Stuff It

Dallas City Hall thumbs nose, gives Bronx cheer to Legislature

This should be good. The city of Dallas is about to flip Austin the bird in a major way.

Dallas got whipped in the recent session of the Texas Legislature. The House and Senate passed a new "nuisance abatement" law aimed specifically at Dallas City Hall. The law was accompanied by an unusual "statement of legislative intent" blasting Dallas city government for engaging in official bullying, possible corruption and general wrong-headedness.

But here's the good part. The vibes I'm picking up tell me Dallas is going to ignore the new law and go on the muscle against anybody who disagrees.

Police Chief David Kunkle thinks the new urban nuisance law is a minor change. Legislators thought they'd kicked Dallas' butt.
Mark Graham
Police Chief David Kunkle thinks the new urban nuisance law is a minor change. Legislators thought they'd kicked Dallas' butt.

I have written about the fight over this law before. I told you how more than a dozen cop cars showed up one day last year and blockaded the parking lot of a Dallas businessman as a reprisal. That particular goon-squad action took place under former police Chief Terrell Bolton.

The new chief, David Kunkle, confirmed to the House Civil Practices Committee that the police goon-squad action had taken place, but he vowed such behavior will never, yea, NEVER a-gain sully the good name of the Dallas Police Department.

Well, gueeeeess what. That same businessman had a little late-night visit from the police last week, after the new law was passed. He gets a lot of visits from the police, most of them because he has to call 911 often. But this visit had a distinctly different flavor.

The officer involved assures me he was not there to intimidate the businessman. The businessman and an uninvolved witness tell me that's exactly what was going on.

The businessman says--and the cop denies--that the cop told him he didn't need to be talking to state Senator Royce West. The police officer was generally evasive with me and not especially believable.

But let me say this: If the officer in question was not there to deliver a message, he sure did an accidentally great job of just that.

The background is this: Earlier this year the House committee heard testimony that Dallas officials were misusing a law designed to help cities stamp out crack houses, hot-sheet motels and other obvious urban cancers. Sworn witnesses told the House Civil Practices Committee that Dallas was using the law to pressure and harass businesses that were merely politically unpopular for some reason.

Apartments too close to a politically vocal neighborhood of single-family residences. A hotel that may have politically connected competitors. Two white guys who make the mistake of buying a business on a traditionally all-black commercial boulevard. Anybody can incur the wrath, witnesses said. Then the city uses random police raids, code and fire enforcement inspections and expensive litigation to make it tough for politically unpopular businesses to survive.

In its statement of legislative intent--a guide for judges and other officials in the future--the Legislature said it was changing existing law on urban nuisances after hearing testimony about "misuse of Section 125 of the Civil Practices and Remedies Code by the city of Dallas, Texas."

The Legislature said in the statement: "The law was used [by Dallas] as a club to wield against honest and law-abiding citizens to such an extent that crimes may have been committed under color of law by the city itself in the inappropriate application of the nuisance abatement authority."

The crux of this matter is a fundamental assumption about crime. The Legislature thought it had passed a law two years ago making it possible for cities to go after businesses and landlords who obviously profit from crime, like a motel owner who allows prostitutes and drug dealers to operate on his premises and then collects part of their illicit profits as inflated room rent.

The committee found that the city of Dallas was unique in Texas for misinterpreting the law to mean that all businesses and owners of property can be held liable for criminal activity on or near their property, even if they have nothing to do with the crime and make no profit from it.

The committee said Dallas, with one of the worst crime rates in the country, seemed to be trying to palm off its basic municipal responsibility for fighting crime.

Let me tell you something. Ain't no seemed about it. With the help of pliant local judges, the city has been able to promulgate a novel theory that it's not the city's job to fight crime. It's your job. And if you bother the city by calling 911 all the time about crime on your property, the city will sue you for having crime on your property.

Please. I am not making this stuff up.

The city of Dallas sued Freddy Davenport, a white guy who made the mistake of buying a car wash on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in South Dallas, a short distance from a car wash owned by an African-American justice of the peace. Davenport was not sued officially under the No White Guys in Black Areas rule, because, of course, that rule is officially unspoken.

Instead, the city sued Davenport for failing to bring an end to crime in his area, even though his property is surrounded by crack houses, homeless encampments, open-air prostitutes, bootleggers and jackleg barbecue pits that the city did not sue.

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