scared off by large crowds uninterested in shopping. But please don't insist that hordes of good, wholesome citizens are lining up to shop at two in the morning and are being run off by untrustworthy youths.

Just because you can arrest someone doesn't mean you should.

Some suggestions:

Kmart: If you don't want folks around in the wee morning hours, then stop being a 24-hour shop, and Sonic could close before 2 a.m.

Houstonians: Why in the world are you shopping and eating at places that are going to get you thrown in jail? Take your business elsewhere. It's a big city.

Chief Bradford: For God's sake, find a friend in the department who can tell you what's going on. Take somebody to lunch, turn on that scanner.

Michael Berry: Well, you're dang entertaining, but how about practicing to be a city councilman before you practice being a cop? Maybe work through that before you run for mayor.

Captain Mark Aguirre: Houston and its problems aren't challenging enough for you. Head on over to Iraq and straighten that place out. It's not big on civil rights either.

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