Mobility officers' actions questioned

March 3, 2009 9:03:27 PM PST
The mayor's prized civilian response team is supposed to provide traffic patrol at wrecks and emergency scenes so cops are freed to fight crime. But are taxpayers being taken for a ride?It's rush hour downtown at the intersection of Congress and Main. We see a mobility response van surrounded by traffic cones. It must be a traffic emergency. So we asked what they were working on.

"This is our post we were assigned to," the officer said. "I don't know (what for). You'll have to ask the sergeant."

We didn't strike up a conversation right away. For a while we had watched with hidden cameras as two Mobile Response Team (MRT) officers stood on a street corner sidewalk. Time was just ticking away.

We asked, "Do you know what you're doing here?"

"I know what I'm doing here," the officer answered.

We pressed, "What are you doing here?"

"I'm not answering any questions," he said.

The lights were working. The train was doing its thing. The officers weren't directing traffic. They didn't even walk in the street. They were just hanging out on the sidewalk.

In fact, the only thing blocking traffic on Congress was the city mobility van, parked in a moving lane of traffic, surrounded by those emergency traffic cones.

"I can't imagine what the guy was thinking," said Asst. Chief Vicki King of the Houston Police Department.

We pointed out, "You're blocking a moving lane of traffic."

The officer responded, "Well, that's where we have to park."

We asked, "What's wrong with, like, a parking space?"

"There wasn't any when we got here," the officer explained.

But we had watched them from three different parking spaces.

Asst. Chief King explained, "Our job, their job is to keep the traffic going."

How about this for an afternoon's work? First stop -- Starbucks. The MRTs trade trips for coffee. Then it's off to Bank of America, and then the cell phone store. They will direct traffic for less than half an hour at Lee High School.

Time for the afternoon rush hour, but for some MRTs it's time for barbeque.

"They shouldn't be out of service during rush hour," said Asst. Chief King.

Well, they were. Even HPD knew last year the MRTs' work cards showed "a lot of uncommitted time." You might call that nothing to do.

"As our manpower grows," one email read, "it's vital that we keep these guys busy."

You think?

We followed two mobility cops on scooters who've left a fire scene. They're stopped at the traffic light at Shepherd and Alabama. It's a busy intersection, and the traffic light is clearly broken and flashing red. But the officers don't even stop to direct traffic until the light is fixed. They're on a mission to Luby's.

"That is their responsibility, is to respond to mobility related issues," said Asst. Chief King.

A utility truck is fixing a traffic light on Crawford. Utility workers put up a makeshift stop sign. So what exactly are the three MRTs going to do?

Do you call this traffic control? One MRT helps some cars, but a second guy is working on the art of directing traffic while leaning against the van. And the third guy -- he's just standing around. A family with a baby in a stroller crosses the street, but the MRT doesn't help. It looks like he's cleaning his shoe.

At Dallas and Bagby the trio makes another utility stop. One guy is directing traffic with a whistle. The other two are just sitting in the van waiting. When they drove off, they forgot their traffic cones.

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