This is the story of Bozo. At first it's funny. Then it's not funny. Then the punch line makes you want to punch somebody.
The question is who. Punch Bozo? Punch the cops? The city attorney? The mayor? Sam Jamal-Eddine?
The city of Dallas says Jamal-Eddine is the proper punchee. He's a South Dallas landlord whom the city is suing and generally trying to put out of business for failing to provide Bozo with more suitable quarters. Bozo, a street drug dealer in old South Dallas, chose Jamal-Eddine's apartment building near Metropolitan and South Central Expressway as his HQ of preference.
Bozo is a street name, apparently a reference to his great size, unusually large feet and bushy Afro. I am not using his proper name here, because I was unable to track him down in order to ask him his version.
According to testimony Jamal-Eddine gave at a legislative hearing in Austin last month, Bozo started smashing into apartments two months ago in Jamal-Eddine's 28-unit, two-story building, usually by breaking through front doors.
Some units were empty. Some were occupied. As far as Bozo was concerned, it was all good.
"He is known to everybody around that area," Jamal-Eddine told the Texas House of Representatives Civil Practices Committee. "He could fight with anybody, beat anybody and get them. He jumps from one apartment to another.
"He broke into any apartment, and he would go inside, and the tenant cannot say nothing, because they are afraid of him. He broke inside, and he sells drugs inside that apartment."
Jamal-Eddine told me last week he paid $418,000 for the 35-year-old building almost three years ago. Because of the city's lawsuits against him, he is about to lose the building in foreclosure. A civil engineer by training, Jamal-Eddine was born in Lebanon and is a U.S. citizen.
The Bozo story was one of several he related to the committee in which he begged Dallas police to come enforce the law at his complex and they refused.
"I start chasing him for two months, calling 911," Jamal-Eddine told the committee. "'Here Bozo! Come and get him.' No response. As usual. I don't know what to do."
Jamal-Eddine told the committee the typical response time he got by calling 911 was two months. He'd learned the only way to get a patrol car faster than that was by telling the 911 operator that World War III was about to break out on his property.
"One time I came early morning, 5:30, and I find him inside. I call the police, 911. 'Come on over right now. Somebody's going to kill somebody.'"
When the police came, Jamal-Eddine told them: "Here Bozo, inside. Come and get him." He said the police were familiar with Bozo. They went to the door of the apartment and said, "Hey, Bozo, come on out."
Bozo appeared. Jamal-Eddine said Bozo told him in front of the cops, "'Yes, Sam, I pay you to rent this apartment. I already paid the rent.'"
To Jamal-Eddine's chagrin, the police immediately took Bozo's side without asking a single question of him. "They told me to go through the civil procedure. 'Go evict him.'"
At this point, when Jamal-Eddine was telling his story to the legislative committee in Austin a month ago, he was interrupted by state Representative Joe Nixon, a Houston Republican and chairman of the committee. Nixon, speaking in the tone of one who could not believe his own ears, recapped:
"So Bozo hadn't signed the lease," Nixon said. "Didn't pay any rent. He broke into an apartment. You called them, said, 'Come get him.' They went and got him. And Bozo says, 'I've paid the rent.' And the police said, 'OK, well, he's paid the rent.'"
Jamal-Eddine said, "I asked the police, 'Did you ask him about the receipt, if he has a receipt, if he has a contract?'"
"And what was the officer's response?" Nixon asked.
Jamal-Eddine said police told him, "'No. Go and evict him. Sam, this is a civil matter.' And they left.
"They left me with Bozo."
At this point, there was laughter in the hearing room. I wasn't there. I watched this hearing on videotape. But it is my clear impression from watching the tape that no one was laughing at Sam Jamal-Eddine. What I heard was disgusted, disbelieving, derisive laughter aimed right at Dallas City Hall.
This committee of the House of Representatives had already heard hours of testimony telling the other side of the Bozo story--the fact that after Dallas police repeatedly refuse to show up, refuse to enforce the law when they do show up, walk away when tenants and hotel guests are caught red-handed with caches of illegal drugs, the "Safe Team" comes to call. And that is when a landlord or hotel operator's life and business really go to hell in a handbasket.
Dallas City Hall was the prime target of the House hearings last month and of hearings going on this week in the Senate. The accusation is that the city has abused a law passed two years ago that was supposed to help cities shut down crackhouses and hot-sheet motels.
In 2003 the Legislature tacked new language onto an existing nuisance abatement law, making it easier for cities to sue owners of troublesome properties. But the Legislature omitted a requirement that the property owners actually take part in or deliberately profit from a criminal activity on their property.
Even given that omission, people of good faith aren't going to sue the owner of an apartment building because one of his tenants was caught selling drugs, especially if that property owner has been trying to get the drug dealer arrested, evicted or otherwise removed from the place.
But there is the catch: people of good faith. That doesn't include Dallas City Hall or Dallas city government. The city used Jamal-Eddine's own 911 calls against him when they came after him with a nuisance abatement lawsuit.
Wait. Stop. You don't get the whole picture yet. Sam Jamal-Eddine is ferocious about defending his property. The more the police piss him off, the more he calls 911. So, eventually, you see, Jamal-Eddine starts generating some bad numbers for the police commanders in his area. Someone has to explain why there are all these 911 calls coming from Jamal-Eddine's building, and with such terrible response times.
That's when the police department's "Nuisance Abatement" or "Safe Team" comes calling. They lay it out. Look at all these 911 calls, Sam. All from your building. You know what? Your building is turning into a nuisance abatement problem. We may have to turn you over to the city attorney for a nuisance abatement lawsuit. Then you're going to have to hire a lawyer, run up a lot of bills. I don't know, these 911 calls are really starting to look like a problem, aren't they?
Wait. Stop. That's not the punch line yet. Here's the punch line--a line I have heard now from several property owners, a line that was repeated again and again in the hearings in Austin. You know what the real punch line is? I have it on my desk.
The rate sheet.
The next thing they hand the owner of a car wash on MLK, or the owner of a major hotel chain, or the owner of refurbished apartment buildings, is the rate sheet for what it costs to hire Dallas police officers to work as security. Off-duty.
Get it? You call 911 too much. You're making us look bad. We're going to have to sue you and put you out of business if this keeps up. But, hey. There is a way out of your dilemma. Hire us off-duty. Now you're not a nuisance anymore. Now you're our buddy.
The rates vary, but we're talking about a basic fee of $35 an hour per cop and another small fee for the car. They want property owners to hire two cops at a time to work through the night. Jamal-Eddine is down to 11 tenants. At the current rental rates, the off-duty cops would cost him approximately three times his gross.
So instead, the city keeps hitting property owners with inspection fees and fines. Even if they find nothing wrong, the inspections cost $30 per unit, though they only "spot-check" a few units. Jamal-Eddine says the inspectors hand out business cards to the tenants. He says if he gets into a dispute with a tenant, the inspector will come the next day (way faster than 911), go straight to that tenant's unit and find, lo and behold, a battery missing from a smoke detector, which can mean a fine of many hundreds of dollars.
Half the units in Jamal-Eddine's complex are boarded up. He says the Safe Team requires him to board up any apartment that is not occupied.
I spoke at some length with acting City Attorney Tom Perkins about how the Safe Team decides what properties to focus on. Perkins said there is no written policy and more or less steered me to the police department.
The police department did provide me with a very general description of how the Safe Team works, based mainly on community complaints, the number of incident reports from a certain property and so on. The problem is that the company line on how the system works is in conflict with a lot of the testimony by city officials before the committee in Austin. I will explain more of that in future columns.
But the bottom line is that there is no written policy or set of criteria to determine why they pick one guy to pounce on and not another. The day-to-day reality is that the Safe Team is sort of like alligators: They only go after you if you look like prey.
At the end of last week, I found myself sitting in the un-air-conditioned "office" that Jamal-Eddine maintains in an empty unit on the second floor of his apartment building. Repeated break-ins and vandalism, mostly by Bozo, Jamal-Eddine says, have left his office looking like a hiding place beneath a bombed-out hulk in a war zone--a jumble of plumbing parts, smashed furniture and ruined office equipment. I looked around nervously for severed limbs but found none.
By the way, before I ever met Jamal-Eddine, when I was going to the building looking for him, I entered a couple of apartments. They were clean and neat and appeared to be in good repair. Those must have been non-Bozo units.
The day we met he was wearing a crisp business suit. He told me he graduated from Mississippi State in 1972 with a civil engineering degree, worked for state highway departments, worked in Kuwait and other countries for 11 years, then came back to the United States so his kids could go to college here.
He is 60 years old. His daughter has completed a doctorate at Baylor, and his son has finished a master's degree at UTA. I asked him how his dealings with Dallas City Hall compare with his experiences with other governments around the world.
Jamal-Eddine paused, gathering his thoughts. "I tell you honestly, there is nothing like the United States. This is a place of democracy. This is a place where you live in freedom and with a free spirit. That is why I chose the United States since the beginning, since 1969."
Part of what he likes about this country is that he is free to fight City Hall. "I don't like to be illegal. I'm very tough with that. I like everything to be legal. And when I find something wrong, I fight. I can fight severely to get the right things. That's why I came to the United States and gained my citizenship. I love it. And even if there is something wrong here, still, it is the top of the world.
"What I gave my son and my daughter, my little daughter, I believe no place in the earth can give them that fast what they have here. To own a house and have a living and all that in the old country, you need 300 years."
He leads me outside on the balcony so we can take in the late-afternoon view. As far as the eye can see, plastic bags glisten like blisters on endless vacant lots. In the distance an army of silhouetted homeless move slowly over the broken horizon. At our feet on Jamal-Eddine's fenced parking lot, in defiance of his many warning signs, whores and drug dealers pull in and out of the busy lot in shiny SUVs, glowering up at us while they chug their 40-ounces.
He says none of them lives here. And I do observe that none of them sticks around longer than the five to 10 minutes it takes them to finish a deal.
He stands at the rail and lifts both arms. "If I have an island with all this sea around me, how I'm going to stop the sea?"
Then he turns to me and says, "You know, in South Dallas, I really don't think we are in the United States. We are somewhere like Guatemala."
That would explain the government.
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