HOUSTON — Veteran narcotics officers broke down the door of a suspected drug den in southeast Houston Monday afternoon, armed with a warrant and hoping to arrest heroin dealers operating out of the Pecan Park home.
They were met by a hail of gunfire, instead, as one of the suspects inside unleashed a barrage of bullets that wounded four officers, two critically.
"This is never one of the calls you want to get as a chief," Police Chief Art Acevedo said outside Memorial Hermann Hospital hours later, while flanked by top police brass, Mayor Sylvester Turner and a host of other city officials.
Two suspected drug dealers were killed in the incident by return fire from officers, Acevedo said, explaining a tip from a concerned neighbor led to the raid. The two killed by police were not identified.
A fifth officer injured his knee in the operation.
Late Monday, two of the officers remained in critical condition but stable while undergoing surgery. One is the 54-year-old case agent leading the investigation, the police chief said. Two others were in good condition, while the last officer — shot in the shoulder — had already been released from the hospital.
The chaos on the tree-lined Harding Street began about 5 p.m., Acevedo said, when a dozen narcotics officers backed by a squad of uniformed patrol officers descended on the Pecan Park home to serve the search warrant. Narcotics officers had developed a case against the dealers— suspected of selling black tar heroin after making several undercover buys, according to law enforcement sources.
As officers rammed through the door to serve the warrant, their colleagues in marked patrol cars sounded their sirens and turned on their lights. They were immediately shot at by at least one gunman inside, the chief said, detailing the firefight.
Radio scanner traffic captured audio of one gunshot ringing out and an officer calling for help.
"We have an officer down," she yelled into her radio. "We need more ambulances, more ambulances."
The shooter briefly vanished into the home, in the 7800 block, then came back to the door to shoot at the wounded officers again. Another officer managed to return fire.
Two officers — both critically wounded with gunshot wounds to the neck — were airlifted to Memorial Hermann to undergo surgery, while the others were rushed by ambulance.
As news of the shooting spread, scores of police officers rushed to the neighborhood, to cordon off the area. A SWAT team also responded and used two robots to search the small wood-frame building.
At about 7:25 p.m., police said the threat was over.
At Memorial Hermann, however, surgeons were treating the critically injured officers.
The most senior of the narcotics squad — the case agent — has been shot twice previously in the line of duty since joining HPD in 1984, once in 1992 and again in 1997. During the 1992 incident, he took a bullet to the cheek.
Acevedo declined to publicly identify the officer.
"Most people would call it a day after being shot and surviving, but this man is 54," Acevedo said. "He's the case agent and he was there on the front lines."
The shooting came as many Pecan Park residents were leaving work, Sofia Franco among them.
She was almost home when she got a text from her husband, warning her to stay clear.
"Be careful," he wrote. "They're shooting police officers two blocks down from the house."
Law enforcement taped off the surrounding streets, as other residents milled about and watched the commotion.
One handed out bottles of water to officers from a red wagon.
The lethal incident infuriated city leaders and cast a pall over the day in which they had celebrated a modest drop in crime in the past year.
"This has been a tough day for our city," Turner said, urging residents to pray for the wounded officers, and vowing not to tolerate "drug activity or drug trafficking" in Houston.
The incident soon drew national attention, and several of the state's top political leaders issued statements in support of the officers and the department.
"This evening's horrific attack on police officers is a solemn reminder of the service and sacrifice our brave men and women in law enforcement make every day to keep us safe," Gov. Greg Abbott said. "I ask all Texans to join Cecilia and me in praying for the officers injured, and for the continued safety of all law enforcement officers who protect our communities."
Attorney General Ken Paxton said he was "deeply troubled" by the shooting.
"The thoughts and prayers of countless Texans are with the officers, their families, and the Houston Police Department," he said. "May this tragic event serve as a reminder of the courage with which law enforcement officials serve each day."
While politicians offered prayers, dozens of officers from HPD and other local agencies rushed to the hospital.
Some didn't even know the wounded individuals, but said they wanted to be there anyway.
"We heard officers down and we came over," one said, declining to be identified.
Created by Jordan Rubio and Rachael Gleason/Houston Chronicle.
The last time a Houston police officer was shot on duty in a similar incident was in 2017, when two gang officers were wounded in an operation in southwest Houston. A year later, retired officer John Barnes was nearly killed as he rushed to confront a school shooter in Santa Fe, where he was working as a school resource officer.
An irate Houston Police Officers' Union President Joe Gamaldi said Monday's shooting left his officers feeling vulnerable, and like they were "being targeted."
"We are sick and tired of dirt bags trying to take our lives when all we're trying to do is protect this community and our families," he said. "Enough is enough."