By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
It's 2 a.m. on Lowest Greenville Avenue. As if on cue, the regular cast of clubgoers, bar hoppers and gang bangers spill out of the bars and onto the narrow sidewalks. The crowd gathers quickly, walking, stumbling, growing louder as the smell of hard liquor and stale beer scents the street.
It happens to be July 4 weekend but trouble is expected most weekends. The Dallas Police Department is ready. Empty squad cars fill the streets, their blinding red and blue lights already flashing warnings of intimidation. Officers from DPD's Central Patrol Division take up positions on the west side of Greenville, some waving long flashlights that double as nightsticks, many yelling at the crowd to disperse and disperse quickly.
It's no secret that this section of Greenville Avenue has become a high crime area; neighborhood associations and activists have been shouting as much for the last decade, bending the ear of any city official willing to listen. What was once an area whose biggest problem was frat boys peeing on neighborhood lawns has turned into a hot zone of robbery, burglary, assault and gunfire—by the end of August, there were 30 violent crimes in 2010 alone. And most of the crime occurred in the aftermath of last call, in and outside of clubs that have gained reputations as "bad bars" where a rowdier, tougher element has taken root. City officials refuse to identify these bad bars, but crime reports clearly reflect police activity directed at the west side of Lowest Greenville.
Tonight, while a dozen officers stand tall in front of 180 Degrees and Malibu Bar (now called the Yucatan Bar), just two doors down, Chris Cook of the Greenville Avenue Pizza Company stands on the sidewalk in front of the pizza joint he owns with his brother. He smokes a cigarette while trying to drum up business from the late-night crowd, the same way bouncers at the bars reel in people with promises of drink specials and good music. "Pizza and wings until 4 a.m., guys! Pizza and wings."
But his pitch is shouted down by the commands of cops who seem edgy, suspicious. "Let's go! Let's go!" bellows one burly male officer at the crowd. "Go home or go to jail!" insists a young female officer, pointing her flashlight into the startled eyes of a group of even younger Hispanic women who have just left 180 Degrees. "That means y'all!"
Minutes later, and seemingly without provocation, Officer Perry Strickland fires 13 rounds of pepperballs against the facade of 180 Degrees, unleashing a cloud of powdery irritant to disperse the unsuspecting crowd. The officers back off. Patrons leaving the club, though, have no idea what's happening as the stinging powder attacks their noses and eyes. "It hurts fuckin' bad!" says Kimberly, 26, as she hurries to the safety of her friend's car, using her hot-pink dress to wipe her tearing eyes.
Cook hears the pops go off and notices people cupping their hands to their mouths, pulling their shirts over their faces, coughing uncontrollably. The peppery haze then gets in his face, his eyes burning and his breath hard to catch. He turns and runs into his shop, bursting through the back doors into the alleyway where he stops, his chest heaving as he gasps for air. The irritant leaves a film on his face and the peppery residue burns his skin.
"I'm fucking pissed," Cook says later that night. He knows these post-last-call crowds—he's been serving them pizza for the past three years. "It was totally uncalled for," he adds. "It was an average night, nothing out of the ordinary. People have every right to be walking down the street at their leisure. I'm trying to run a business, and instead I had to run to the back of the restaurant."
DPD's Assistant Chief of Police Vince Golbeck would later say that the incident was a "mistake" and called Officer Strickland's actions "heavy-handed." Disciplinary action was taken against Strickland, who was removed from his Greenville Avenue beat for a month and received a Supervisor's Report of Correction, which found he violated DPD policy that requires officers not to engage in conduct that "adversely affects the morale or efficiency of the department..." or destroys "public respect and confidence in the department." The correction will remain in his personnel file and could affect future promotions.
Golbeck, who has dealt with issues confronting the area much of his law enforcement career, also recognizes that "nearly all the chronic problems" facing Lowest Greenville occur between the hours of midnight and 3 a.m., and something has to be done to curb the crime.
Dallas City Council members Angela Hunt and Pauline Medrano, who represent the Greenville Avenue area, don't think more cops and aggressive shows of force are the answer. "Annually taxpayers are spending at least a quarter of a million dollars to babysit the drunks on Lower Greenville after midnight," Hunt says. "And we're not going to expend taxpayers' money to create an oasis for frat boys and gang-bangers to get their swerve on." The two council members instead propose a comprehensive solution, which includes reduced crime, decongesting traffic and revitalizing the neighborhood by narrowing streets, widening sidewalks and putting up street lamps. Their plan: Rezone Lowest Greenville Avenue into a Planned Development District (PD), which includes requiring a Specific Use Permit (SUP) for any business seeking to operate past midnight on Greenville Avenue south of Belmont Avenue and north of Bryan Street. Targeting just these troubled late-night businesses would be "unfair" and "discriminatory" according to city staff, but insisting every establishment submit to the same PD and SUP process would enable the city to weed out the bad bars—those that attract late-night crime, serve underage drinkers and habitually violate liquor laws.