Mobile response team on hidden cameras

March 3, 2009 9:03:14 PM PST
They were billed as a SWAT team to fight traffic tie-ups, but after our hidden cameras got through, one top city official is calling the mayor's mobility response team a disaster. Houston has a traffic mess and we're spending millions to make it better, but 13 Undercover is back with the pictures that are triggering a police internal affairs investigation.

The mayor promised a war room atmosphere to ease our traffic headaches and the Mobility Response Team are the foot soldiers; civilian troops to free cops to fight crime. But are Houston taxpayers being taken for a ride?

Twas just weeks before Christmas and all through the town, it was snowing, starting to come down

The roads were slick, traffic getting thick, But Houston has just the trick -- Mayor Bill White's prized mobility response team; the street soldiers in Houston's multi-million dollar congestion-fighting SWAT team.

"We do need people out there directing traffic and we need more of them," said Mayor White.

So this should be a really good day for 13 Undercover to watch them in action.

"How you react when you think no one is looking defines your character and defines your work ethic," said Assistant Chief Vicki King with the Houston Police Department.

Of course, you can't fix things when five of you are eating wings. You can see when they got to Wings-N-Wings -- a little before 3:08pm on December 10. You can see what time they left -- 5:18pm on the nose.

More than two hours?

"Half the squad off the streets eating wings," we pointed out.

"Unacceptable," answered King. "Unacceptable."

Rush hour is an odd time for a wing fest, especially on a rare snow day. Because here were 59 traffic accidents during the wingding, 133 accidents between 3pm and 9 pm. You know how many accidents the 11 mobility officers went to that evening? According to their own work records, none.

"They should be going to accidents," said King. "They shouldn't have to wait to be told or dispatched. That is their job function."

We all know there's lots of traffic, but on many days our hidden cameras watched, the MRTs seemed to have very little to do.

One work card shows three MRTs stopped while driving at a road hazard on Kirby for two whole minutes. They weren't dispatched anywhere in eight hours.

"I imagine you've had a chat with the supervisors," we said.

"Absolutely," she answered.

"I imagine it wasn't pretty," we said.

"No, sir."

Two other MRTs on scooters spent part of their morning rush hour at Whataburger. A fire truck blocks a street leading to Shepherd. And they could see the emergency lights if they looked up. But it's hard to look and twirl a cup at the same time.

It's just after 5am another morning, the first stop was not a traffic call. We're at Denny's. Because you can't fight congestion on an empty stomach.

An hour later, they will be dispatched to the other side of town to help with a traffic tie-up after an eighteen-wheeler accident on the Eastex.

The traffic is backed up, all right. The MRTs get out, take a look and then walk back to their van and drive off.

It's time for another break.

There is a horrible three-car wreck on 20th street right between Heights and Yale in front of Hamilton Middle School. Two elderly folks are dead. And we watched the driver of the third car being pulled out. Emergency vehicles already block 20th and civilians are directing traffic on Heights before the professional traffic control arrives.

We're watching the MRTs in one van. One just stays in the van. A second MRT puts out cones. But he'll just stand there, even though traffic on Yale is backing up. Maybe he's guarding the cones.

"Unacceptable. It is unacceptable," said King. "They are there to assist, not just the motoring public, but our pedestrians."

So let's watch. An elderly woman walking with a cane is going to try to navigate through the cars. You can tell she's unsure. The MRT is staring right at her.

"Your MRT is staring right at her and doesn't help," we point out.

"It's unacceptable," said King. "I can't overemphasize how terrible that looks and we plan to get to the bottom of it."

MRTs stand with their hands in their pockets as school kids try to navigate the heavy traffic on Yale. An HISD police officer walks out in the street and starts directing traffic. The MRT decides she should do it, too. It looks like she's getting a lesson in traffic hand gestures.

"I'm very, very disappointed because they know better," said King.

There are seven MRTs on an accident scene, but even our helicopter can tell a lot of them aren't doing a thing about traffic congestion. We see three of them even walk away to get dinner. Another walks off to a drug store, then comes back and gets in the van.

Monday night, why fight rush hour traffic, when you can eat barbecue instead? The hidden cameras roll again on Eyewitness News at 10pm.

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