Weird City

Chief Kunkle and a black neighborhood work together on the rule of law

Everybody here, including Olatunji, has made up his or her mind to swallow all that stuff about things being cultural. They mean to back the blue. It's like calling down napalm on your own position. The police tell them: We do a sweep, everybody gets swept. If your inspection sticker on your car is out of date, we're going to sweep you just like we sweep the bad guys.

And the neighborhood says, Bring it on.

I've heard a lot about Chief Kunkle being "tightly wound." But that all seems to come from City Hall. And, you know: Saying the guy acts wound-up around City Hall is kind of like saying he seems nervous every time they lower him into the snake display at the zoo. I figure if somebody's uptight at City Hall, it means he's not on drugs.

Here in this room, he seems calm and easy. He's talking about the policing concept called "broken windows."

"Do you guys know what that is?" he asks.

Nope.

"Real briefly, the theory is that crime occurs in areas where people feel that no one owns the community. General blight occurs."

Still no big reaction from the room.

"Part of the theory of 'broken windows' is that little things, code enforcement, car licenses, abandoned vehicles [now people in the room are nodding], unclean premises, drunks staggering in the streets [they're starting to smile at the chief and give him the high-sign]: All those kinds of things are important.

"Those things create an environment where people think it's safe to engage in crime," Kunkle says.

Yeah. People are nodding saying yeah. They're eating out of his hand. They know all about this. Everything on the street is attitude. You police things up in order to make the punks feel like they're on foreign territory.

The process here tonight is not at all like the old community cop shows, where the PR cops used to come to your crime watch meeting with a wooden model of a dead-bolt lock that looked like it was pulled out of Paul Bunyan's front door. After his meeting downtown with the neighborhood activists, Kunkle began making real changes in the way this area is policed.

I spoke with one of the three watch commanders in this area, Lieutenant Rick Watson, who explained to me that the actual police deployment regimen for this neighborhood has been changed radically. "We are going back to the old beat assignments, the way it used to be," Watson said.

That's huge. For decades, patrol assignments in Dallas have been based on one big central churn, driven by 911 calls. Patrol units fly from one area of town to the next depending on the calls. The only residents they see often enough to get to know are the ones they're always busting. Factor that in with the overwhelming majority of police officers who live outside the city, and it's easy to see how you could get a disconnect between cops and communities.

Now in this one small area of the city, cops are being assigned to stay put on specific beats, with orders to clean up their own areas. If it works, Kunkle will expand the plan to other neighborhoods.

The Interactive Community Policing (ICP) cops here tonight know the neighborhood well, but I'm watching the six white guys in the back, the regular patrol cops who have been ordered to stay within this beat area and who were ordered to attend this meeting. They're clustered in the corner back there rubbing shoulders like orphans just off the bus.

I don't know if they get this or not. You know, the white cops are already calling the chief "Mack Kunkle" behind his back: That's a nasty reference to Mack Vines, the chief in the early '90s whom they still blame for a bad affirmative action effort. The black police union, meanwhile, is making veiled threats to go after Kunkle if he messes with black cops (See "Color Code," by Eric Celeste, September 2).

But let's squint our eyes and look at what's good here. A majority African-American neighborhood is reaching out to the cops to tell them that they are valued, that their presence is desired and that they will be supported. Not to be overblown about it, but I can see in this the very beginning inklings of a healing process. Eventually, given a chance, that process will lead to the re-knitting of the rule of law in the city.

I said not to be overblown, but I blew that, didn't I? OK, just take it as a maybe. A could-be. Why not? The city's been weird long enough. I think everybody's tired of it.

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