Weird City

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

You can't tell people from other places about Dallas--even when they move here. It's too wacked.

Start trying to explain to them how we didn't have the '60s: All of a sudden they have to make a cell call. The best we can do is live with it.

But every once in a while...I mean once in a blue moon...you see tiny hints that maybe one day Dallas will hook up with the rest of the world. It's moving. Gradually, inexorably, flat on its back wailing for help, eyes popped out like golf balls, both heels kicking up mud, clawing for roots and rocks--in spite of itself the city slides down that terrifying slippery slope toward reality.

What? You gotta make a cell call right now? Give me a minute here. I'm getting organized.

Last week I attended a meeting of the Crime Watch organization for the neighborhoods just east of Love Field, between Mockingbird Lane and Northwest Highway, west of the Tollway. We'll call the area by one of its historical names, Elm Thicket, an area of modest and larger frame and brick single-family houses built in the 1920s through the 1950s, originally occupied by black working- and middle-class families.

Lots of older people live here now. Some young families--Latino, white, some black--are moving back in. But now the area suffers a plague of dope-house crime: dealers, hookers, robbers, plain punks out in the street acting like they own the ground.

The rates for serious crime don't look terrible in the police reporting districts around here, especially when compared with the serious shoot-'em-up areas in South and far East Dallas. But bad things do happen. A man was shot outside an apartment building near here two nights before the Crime Watch meeting.

Most of what goes on is the grinding just-below-the-radar stuff--brazen drug dealers operating out of old houses like they think they're Wal-Mart, half-naked crack whores soliciting high school kids, and punks in the street.

The question is how things ever got this bad. We could drag all those bones out of the closet and get each other into a good dog fight over it--talk about the way racism eroded the rule of law, talk about the way some of the clumsier reactions to racism decimated morale among the white cops--the witch's brew of bad karma that produced residents who wouldn't call the cops and cops who wouldn't come anyway.

But look. The more interesting point is that something new is happening, something better, and you can see it at this meeting. On this evening, the new police chief, David Kunkle, has shown up. There are about 110 residents in the room, maybe 10 of whom are white. Counting Kunkle, there are 10 police department personnel in the room, and one of them is black.

I wrote about this crime watch group three months ago ("Royal Police," July 22). The room was jammed that time as well. The police that night tried to tell people not to call their council member to complain, exhorting them that the best way to get satisfaction from the police department is to do everything strictly through channels and by the book. I sort of cringed when I heard it. The cops were just honestly expressing their own values, but the Elm Thicket Crime Watch is not the place to give a lecture on going through channels.

Not long after that session, Thabiti Olatunji, head of the crime watch group, took eight people from the community downtown for an hour-long meeting with Kunkle in which the community voiced its grievances with the police. Kind of like, "Here's your channels."

But here's the pinpoint of light on which we need to focus tonight: Elm Thicket's grievances are all about getting more cops on the street and cutting them loose to kick more ass.

This ain't the '60s.

Olatunji, a computer programmer who wears African garb, is, like me, a product of the '60s. He has his reservations about cops. For example, in an unguarded moment he once confided to me that he believes "hanging out"--what might be viewed by some as guys loitering on a vacant lot drinking beer--is, as he put it, "a cultural thing."

"Black people just do that," he said. "It's a social thing."

But what Olatunji and this roomful of mainly black and Latino people are asking the chief to do is come in and do sweeps and bust everybody--culture or no--who hangs out, hangs around, walks out in the street, parks his car wrong, does wrong or makes a pain of himself in any way for any reason.

In fact, tonight a lady in the room starts to get on the chief a little because her husband got ticketed in front of his own house for parking his car in the wrong direction. She's going to get into the thing about "Don't you all have real crimes to go after?" but she never gets that far. Kunkle and the cops in the room don't even get a chance to open their mouths before the crime watch officers jump the poor lady and start lecturing her about sweeps. Somebody hands her a pamphlet on how to park your car in the right direction.

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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