Officer Champions Environmental Enforcement


Stephen Dicker of the Houston Police Department’s Major Offenders Division spends his days chasing down polluters who mar the land, water and air throughout the region.

As a Senior Police Officer with the Environmental Investigations Unit, Dicker conducts criminal investigations of illegal dumping, air and water pollution, and chemical releases throughout the Houston region. He now shares his skills as a board member and instructor with Project EnCriPT, which produces training for law enforcement and civil enforcers on how to investigate environmental cases through the Bill Blackwood Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas (LEMIT) at Sam Houston State University.

Smokestacks spreading emissions over a neighborhood.“The one thing I like about environ- mental enforcement is that if you go out and stop a robbery, it’s an event that stops one, two, maybe three guys which affected a small amount of victims,” Dicker said. “When you get out there and stop polluters, it affects the entire neighborhood. We have a positive effect.”

Dicker is part of 14-member environmental unit, which includes law enforcement officers and civilian investigators. It is one of the largest units of its kind in the country and is co-housed with representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and Texas Game Wardens. The agencies work together on large cases, but the Houston Police Department also focuses on offenses in their backyard.

In addition to the penal code, the unit can enforce federal laws, administrative codes and health and safety codes.

Tires dumping an a neighborhood.Dicker once helped shut down a company in Houston that killed two workers by exposing them to hazardous materials and spread noxious odors throughout the neighborhood. After the company relocated to Port Arthur, the owner was indicted on conspiracy charges for illegally transporting hazardous material.

But the majority of Houston’s cases – 70 percent – involve illegal dumping, which can include anything from construction debris, household trash, commercial waste, appliances, automobiles, boats – and the occasional house. The cost for cleanup of these piles left on public and private property can run from $200 to several hundred thousand dollars each.

“Literally, we have the whole building show up sometimes,” said Dicker. “Illegal dumping attracts rats and snakes and includes nails and glass. Kids can get into this and get hurt. There are often tires, which attract mosquitoes, and they carry encephalitis and West Nile.”

Environmental workers stand among a crude oil spill.Dicker also investigates water and air pollution, such as the release of sewage, industrial waste or chemicals. The unit is manned around the clock because it is imperative to get to these scenes quickly. For air pollution issues, investigators use their noses to detect noxious gases in the neighborhood and trace it to its source.

“Our evidence is washing – or floating -- away,” Dicker said. “We need to secure samples and get them to the lab. “

The Environmental Investigations Unit, which often works hand-in-hand with Houston’s Haz-Mat Unit, has unique equipment at its disposal. It includes protective equipment, chemical suits, thermal cameras, sanitizing equipment and patrol boats for work on the water.

Worker in protective suit carries bag of hazardous material.Environ- mental enforcement is still a new area for many police departments. For Dicker, an officer since 1982, it started with responses to illegal dumping around Houston, which soon included asbestos ripped out of buildings. Dicker got a lot of on-the-job training, occasionally augmented by classes from the EPA, the state of Texas or the Southern Environmental Enforcement Network. Eventually, Dicker started going around the country as an instructor for other departments.

Because of a dearth of training resources, Dicker got involved with Project EnCriPT, an EPA-funded program which offers free, online courses to local, county, state, federal and tribal agencies that are involved in criminal and/or civil investigations. The classes include Introduction to Environmental Investigation, Personal Safety for Environmental Enforcement Professionals, and Ethics of Environmental Enforcement, with dozen of classes planned over A live training at Project EnCriPT.
A live training at Project EnCriPT.
a three year period. A more in-depth program is available through cohorts, which provides opportunities for online class discussions and research papers for participants. In addition, live training sessions will be offered on a regional basis for participants who prefer to learn in a face-to-face, hands-on setting.

“It was devised because there are limited education opportunities for environmental enforcement,” Dicker said.

Dicker serves as a valuable member of the Advisory Board with Project EnCriPT.

For more information about Project EnCriPT, visit www.lemitonline.org/environmental.

Member of The Texas State University System