Officer Ernie Leal collected bricks.
They weren’t just any bricks – each of them had a special meaning as important as a trophy won by a star athlete.
For, you see, a brick from a crime-infested apartment complex that had been demolished as the result of Officer Leal’s diligence in working with the good guys to get the bad guys off the streets and out of such places.
The DRT Officer
The story Ernie Leal left behind is one of a positive, “gung-ho” officer who loved his calling, especially working with community leaders and “innocent victims” living in ill-kept apartment complexes that attracted numerous complaint calls to the Houston police.
Leal died Nov. 27 as the result of complications after contracting COVID-19 while on duty. A 36-year veteran, the officer was the 119th Houston police officer to die in the line of duty. He was the fifth to make the ultimate sacrifice since Dec. 7, 2019. He was assigned to North Patrol.
But we learn that he believed his best years were as a dedicated member of an HPD differential response team or – in the department vernacular – “a DRT,” which Eagan became a part of in 1997 when the West Montgomery station was opened.
His DRT partner and long-time friend, retired Senior Police Officer David Eagan, tells us the “brick story” and others that highlighted Leal’s long career in policing.
Eagan graduated in Academy Class No. 119, while Leal officially joined the department in Class No. 120. They soon got to know each other but didn’t become partners until the late 1990s with the advent of DRTs.
“My partner and I were very interested in catching crooks,” Eagan remembered. “We didn’t care for the administrative part; we wanted to go out and catch crooks.
“We were able to help a lot of people being victimized by criminals. They would take over a store to sell drugs by intimidating clerks or store owners. They, the victims, would not call us to get rid of them.
“We found by using the DRT method we were able to address almost any problem in the neighborhood that would come up. There would be an abandoned home that crooks would be using for whatever illegal activity. We were able to get the crooks out of that abandoned home.”
Leal and Eagan found that abandoned houses were small potatoes compared to apartment complexes with owners inclined to lease units to felons or easily intimidated residents frustrated with the lack of upkeep.
Eagan recalled that the two partners would discover a manipulative land owner who would fix up a depressed property and rent to tenants “doing felony activity out of the apartment complex with people afraid to do anything because they had to live there and wouldn’t say anything.”
Leal was determined to help innocent victims using any legal method available. He and his partner discovered innovative methods they figured HPD had never used before.
“We would put pressure on owner(s) to fix things up and screen the applicants so they weren’t leasing to the criminal element. We were able to get 15 or 16 properties – homes or apartment complexes – either closed down or demolished or fixed up by a new owner so the people would be able to live a decent life without fear.
“Ernie and I wanted to make for them just enjoy life in the suburbs with no fear of thugs.”
Working primarily out of North Shepherd, the DRT duo developed strong working relationships with the Department of Public Works and Engineering, whose utility inspectors frequently encountered difficulty with often-violent home occupants who didn’t want, say, an electrical inspector coming in to see if there were any city code violations.
Relationship with Public Works
Eagan believes working with DPW and seeing how the city code enforcement process works opened new doors leading to thwarting the bad guys. He elaborated by detailing the case of one particularly troublesome apartment complex on the near northwest side in City Council District A, represented at the time by Councilwoman Brenda Stardig.
“Crime was really outa control there and our captain (Randy Allen) was getting pressure from above to do something about it. They were getting over 800 calls per year for service.
“They asked if there was something that could be done about it and we said, yes, we’ll be doing things that were all lawful but there’s going to be a lot of complaining against us. We’ll be stepping on some toes by going in and enforcing city ordinances with the owner of the property.”
The condominiums deteriorated in a trash-laded atmosphere replete with discarded mattresses, broken windows and malfunctioning utilities. Some owners, dismayed by the owner taking their maintenance fees and not performing, simply left their properties behind.
“The residents of the condos literally left them; they didn’t sell them. They just left. They were in such bad shape nobody wanted to buy ‘em.”
Criminals saw lucrative opportunities. They put stolen cars in the garages and used the units for virtually any kind of illegal activities imaginable.
Officers traced a stolen car to the area but didn’t find it – it was inside one of the abandoned garages. Another investigator theorized a victim was murdered in one unit after finding blood on a carpet. But part of this rug had been removed, probably used to wrap up the body.
Leal and Eagan got with Public Works inspectors, who soon found numerous electrical and plumbing code violations. Public Works, not the police, took the owners to court.
“There were glaring violations of city ordinances,” Eagan recalled. “Public Works and Engineering electrical, structural and plumbing inspectors got to the point to where the property was boarded up by the city,” Eagan said.
The good guys were winning. The owners settled out of court, resulting in the city demolishing the property.
Leal got a brick. It was a great trophy for a great achievement by a DRT officer, his partner, Stardig and – let’s don’t forget – HPD’s partners in Public Works.
Eagan said it was not the only rock-solid piece of masonry in Leal’s collection. He thinks there were at least half a dozen or more. “I also kept bricks,” Eagan said, “and I had six or seven of them when I retired.”
Eagan said he and Leal learned to use every resource not in the book. He believes the two partners were the first-ever HPD officers to become certified food managers.
“It entitled you to run and operate a restaurant or any place that sells anything that you would put in your mouth and swallow,” Leal’s partner explained. “It enabled us to go in without a search warrant. We’d just walk in a store for an inspection and we would view the illegal drugs.”
Not a Grandstander
In the door as a civil authority and out the door as a criminal authority with a prisoner in handcuffs.
The two would get a complaint from a citizen and decide how to address the problem. This always begged the question of what resources could they use. “We had established working relationships with these city departments, and they helped us out tremendously,” Eagan said.
On regular occasions, Public Works inspectors encountered violent residents of houses that were targeted for alleged code violations. Inspectors would call the officers to quell the situation. “While we were there we would run ‘em through the computer to see if they had any outstanding warrants. It was a good example of working together.”
They worked with Houston Fire Department personnel with whom “We had a fantastic relationship because of the authority they have.” He reflected on the two’s work with HPD’s Environmental Unit.
Of the latter, Eagan said, “They had a game warden working with them if there were complaints about cruelty to animals. We could use the game warden for that.”
Leal and Eagan were contacted by two other officers who were experts on horses and cruelty complaints about alleged mistreatment of horses in Acres Homes.
A family was keeping two horses in their backyard – a violation of health ordinances, particularly when there was evidence the horses were malnourished and diseased.
Multiple authorities were involved, including the Precinct 4 constable. The officers, the constable led the charge to the property to seize the horses. They immediately went to the backyard to find only one horse. “Where’s the other horse,” Eagan recalled Leal asking.
He soon found the answer – in the backyard, of course.
“We were looking and found about eight feet of ground that had been recently dug up,” Eagan remembered, a smile on his face. “It was like somebody was possibly going to put in a little garden.”
He said Leal then discovered “six inches of a horse hoof sticking up out of the ground.”
Some garden, huh?
Someone had used a front-end loader to dig a grave for the deceased horse. It was within eight feet of the house, which was a violation of city ordinances.
Leal, et al didn’t horse around. They took a woman and her son to jail – not on horseback as in the days of the Old West.
But the partner who knew him best would likely tell you that if Officer Ernie Leal were told he had to use a horse for the job he would have graciously mounted up for the task.
“He was always the kind of guy that if the sarge called us he would say, ‘Okay, Sarge, give it to us, we’ll work on it.’ He was always willing to give 100 percent to the job that came down from the captain.
“He loved interacting with the community. He treated everybody like friends and neighbors and look out for them. He was doing that in the communities that were either wanted it or thought that having police around was bad because we were going to put them in jail or give them a bad time.
“We were there so we could help them, not make life miserable for them.
“Ernie had an engaging smile and approach. He was a good officer in terms of his relationship with the community. But when the time came to do police work, he said, ‘Okay, if there’s a job to do, I’m going to go out and do it.”
Eagan said he urged his friend and partner to retire about three or four years ago after he suffered an allergic attack. But the advice didn’t take.
“Another thing about Ernie,” the retired partner added, “he would never do anything to grandstand himself. He was very humble and would not talk about everything he had accomplished. He would take it as another workday.”
In Requiem: Officer Ernie Leal. EOW: 27 November 2020.