Retiring HPD sergeant looks back at decades of crime: 'We didn't see the firepower that you see now'

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- On a rainy day on Houston's east side, a veteran police sergeant prepares to turn in his uniform.

"I feel like I'm kind of bailing right now, because I know there are a lot of issues within the police department," he said. "I've never seen myself as somebody running from a problem - always running toward it."

Sgt. Robert Ruiz has been running since he was 19, when he joined the department in 1980.

"I wasn't old enough to buy bullets or a gun. I remember my mom had to buy bullets for me, so that was kind of embarrassing," he said, remembering with a chuckle.

Back then, Houston was growing fast. As the Oilers sang "Luv ya Blue," and Nolan Ryan picked up baseball's first million dollar contract, the city's wealthiest practically drowned in oil money.

But, it was in the early 1980s that Houston was dubbed the murder capital of the county.

Houston had a record of 678 murders in 1982. Trust was at an all-time low after the murder of Jose Campos Torres, a Mexican American Army veteran, who was beaten by Houston police officers who then dumped him into Buffalo Bayou.

"It was bad back in the 80s, for me. I can't say for everybody. I mean, I got called traitor," Ruiz explained. "I got called other words from my own community because there was a big distrust from the Hispanic community to the police."

The police department was understaffed and underfunded. Calling dispatch often meant finding a payphone.

Then, the new chief started a program he called "neighborhood-oriented policing."

"We hated it. We called it 'No Officers on Patrol,' because we were very short-handed and now, suddenly, you're drawing officers out to meet with the public," Ruiz said. "Sometimes it was an us against them, them against us type of attitude."

The violent crime remained high through the decade. People from all over the world moved to Houston for an opportunity as oil prices plunged, then boomed once again. In 1991, our city lived through 608 murders.

"There are some things that will always haunt me," Ruiz remembered. "A kid dying in your hands while you're doing CPR. A young lady looking at you who had her throat cut. You're looking at the eyes peering at you and you can't do anything."

In 1993, 14-year-old Jennifer Ertman and 16-year-old Elizabeth Pena were raped, tortured, and murdered by a group of six gang members in Oak Forest.

RELATED: Haunting killings of 2 Houston teens 25 years ago leaves lasting legacy for victim's rights

For the first time, Houston police had to acknowledge a gang problem. Suddenly, the "neighborhood-oriented policing," a program the police union had refused to support, became essential.

"I have evolved. Now, I look back, I'm glad that we did because we established relationships with community leaders, community activists, with pastors, and just overall the public out there," said Ruiz.

The city added specialized units for the first time.

"We used to do zero tolerance, where we'd go out and arrest everybody, write tickets, and that was OK. But a lot of times, all you did was just hurt the people (who) lived in the area," he said. "We got better at targeting the individuals that commit the crime."

Over the next two decades, violent crime steadily dropped in our city. But, since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, murders in Houston are up 71%, and the trends are troubling.

"Back then, there were what we called 'Saturday night specials.' Little guns like that you could buy at a pawnshop. Saturday night specials. That's what we saw," Ruiz explained. "We didn't see the firepower that you see now."

Our police department still uses strategies like specialized crime units and what we now call community engagement.

But, new threats, like 3D printed guns and internet crimes require new ideas. And, for this sergeant, every solution is rooted in relationships.

"There's an adage that says 20% of the criminals are involved in 80% of the crime and I truly believe that," he said. "It's different. I'm not going to say it's not different, but it goes in cycles."

As this current cycle turns deadlier, Ruiz thinks of his wife and also his five children. One of them is proud Houston police Sgt. Robert Ruiz Jr.

"I'm proud of my son. I'm optimistic because of him," he said, choking up with emotion. "I see what he does and his coworkers. So that makes me optimistic."

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