Drug-Free Park Remains Oasis in Crime-Plagued Neighborhood With AM-Drug War
HOUSTON (AP) _ Nearly two years after residents pledged to clear a local park of drug traffickers, it remains a drug-free oasis in one of Houston’s toughest neighborhoods.
″To me, it’s kind of like sacred ground,″ said police Sgt. Richard Zajac, who heads a unit of undercover drug officers. ″They (drug dealers) don’t trespass on it. But everything around there is fair game.″
The cleanup of Winzer Park, once called ″Crack in the Box″ because it was so easy to drive up and buy drugs there, has been hailed by federal drug czar William Bennett and President Bush as an example of community-police cooperation. Both visited the park in December.
Police started the cleanup in November 1987, gradually overcoming the distrust of neighborhood residents to enlist them in the campaign. Teacher Thelma LaStrap, 49, joined up after seeing a TV news report that portrayed her Acres Homes neighborhood as a pocket of drug abuse.
″I thought, ‘They don’t have drugs in this neighborhood.’ So I got in the car and drove around the park,′ recalled Mrs. LaStrap, now secretary of the group known as Acres Homes War on Drugs. ″As I looked at groups of young black men, some yelled out my name, ‘Hi, Mrs. LaStrap.’
″See, I taught out here for years and they knew me. That was depressing. People were drinking and exchanging packets of drugs and money, but nobody was using the facilities.″
Capt. David Massey, who heads the police substation that oversees the area, said that before the cleanup, ″good people in the community hadn’t been able to use the park in five years.″
Today, teen-agers play basketball in the park, which covers roughly 10 square blocks, until nearly midnight. Officers use the park’s baseball diamond to practice after their 11 p.m. shift ends. On weekends, families barbecue and push their children on swings. And the park has been renamed for Andrew Winzer, a police officer from the neighborhood who spent time with kids at the park and was killed in a car accident while on duty.
″They ain’t been selling no more dope,″ said Richard Gould, 14, a student at Aldine Junior High and a regular at the basketball court. ″It’s kind of chilled out on all that.″
″The bottom line is they’ve cleaned it up,″ Zajac said. ″We haven’t made a case there since I’ve been here - that’s a year and three months.″
But the victory against drugs remains limited to the park.
Since the beginning of the year, undercover officers have made five felony drug busts within three blocks of Winzer Park.
A barbecue joint a few blocks away and a liquor store in the opposite direction are hang-outs for middle-aged men who drink from bottles wrapped in paper bags and allegedly deal crack day and night - sometimes as early as 5 a.m. to people en route to work, Zajac said.
Bloodstains on the basketball court are testament to continued troubles in the neighborhood. Ballplayers said the stains appeared after a drug suspect shot another at the liquor store and the wounded man ran home through the park, dripping blood.
″Even though the park is still very active, I won’t say that we’ve totally cleaned up all the drugs,″ said Sharon Pouncey, one of four officers assigned to a ″storefront″ police squad in the neighborhood. ″We still have spots, but we’re working on them.″
The storefront officers work with the Acres Homes group to provide tips on drug activity and form friendships. The organization’s membership fluctuates between 200 to 300 with an active core of 15 to 20 people, said storefront Officer Vergil Ratliffe.
″I remember the first year we got out here,″ Ms. Pouncey said. ″This is the largest black area in the city and they were really reluctant to join the police. We had to go out and instill that trust.
″At first, the only time they saw officers was for arrests and shakedowns. Now that they’ve implemented the neighborhood police approach, it’s been a lot different. They know us and they tell us what’s happening.″