HOUSTON—The deputy that spends all day driving through one little Harris County neighborhood has seen quite a contrast on a single street.
“I pretty much know almost everybody in the neighborhood,” said J.P. Moulden, a Harris County deputy constable. “If I don’t know ‘em, I try to find out who they are.”
He brags about knowing who owns every dog on every street, spotting the new yard men working outside the homes and identifying every child playing in every yard. So if anybody knows about anything happening in the neighborhoods around Brinkman Street in north Houston, Moulden does.
And he knows one simple fact about his beat: Almost all of the trouble happens east of Brinkman.
“I stay over here and just try to be as visible as possible so those folks, the ones that are wanting to commit criminal activities, they know there’s somebody here and there’s somebody watching them,” he said.
Houston, the largest city in the nation without zoning, has long been a place of dramatic contrasts, where rundown shacks housing low-income families sit literally within a stone’s throw of expensive homes. Sometimes those contrasts lead to other problems, like the concerns of people living in the community around Brinkman Street, which divides the neighborhood as clearly as a border.
“You can see the difference between this neighborhood and that neighborhood,” said Moulden, as he drove through the streets west of Brinkman.
On the west side of Brinkman sit ranch-style houses with neatly manicured lawns, many of them owned by people who’ve lived in their homes for decades. On the east side of Brinkman sit rundown apartment complexes and trailer parks that law enforcement authorities identify as hotbeds of crime.
“A lot of the criminal activity that occurs over here I try to keep on this side of Brinkman,” Moulden said, “which is pretty much what I try to do.”
Longtime residents throughout the neighborhood say they’ve noticed the contrast for years, sort of like the cliché about living on the wrong side of the railroad tracks.
“The most amount of crime that happens in this area is across Brinkman,” said Darryl Rickaway, a lifelong resident of the more affluent subdivision west of the street. “And then the crime will feed over into this neighborhood.”
“I know a lot of stuff has happened on that street,” said Amanda Vasquez, who lives east of Brinkman. “When I go down that street it seems, I don’t know, different compared to the whole neighborhood.”
Jonathan McElvy, the publisher of a community newspaper called The Leader, had also noticed the phenomenon as he drove to work every day. So he spent two months working a series of stories, running a study of crime statistics and coming to some striking conclusions. East of Brinkman, the number of calls for help to the Houston Police Department during a ten-month period hit 1.82 per resident, a data point that’s dramatically higher than the 0.48 calls per person citywide.
“From an open records request at HPD, crime in this part of Brinkman between Brinkman and Shepherd was about 397 percent higher than the average in the city,” said Jonathan McElvy, the publisher of The Leader.
The neighborhood west of Brinkman has a couple of clear advantages. Longtime homeowners are generally more likely to take better care of their property than renters who don’t stay in the area as long, especially when the homeowners have more income to spend maintaining their homes. And the more affluent streets west of Brinkman are patrolled by deputy constables acting as a sort of security guard force paid for by residents.
“I’ve been in law enforcement about 22 years,” Moulden said. “And most of the issues that come up are in the low rent, low-income properties.”
So city and county officials are talking about taking some dramatic steps to combat the crime problem. Neighborhood activists to the west want to build a fence along the Brinkman side of a city park that deputies say attracts a criminal element. And Harris County officials are talking about using some tough tactics against property owners, like absentee landlords whose apartments and rental houses generate an inordinate number of calls for service.
“Our message is going to be clear: Start policing yourself or we’re going to police you,” said Alan Rosen, Harris Co. Constable Precinct 1. “And we’re going to do so in a very, very direct way.”