Law and Order, Montrose: Why The Mean Streets Of The City Aren’t So Mean Anymore
Houston police officer Victor Beserra has grown up, professionally speaking, with Montrose. A member of the permanent staff at the Montrose HPD substation on Westheimer, Beserra was assigned Montrose as his beat when he graduated from the police academy in the 1990s; he has never worked anywhere else. To a young, Hispanic native of a small suburban community, Montrose came as a shock. Crime was pervasive, addicts and prostitutes part of the landscape. And the gay culture was foreign to him. In the two decades since he got his badge, Beserra has seen Montrose change enormously. Montrose has also changed Beserra – so much so that nine years ago he moved here.
What were your first experiences patrolling in Montrose?
I was 22 years old when they put me out here. I had never seen a gay person before; rather, I didn’t think I had seen a gay person before. They tried to train us: Different officers from each area of Houston came to the police academy to talk to us about their neighborhoods. Basically what I got from that class was, just show people respect.
Being gay was not accepted 20 years ago. You’d ask a street person: Can you contact your family to get off the street? Family, to me, is everything. They’d say, no, I can’t do that. Because they were gay, their family didn’t want them. It was pretty normal for us to see that several times a week.
One thing I have learned: If I ever found out my son or daughter was gay, I would never do that to them. I cannot imagine doing that to my children.
How has the area changed?
Twenty-two or 23 years ago, I would have never lived here. It was bad. You were seeing carjackings, you were seeing a lot of assaults, a lot of violent crime.
We had pockets of gang activity. We had some on Stanford and we had ones off of Welch. There was Woodhead, Mandell, and Colquitt. The apartments in the 1700 block of Portsmouth are essentially where criminals lived. I pretty much stayed there in 1996 and 1997. There were so many places they could run – they’d bring cars in, strip them in the back alleys.
Think about what’s changed in Montrose. Property value has gone up, there are a lot of different people living here now. These new homes came in, and they tore everything down so the gang members had to move somewhere else. Once that project went down everything changed.
Another thing that changed is the number of officers, which increased in the 1990s. I was part of the mass hiring. We increased for a little while, then we started going through a budget crunch in early 2000 and got pretty low. Now we’re up to where we were in the 1990s.
Where are you from?
I grew up in northeast Harris County, the Sheldon area. My dad was a truck driver for a pipeline company. They’re just good Mexican people. Sheldon was the middle of nowhere, and I wasn’t exposed to anything when I was growing up. I went into the military. Don’t laugh: I was a musician. I didn’t think I would be able to afford college, so I joined the military as a trumpet player in the U.S. Army band. And I got shipped off to the Middle East in the first Gulf War. We went all through the desert playing music for the troops. We had a top forty band, a jazz band, a concert band, and a marching band. I was in all four of them. It was a great, fun job at the time. But when the war started, we put our instruments down and that was it. The army band had a secondary duty during wartime, which is security. I was 19 years old.
How did you become an HPD officer?
In the army I was with a friend of mine, also from Houston. I asked him, what are you going to do when you get back? His uncle was a recruiter with HPD and he said he was going to join. I looked at him and said, I always wanted to do that. So I started a few months later.
How have you changed during your years patrolling Montrose?
It’s gotten more exciting for me to be a police officer. We’re actually good people. I don’t want to say we were bad people back then, but we try hard to be good people now. I put seat belts on my prisoners now. I didn’t do that 20 years ago. That’s a change in our culture. Once they’re in our custody, treat them well.
If you scream at a suspect, you’re going to see him again, he’s going to see you again. He’s going to remember that. It’s very important in terms of how many problems you’re going to have. I’ll say now, don’t run. And they don’t.
Has Montrose crime changed over the years?
In the late 1990s mental illness was a real problem. People would act out. Ten years ago, you’d see ten or 20 people along the strip centers near Valero, Burger King – you’d see people with severe mental illness. We’d have to take them to the hospital all the time. In the last five years I don’t see that – maybe our programs are getting better. Maybe when we took them to the hospital they did get help.
The homeless kids are still out there. We have changed the culture of prostitution. If we see an increase of prostitutes coming around, we have undercover people making arrests, or we arrest johns. Around nine years ago we were told, “Pick up these people who are prostituting or picking up prostitute.” We would arrest so many people back then. We’d make arrest after arrest after arrest, for four years, just to make an impact.
Finally, we saw the results. It was a combination of what we did there, and the work of the Montrose District. We work during the day in the storefront, and then when we finish our shift we continue to work for the Montrose District. There are 16 officers that work for the district, two vehicles that we patrol in.
Has your relationship with local businesses changed?
We look after the commercial properties as much as possible. For example, the Kroger on Montrose: We did not have a relationship with the manager there for many years. So we didn’t have the right to do anything about people on their property. Then last April a new manager came on. He said, “Hey, can you help me?” If you look around Kroger now, it’s better. You don’t have people hanging around so much anymore. But without that relationship there is no way we can do our job. I think the attitude that, “This is Montrose – this is how it’s supposed to be,” is going away. There are certain things in Montrose that we want to keep Montrose. But not the crime.
What is your role in dealing with immigrants?
When I first came on, if I’d write a ticket for a Hispanic person, I could tell they were nervous. You want to say, it’s okay – you go to court, pay your tickets.
In the early 2000s we put out stuff in Spanish in our storefront, on how to report to police, also how to file a complaint against a police officer. These people didn’t think they could do anything. I think they understand their rights now. It’s changed a lot; it’s much better.
I think everybody knows now that we don’t ask if they’re here legally or illegally. That’s not our job. I have no reason to ask if someone is here legally or not unless they’re a gang member and they’re wanted by immigration.
How about tickets for noise violations?
You don’t get as much loud music as you used to. I do get a lot of noise complaints about the Crocker bar. But I measure it with my sound meter and it’s not over the legal level. Let me explain how noise works: You can hear people talking in the streets, and combined with the music, it’s loud. But I can only measure the music. It’s when you combine both, music and people talking, that it can be a little loud.
I write more loud noise tickets than parking tickets. At Montrose and Hawthorne in front of Kroger this 31-story building is going up. Imagine all the concrete trucks coming in to build this property. We’re going to start getting complaints.
What made you decide to move to Montrose?
I settled here nine years ago. I had gotten divorced, and I kept my house in Katy. But I asked myself, why am I driving all this way? I got my apartment on West Dallas, and I fell in love with it.
My wife is from Mexico. We got married seven years ago and before we got married she was living on Beltway 8. When she moved to Montrose she couldn’t believe how nice the people are. She has an accent, she felt every time she was in the suburbs people treated her differently. That’s why she fell in love with Montrose. She said, “People like me. They’re nice to me. They don’t say anything about my accent.”
Moving here made me care more about the area. I think I started working harder. When it’s yours, when it’s your neighborhood, you’re more invested. For a while my two children from my previous marriage moved here. Some days my son would ride his bike to work at Walgreens, and I thought, if I can clean this area up I can make it safer for my children.
What kind of crime most concerns you now?
If our nonviolent crime goes up and violent crime goes down, I’m pretty happy. If violent crime goes up, that’s not good. I can replace my window, but when it comes to my safety, that’s something else.
Has Montrose crime increased or decreased in the last few years?
I look at the stats all the time. Robberies have gone down. Aggravated assaults have gone up. If you put them together, the crime rate still has not gone up. Robberies are the worst thing other than murder. Robbery means you don’t know the other person; you’re beating them up for their money, or you’re using a weapon to rob them.
Car break-ins are among our biggest issues because we have so many visitors to the neighborhood, but they’re down. I compared statistics from October, November, and December of 2014 to the same period in 2013, and car break-ins were down 38 percent.
Years ago we had robberies, assaults – no one even talked about car break-ins. Now, if we do have a robbery, it’s a big issue. That’s what we want. Ten years ago when we had a robbery in Montrose, people didn’t care. It was just another robbery.
We are pretty low in crime for a big city.
How can someone avoid being a crime victim?
To avoid muggings, walk around with other people. Don’t walk around intoxicated. That’s probably the number one thing: If you’re intoxicated and you have a thick wallet in your back pocket or if you’re a woman and you have a big purse, you’re a target. Be aware of your surroundings.
To avoid car break-ins, don’t leave things in your car. We do car break-in report cards. The city started this around seven years ago. What we do is, we act like a criminal and look in your car and we grade it. I’ve found golf clubs, a laptop, packages in UPS boxes. If you put stuff out there for criminals to take, they’re going to take it. I don’t care if you’re in Montrose or River Oaks, if you put it out there eventually criminals will take it
If you follow the rules of crime prevention you won’t be a victim. I’ve lived in Montrose for almost 10 years and I’ve never been a victim.
What’s the most satisfying thing you’ve worked on?
We caught two burglars in 2010 who were good for about 150 burglaries. Catching those burglars was very satisfying, very good for the community. That felt good. A citizen called one of the suspects in, and followed him for a long time. The citizens were so happy when they were caught. Do you know how many cards we get at the storefront, for the good work we’ve done? We’ve gotten a lot of them. We have a lot of good people that live in this area.
Is there anything about Montrose that is conducive to fighting crime?
Foot traffic is good for Montrose. I’m very familiar with apartment complexes here. When you have a mid-rise apartment complex where everyone is inside, in their garage, if criminals want to hit that they can. But if you have people in an apartment complex walking outside with their dogs – the more you walk your dog, the more you have people watching the place.
Even a little dog is good. I have a Chihuahua, and when anyone comes to the door he goes crazy. With burglar alarms, they go off so much I don’t know if people pay attention to them anymore.