Scapegoats

Miller, city council want to blame landlords for crime

Two weeks ago the mayor and the city council held a news conference slapping themselves on the back for a new law to fight apartment crime. They passed an ordinance putting more of the responsibility for crime-fighting on the backs of apartment owners.

I wonder if it occurred to the mayor and the council that fighting crime is actually their job. Apartment owners, last time I checked, are in the business of renting apartments. If you don't think fighting crime and renting apartments are two different deals, listen to this unpleasant little tale:

Russell Fish is a guy I've known for years. It's fair to say he's a reigning expert on public access to government information. But that's not what this story is about. This story is about the mayor and city council's great plan to put apartment owners and managers in charge of crime-fighting through owner-sponsored "Crime Watch" programs.

Fish lives in the Celery Stalk Apartments at 5426 Meadowcreek Drive near Hillcrest and Arapaho in North Dallas. On February 24 he attended the Crime Watch meeting at his apartment complex, as advertised in a calendar of events distributed by on-site agents of the owners. Celery Stalk is owned by Mid-America Apartment Communities Inc. of Memphis, Tennessee.

Meeting starts. Two guys talking. They're telling the residents that crime problems they may have suffered recently probably have to do with criminals coming up from South Dallas to commit crimes against North Dallasites.

Sound of large Chinese gong ringing inside Fish's head: South Dallas theory rings false. He raises hand.

Fish, as I said, is Mr. Public Information. He tells Crime Watch guys he happens to know that several of the recent crimes at the complex were committed by residents. He also says it doesn't help that owners have allowed three registered sex offenders to take up residence at Celery Stalk (double entendre?) in recent months. (When I checked, I found two registered sex offenders in the state database living at Celery Stalk. Fish says the third one doesn't show up in the database at that address because the state has lost track of him.)

Fish was one of three founders of the Open Records Project, which sued the state of Texas several years ago for access to its registered sex offender database. He does know this stuff.

The guys doing the talking--Steve Reed and Russ McNeil--don't want to talk about resident sex offenders. Reed and McNeil want to talk about identity theft. For a small monthly bank draft, they say, residents of Celery Stalk can be protected from identity theft. Oh, and for a somewhat larger monthly bank draft--which residents can sign up for right here tonight at the Crime Watch meeting--they can get prepaid legal services.

Fish is back on his feet. He says something to the effect of: You guys aren't really from the police department, are you? You're salesmen, right?

They say sure. They're not hiding that. That's exactly what Reed said to me when I called him and asked him about it later.

"I'm an independent insurance agent," he said. "I am contracting with Prepaid Legal Services of Ada, Oklahoma. One of the products we sell is prepaid legal services. The other product we sell is basically a service designed to notify you if you are affected by identity theft."

I say OK, fair enough. You were pitching your wares that night.

"Well, more than that," he says. "I do a comprehensive seminar."

All right, then. Here is my personal two-bit analysis of things so far. And remember, this is only my opinion. I think the February 24 Crime Watch meeting was a bogus county carnival midway magic-show hoodoo act designed to sell insurance. I could be overstating it. Maybe there was no actual hoodoo.

Anyway, Fish gets up, waves his hand, says this is all a waste of time or something to that effect and leaves. By the way, he is not the only person to express this sentiment. Another resident, Charlie Haney, who has been an active Crime Watch volunteer, tells the insurance salesmen the same thing.

The next morning, a letter is hand-delivered to Fish by apartment management informing him that his lease, which runs out at the end of March, will not be renewed. This, in spite of the fact the same management had sent him a letter weeks before begging him to renew: "Your residency is very important to us, and we hope you will continue to call our community home," that letter said.

The second letter says: "We are writing this letter to give you sufficient notice of our request for possession of your dwelling unit on March 31, 2004."

I left messages for half a dozen local and regional officials of Mid-America here and in Memphis. None called me back, but I was contacted by Jennifer Owen, an attorney for Mid-America. She said she could not discuss Fish's case for confidentiality reasons. But she said: "Mr. Fish was not given a non-renewal notice for attending a Crime Watch meeting or having an opinion or being critical, if he was."

Unfortunately for Mid-America, their managers aren't as legal-smart as their lawyer. I talked with Fish's lawyer, who told me the Celery Stalk apartment manager had already told him Fish was being bounced because of his "belligerence."

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