Honored in March

During a patrol shift for the Houston Police Department, Jose Juarez heard the most terrifying sound an officer can experience and live to tell about it.

It was the sharp click of the trigger on a pistol pointed straight at his head.

Miraculously, the handgun failed to fire a bullet.  But the incident in the hallway of an apartment complex in Gulfton — the neighborhood where he grew up — haunts Juarez, now an HPD sergeant.

It also motivated him to transfer to the HPD Gang and Tactical Unit, where he has played a hands-on role in improving the safety and security of the people living on his home turf.

With the exception of a four-year stint in the U.S. Navy, Juarez, 50, and a veteran of HPD for 22 years, has lived and worked in Gulfton his entire life.

He has become a dynamic presence throughout the Gulfton Area Management District as he works with the District, city and county officials and others to curb crime in one of the city’s most dense and diverse neighborhoods.

Now Juarez is facing another dramatic threat to his life. He has been under treatment for leukemia since late last year.

It’s not the first tough personal challenge he has faced.

After losing his father at an early age, Juarez, his brother and sister were reared by their working mother.

“Growing up was a little bit rough because my mom worked at two jobs to make enough money to support all of us. We really didn’t get to see her much,” he recalled recently.

To help out, Juarez sold newspapers at a Safeway on Chimney Rock and worked at a Two Pesos restaurant on Kirby Drive that is now a Taco Cabana.

He attended Jane Long Middle School and Bellaire High School.

After graduating from high school in 1992, he wasn’t sure about a career path.

“I woke up one morning and decided I couldn’t just sit at home,” he said.

After seeing a military recruitment ad on TV, he made an appointment with an Army recruiter at Sharpstown Mall (now PlazAmericas Mall). He arrived a few minutes late. The Army recruiter had left for lunch. A Navy recruiter was more than happy to make his pitch and soon it was “anchors aweigh” for Juarez.

He served aboard a ship that made stops in Hawaii, Japan, Singapore and Russia. When his Navy career ended in 1997, he enrolled at the University of Houston while serving in the Navy Reserve.

Juarez, right, with Officer Ollie Thibeaux

A friend from Houston he met in the Navy talked him into joining the police department. It was natural for Juarez to begin his HPD career in the Gulfton neighborhood.

“I asked to be assigned here,” he said. “I wanted to address the locations that had high crime.”

Looking back on that night in the hallway at the apartment complex, Juarez recalled that he drew his pistol in response to his attacker who tried to shoot him. But Juarez decided not to fire at his assailant to avoid the chance of unintentionally shooting bystanders.

“I am glad I didn’t because there were others in the room not involved,” he said.

The assailant, a gang member with previous felony convictions, is now serving a 50-year prison sentence.

Over time, Juarez says he and his family were able to come to terms with his near-death experience. For the next five years, Juarez gave his full attention to his duties with the gang and tactical unit.

“Back then gangs were a big concern along with associated armed robberies and burglaries. “Those were the crimes that the gang and tactical unit would address.”

“We had undercover officers who would watch the area,” he added. “When they saw something suspicious, they would call us in.”

After his five years in the unit and promotion to sergeant, a supervisor felt Juarez deserved a change from the high-stress grind of the gang assignment.

Under that pressure, coupled with the mental burden of having come close to death in the encounter with the gang member, Juarez’s move to the Gulfton Storefront Station was well-timed and practical.

The station at 6227 Southwest Freeway is hardly an island of tranquility. But it offered Juarez a chance to help the community while sharing his experiences with other officers.

Juarez supervises the Community Services unit and Differential Response Team that engages in a variety of problem-solving activities in the area.

The team meets monthly with owners of businesses and apartments to address any issues of concern. He also contributes to meetings of the Gulfton Area Management District, which is headquartered in a strip center a few doors from the storefront.

The officers there collect donations from the community and distribute back-to-school backpacks and Christmas gifts to children. They inspect convenience stores, nightclubs and repair shops; address dumping violations and parking complaints in the neighborhood; and respond to any signs of criminal activity.

“Anything that is a problem comes to us,” Juarez said.

Juarez also supervises four Southwest Division officers who patrol the neighborhood on bicycles and ATVs.

“Patrolling on bikes is very useful especially in the Gulfton area,” Juarez said. “We have a lot of apartments, and when we ride bikes it is easier for us to get in and out of areas that a vehicle cannot access.”

The unit also patrols the hike-and-bike trail on Brays Bayou south of Gulfton.

For his work, Juarez has received 48 supervisor commendation letters as well as additional commendations from City Council members. In March, he was named the South Gessner command’s supervisor of the year at the Southwest Management District’s annual March On Crime awards ceremony.

But the sudden onset of illness during the Christmas season changed his focused routine.

He went to the hospital with flu-like symptoms and received the news that he had developed the blood cell cancer.

“It came totally unexpected and without prior symptoms,” Juarez said. “I had gotten an annual physical. Everything was fine.”

He spent the next 35 days receiving chemo treatments in the hospital. His wife, Jessica, stayed with him the entire time.

It was a rough period for the entire family, he said — there were problems just getting his kids to school.

But by the end of January, his leukemia was in remission.

He went home Feb. 1 and continued outpatient treatments twice a week through April.

Juarez family

Juarez looks fit and now runs on a treadmill every day at his home. He wears a portable chemo pump to continue treatments

He visits the storefront station, attends meetings with fellow officers and hopes to return to full duty in a couple of months.

But first he may need a stem cell transplant. This would require another 30-day hospital stay and three to four months of out-patient treatments.

“I could go to work during those treatments,” he said.

During his recovery, officers under the direction of then-South Gessner Division Commander Adrian Rodriguez raised money to help Juarez and his family take care of expenses not covered by HPD health insurance policy.

“Those really helped a lot,” he said. “I am able to maintain my lifestyle and pay all my bills.”

Juarez often has the serious look of someone with a serious job and sometimes speaks in the precise terms of an officer filling out an incident report.

But when he talks about his youngest son, Matthew, 12, he smiles.

They play soccer together and Matthew accompanies his father on bike rides that bring police and community members together.

“I like to get him involved in the things I am doing at work,” Juarez said.

Driving through the neighborhood, Juarez talked about the many positive changes in Gulfton in recent years.

Examples include a thriving shopping center with restaurants and retail stores where once stood a rundown and partially abandoned apartment complex that attracted gang activity and drug trafficking.

Juarez also cited the support such as the management district’s funding of after-hours HPD patrols.

And then there is the center of his world, the modest storefront station that is available night and day to help citizens with any problem.

With more than two decades on the job, Juarez is qualified to retire. But he said he is not ready yet.

“There is still work to do,” he said.

— by Phil Shook