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 seemedabout 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.

Davenport naïvely tried to argue that he's an honest businessman and it's the city's job to end crime. His job, he said, is to provide soap and spray nozzles for people who want to wash their cars, hopefully at a profit.

Judge David W. Evans, in the 193rd Dallas County Civil District Court, pasted back Davenport's ears on that one. "The court thinks that the defendants have a major flaw in their thinking about this property," Evans said during the trial last year. "They keep wanting to say it's the city's job, it's the city's job.

"Now, what if the city was nothing but a private owner adjacent to them suing for a declaratory judgment that the place is a public and statutory nuisance? It ain't the neighbor's job."

I keep reading and re-reading this incredible transcript, mentally blubbering to myself: Yeah, but...but...but, Judge. The city is not a private owner.

This judge goes on and on. He tells Davenport that if he's going to insist on police protection, he needs to move to the suburbs. "Like the response time in Cedar Hill where I live is three to five minutes," Judge Evans lectures. "And the response time in the city of Dallas is about 40 minutes, unless it's like a gunshot or a murder or something."

You dummy. You deliberately go and purchase a business within the municipal boundaries of the city of Dallas, and then you dare to come in here and tell this court you should have police protection.

Count two (after one count of white guy in black area): Failure to Live in Suburbs.

The whole focus, intent and design of the new law, to be signed this week by the governor, is to tell Dallas that Dallas is wrong. It is the city's job to fight crime, not property owners.

The new law says that if you call 911 and you cooperate with the cops when they show up, you can't be blamed for the crime that happens on your property. (Judge Evans, are you listening?)

In their statement of intent, the authors of the new law go to great lengths to say that this law is intended to reverse, kill, annihilate, expunge forever the strange Dallas doctrine that says crime fighting is the responsibility of private property owners.

But to hear Dallas officials talk, they think they own the battle in Austin, and therefore nothing much has changed. City attorney Tom Perkins called the House hearings a useful source of "guidance," but he said, "We are going to continue to engage in enforcement efforts."

Police Chief Kunkle told me he thinks the change in the law is one of very minor technical wording and does not represent a significant legal shift.

Mayor Laura Miller gave me a tough line that sounded a whole lot like the old way of thinking, that it's the property owner's responsibility to eliminate crime on his property: "If somebody sells dope in front of my house, I'm going to tell him he has no right to be there and to get off my property," she said.

She said the city will continue to use the law to go after certain businesses where there is too much crime. In a reference to a Stemmons corridor hotel owned by Budget Suites of America, the mayor said: "You have a hot-sheet motel, with a meth lab in one room and prostitutes in another. There are certain places that have enough crime that they rise to a different level."

None of this is well-received by the many witnesses who traipsed to Austin to testify against the city and who felt that they achieved a great victory over the city in the outcome. Steve Stefani, in-house counsel for Budget Suites at its headquarters in Las Vegas, said, "It's predictable and laughable that the mayor and other city officials are saying that they won."

Stefani also said the mayor was mischaracterizing events at his company's Dallas property. "What she's describing as a meth lab was an undercover arrest that occurred because we brought the police in and gave the police the tips and set up the undercover arrest in September of '04. There was not a methamphetamine lab. There was a pot on the stove that had water in it."

So in this atmosphere--the Legislature thinks it set Dallas straight, but Dallas officials say the Legislature didn't show them nothin'--put yourself in the shoes of Dale Davenport, son of Freddy Davenport and a co-owner of Jim's Car Wash on MLK (one of the misplaced white guys).

Late on the night of June 1, Davenport called 911 and asked police to come do something about a badly behaved drunk man who had wandered onto his property. A Dallas police officer showed up and began the process of writing the drunk person the legally required citation for criminal trespass.

But then, according to Davenport, another police car appeared, this one driven by Senior Corporal Michael Mundy of the Southeast Division. Davenport says Mundy, sitting in his spiffy new patrol car and smoking a cigar, chewed him out royally. Davenport says Mundy told him he needed to take care of crime himself on his property and not be calling the police or talking to state Senator Royce West all the time.

I spoke with Mundy's commanding officer, Lieutenant Michael Holder at Southeast. I asked if Mundy has anything to do with the city's nuisance abatement teams. Holder told me he wasn't really sure what Mundy's duties are, and he'd have to get back to me. He never did.

I spoke with Mundy. He said he wasn't really sure if he had visited Davenport's car wash, but he might have. He said he didn't recall talking to Davenport, but he could have. He said he talks to a lot of business owners.

"I'm just giving them pointers and ideas of the things that they could do," he said. "But I've never chewed anybody out, telling them that they're not doing enough, anything like that."

By the way, I'm not sure whether Corporal Mundy's name is spelled Mundy or Munday, because he declined to tell me the correct spelling. Maybe he wasn't sure.

I spoke with a witness to the conversation, Tiwangi Kyle, owner of a hair salon who was getting her car washed when the encounter took place. She couldn't hear what was said, but she could tell Davenport was taking a dressing-down by the officer.

"As I looked at the officer's face," Kyle told me, "I could tell he was giving him [Davenport] a hard time. You could judge by gestures, facial expressions and everything."

You want to know what I think the message is for Davenport, for Budget Suites, for apartment owners and other legitimate businesses all over town? The message is that Dallas City Hall thinks the Legislature is a yahoo joke. Dallas is going to keep right on doing what it's been doing--holding private businesses responsible, suing them for locating in a city with one of the nation's worst crime rates and then failing to do anything about it.

Because the city can't do anything about its crime problem.

And anybody who thinks different in Dallas is going to have visits from police in nice new cars with big cigars, bringing the kind of message you'd expect from the Mafia.

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