Three years ago on New Year's Eve, Danny and Joann Harries threw a small party at their home near the intersection of Montrose and West Gray. Although they had lived in the house for several years, it was the first time they had marked the beginning of a new year there. As midnight approached, a friend named Maggie was the only remaining guest. Then, just before the clock struck 12, the three heard gunshots -- seemingly all around the Harries' home.
"The gunfire erupted," recalls Danny, "and Joann and Maggie promptly jumped out of the couches and got on the floor doing something that simulated the GI crawl, like we were about to be picked off. It sounded like a war zone."
Indeed, during the past several years the crescendo of fire from handguns -- as well as from semi- and not-so-semi automatic weapons -- has become something of an un-wanted and dangerous New Year's Eve tradition in Houston, most notably in inner-city neighborhoods. Some urban survivalists make it a point each December 31 to bring in the pets and then hunker down in their hallways with their favorite beverage until the midnight barrage subsides and it no longer sounds like they're living in downtown Sarajevo.
"There are a lot of people who think this is the way to celebrate," says
Sgt. Brian Foster, a detective in the Houston Police Department's homicide division. "There are a lot of people who honestly believe that the bullets burn up in the atmosphere. The bullets come down at an angle, and an angulated shot is often more dangerous. We had a child a couple of years ago who was shot by a round falling from the sky. Shot him in the back and did serious damage to him. It's a bad situation."
HPD officer Adrian Garcia learned the hard way that what goes up most definitely comes down. On New Year's Eve a few years back, Garcia was in Acres Home on the city's northwest side, parked on the side of the road in his patrol car with the window open while writing a report. Suddenly the officer felt a thump on his chest.
"I looked down and a I find a bullet laying on my chest," says Garcia. "Luckily I had my [bullet-proof] vest on. Because, had the bullet maintained its velocity, I could have been a dead guy."
Besides the obvious physical danger the random shootings pose to innocent bystanders, the 911 calls that the gunfire generates place an extra burden on HPD's dispatch system.
"The calls just start coming in all at once and they tie up everything," says one police dispatcher. "As a dispatcher you're always afraid that when something like that happens, the real stuff is going to get lost somewhere in the cracks."
While reports of gunshots are widespread across the city each New Year's Eve, Garcia says many complaints to police originate in areas of the city with large Hispanic populations. The officer believes some of the shooting is a carry-over tradition brought by immigrants from rural areas in Mexico and Central America.
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"In some Latin American countries you have wide open territory where nobody thinks twice about shooting their handgun in the air," says Garcia.
Paul Leggett is so fearful of the gunfire that he and his family no longer stay at their East End home on New Year's Eve. Leggett, who serves on the board of the Idylwood Civic Association, says the fusillade has gotten so heavy in the past decade that New Year's Eve in his neighborhood now sounds like "World War III." Leggett says he's discussed the problem with police, but doesn't really know what law enforcement officers can do. Too often, by the time officers can respond to a report of New Year's Eve shots being fired, the culprits responsible have either left the scene or gone back inside their homes.
"It's incredibly irresponsible," says Leggett. "I guess it's sort of the Wild West mentality."
So Happy New Year's, Houstonians, and remember to keep your head down.