Shared from the 1/29/2020 Houston Chronicle eEdition

Restaurant owners demand action against break-ins

Some stopped accepting cash. leaving empty tills open to discourage thefts

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Photos by Mark Mulligan / Staff photographer

Li Luong, Teapresso Bar owner, says her business has been broken into five times since opening in May 2018.

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Cuchara owner Ana Beaven recently spent thousands of dollars installing heavy metal shutters to stop break-ins.

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Mark Mulligan / Staff photographer

Business owners talk about frequent thefts at their properties with Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo during a town hall meeting Monday at the Heights Firehouse.

Ana Beaven could have spent $50,000 on raises or bonuses last year for her 45 employees at Cuchara, a Mexican restaurant in Montrose.

Instead, most of that money went toward electric metal shutters for her windows, a frequent target for burglars who’ve nabbed anything from laptops to iPods to a $10 roll of quarters.

Beaven said she never leaves cash in the restaurant at 214 Fairview, but last year that did not prevent four separate burglaries at her business, in addition to constant car break-ins outside.

“It’s ridiculous,” Beaven said. “There’s no punishment for these thieves.”

Surveillance cameras have become afamiliar sight at bars and restaurants such as Beaven’s in the Montrose area, where some businesses have stopped using cash altogether because of thieves. Most often, police say they strike in the wee hours of the morning after straggling patrons head home and workers close up shop.

Beaven is among dozens of business owners who have become frustrated with what they contend is a spike in break-ins in the Heights and Midtown as well as Montrose. At a town hall meeting Monday at The Historic Heights Fire Station, more than 100 business owners aired their complaints to Police Chief Art Acevedo and members of his command staff.

“Of (my) nine to 10 restaurants that have been broken into over the last three years … I’ve had a detective reach out to me one time.”
Bobby Heugel, whose businesses include Anvil Bar and Refuge

Police first considered hosting the event about three weeks ago because of a noticeable uptick in emails and online complaints about break-ins, Acevedo said. Crime data for 2019 is not yet available, but burglaries have steadily dipped citywide from 2014 to 2018, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting System.

Neighborhood-level statistics from 2017 to 2018 also do not reflect major spikes in burglary and theft in Montrose or the Heights. The data, however, does not single out commercial properties.

Car break-ins pervasive

Police officials said that in the last three months they have seen a jump in break-ins in the central division, which includes the Heights and Montrose. Since then, more patrol officers have been stationed near the hardest-hit areas.

Business leaders say they want better communication with detectives, who they say rarely follow up after the initial report. Acevedo, who lives in the Heights, said he’s crafting solutions that include upgraded technology and more funding for overnight patrols.

“Don’t stop calling. Don’t stop complaining. And don’t stop reporting the crime,” Acevedo said at the meeting. “Because if you let the frustration get to you, we’ll never know the true nature of the problem.”

Multiple Montrose businesses say car break-ins are their most common concern. Broken glass is often found in parking lots. Jacob Smith, a bartender at Ripcord on Fairview, said five cars were burglarized two months ago behind the bar.

“There’s definitely been a spike in the last year,” he said.

Business owners at Monday’s meeting provided more anecdotal evidence about the problem. The discussion was lively and at times tense, with many owners saying their concerns have been simmering for years.

“I operate nine to 10 restaurants in the city currently,” said Bobby Heugel, whose businesses include Anvil Bar and Refuge. “Of those nine to 10 restaurants that have been broken into over the last three years, when we’ve really seen the spike increase, I’ve had a detective reach out to me one time.”

Li Luong said her Heights-area business, Teapresso Bar on West 18th Street, has been broken into five times since opening in May 2018.

To combat crime, she hired security guards. Workers learned to leave cash registers open so would-be burglars would see there was no money in the store. Still, she said break-ins continue to hammer the business.

She went to the forum hoping to get answers, but became more frustrated after learning so many other business owners share her plight.

“I know you care, but what are you actually going to do,” she said to Acevedo.

Gerry Doiron, who owns Nourish Juice Bar in the Montrose area with this sister, said he’s grown accustomed to standing in his shop with a gun and watchful dog.

“If you want to protect your business, you have to be the one to do it because who else is going to be there for you,” Doiron said.

Acevedo tried to placate residents, taking names and sharing his email with the crowd.

He said the officers in the central division made 315 burglary arrests in the last 36 months. Assistant Police Chief Pete Lopez added that his patrol officers in the Heights made 10 arrests in the last week alone.

Social media push

Police vowed to better share case updates on social media platforms such as NextDoor. Acevedo said he wants to find more efficient ways to share crime information with businesses.

The chief said he wants more patrol officers in the affected neighborhoods between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m. Patrol officers also may be given more leeway to investigate burglaries, police said.

Acevedo emphasized throughout the event that Harris County judges and prosecutors share the burden of keeping repeat offenders off the streets, and he hopes to host future meetings with the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.

“With this energy, I want to keep it going,” Acevedo said. “Any time you have community members who show an interest in their own safety and an interest in what’s going on, that’s a win for everybody.”

St. John Barned-Smith contributed to this report. julian.gill@chron.com

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