Sorry, but I feel like Thomas Alva Edison the first time his light bulb lit. I must share.
In the last year and a half I have written five columns—count 'em, five, and this one makes an even half-dozen—about the strange case of Jim's Car Wash on MLK. Six too many? Then you answer the question:
Why does the Dallas Police Department keep hitting this South Dallas car wash like Eisenhower at Normandy—paddy wagons and multiple patrol cars showing up at all hours of the day and night, frisking customers and searching cars. But a half-block away a bunch of dope houses are operating 24/7 like Costco with lines of junkies down the sidewalk?
The car wash guy, as far as I can tell, as far as anybody has ever been able to tell me, as far as a state legislative investigative committee was able to determine in 2005, sells soap and water. That's it. The dope houses sell dope.
If the object is to "abate crime," in City Hall's language, why not go abate some of those drug dealers?
I think I have it figured out. At last. As usual, I would like to cut to the chase and tell you at the top what I'm going to tell you at the bottom:
Like everything else about Dallas city government, this is not exactly a conspiracy. That would give the city waaay too much credit. I guess it has been right there in front of me all this time—right there in front of us all—but I made the mistake of looking at the cheese when I should have been looking at the holes.
For a year and a half I have been trooping over to City Hall to ask City Manager Mary Suhm why the cops from the Southeast Operations Division keep hassling the car wash even after Suhm has promised it's going to stop. I go down to police headquarters on Lamar Street and ask police Chief David Kunkle the same thing.
I'm asking the wrong people. They don't run the show. Suhm and Kunkle can tell me whatever they want, but they do not call the shots on the street.
Who calls the shots? The real mayors of this city, the real city managers and police chiefs, are the city council members. In fact, they operate as if Dallas were 14 little semi-autonomous cities.
Sometimes they make the calls themselves. More often they have their assistants and secretaries do it for them. I just hear this too often, whispered behind a hand fearfully. It's the call from the council that counts.
Council members defend the practice to me and in public by saying they owe it to their constituents. When I confront the city officials to whom the calls are directed—in this case, police officials—they don't deny it. In fact, they defend the practice.
The area chiefs over the police department's regional operations centers are the ones most susceptible to political influence. My car wash case is an excellent example of what happens when that political influence goes sour.
But the car wash is only one example. Apparently in recent months letters have been going out again summoning many property owners to meetings with police in all of the operations headquarters to discuss the owners' failures to solve crime in their areas.
The nature of the meetings is left ominously vague by the letters. But the fact is that these meetings can be the first step in a process of potentially ruinous legal action by the city. I believe the main motivations for many of these letters are political and real estate agendas, passed on to the cops through the council offices, with the chief and city manager conveniently cut out of any involvement or responsibility.
A few weeks ago I was invited to accompany Marsha DiMarco, who owns rental property in southern Dallas, to a meeting at the police department's Southeast Operations Division. Police officials wanted her to come in and discuss her failure to "abate" crime at one of her rent houses.
DiMarco rented to a woman who had paid the rent and made no trouble for four years. The renter even installed burglar bars at her own expense. Then the rent went late. And somebody got busted at that address for a drug-related offense.
In early January DiMarco received a letter from Deputy Chief Patricia A. Paulhill, head of the Southeast Division, telling her that properties like hers were "considered criminal nuisance sites if you as the owner knowingly tolerate this criminal activity and fail to make reasonable attempts to abate the nuisance."
DiMarco immediately threatened eviction, and the renter split. But she wanted to know—and I was very curious—what the cops were going to say at the meeting. Would they expect her to see to it that no bad behavior occurs ever in her rental properties, which are occupied by poor people?
My thinking is: If she can do that, let's elect her president of the United States and maybe start a new religion based on her. But otherwise, poor people have to live somewhere.
They kicked me out of the meeting. Very politely, but, you know: They're cops. They don't really have to raise their voices. Afterward, DiMarco said, "They never said anything, because they were so nervous about you being there."
Always glad to help.
Chief Kunkle later told me the meeting I got kicked out of was "non-adversarial, non-threatening, not part of the nuisance abatement process."
Mmm, not too sure about that. The opening paragraph of the letters property owners are receiving from the police summoning them to these meetings contains close paraphrases of Chapter 125 of the Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code, titled "suit to abate certain common nuisances." That act gives the city the power to sue property owners.
Freddy Davenport, who owns the car wash, has already been hit for hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs and penalties in such a lawsuit. So he would be a fool if he took the letter or a meeting with police about it as "non-adversarial" or "non-threatening."
I have studied the property around the car wash pretty closely. Many lots in that immediate two-block area have been bought up by foundations and entities doing the good work of trying to clean up MLK, an important historic artery through one of the city's oldest black neighborhoods. I have also talked about the car wash with people involved in that effort.
There is an animus against the car wash. I have to admit the same feeling probably would crop up if the car wash were in my part of town (one and a half miles away). By camping out across the street from it, I have been able to witness lots of loitering and other activity that may be drug- and prostitution-related all around the car wash and on the car wash lot.
But the main car wash guy—the son of the owner—is fighting the crime in this area, not encouraging it. And even though he is a white guy from East Texas, he's not a bigot and does care about the neighborhood.
Nevertheless, that general animus against the car wash, and maybe against DiMarco, for all I know, is in the air and insinuates itself into the political pipeline.
I asked Chief Paulhill if she or her officers have any obligation to tell anybody back at headquarters when they get calls from the city council offices asking for things to be done.
She said, "No. It's no different than a citizen calling up here and saying, 'We think there's a drug house down the street.' We don't have to call the chief's office. We go and try to act on it."
But see, it is different. It's totally different if a council member or an assistant or even a secretary to a council member calls a deputy chief at a regional headquarters, as opposed to if you or I call.
And it's not just that the council office gets better service. The council office is able to get things going, to make things happen that the chief of police and the city manager and the mayor never see and may know little or nothing about.
Kunkle defends the city council on this. He says a city council request for police action "doesn't need to go through the city manager's office or even my office.
"In a city this size with the number of council members we have and the number of issues all of them are dealing with, it's practical that the council members deal a lot with our patrol chiefs on issues. Some council members are much more active with that than others, depending on what their priorities are."
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I see his point. I respect Kunkle. I also don't expect him to bad-mouth the city council. But I also think this is why I get an official story from Kunkle and City Hall, and the legislative committee gets an official story from Kunkle and City Hall, and everybody gets an official story, but that story has little or nothing to do with what really happens out there in the neighborhoods.
The deal is hot-wired around City Hall. The chief and the city manager are down there mainly to deal with us, the media, and with people such as the legislative committee. They are the face but not the hands.
You can tell me that's just responsiveness. But police matters are different. When police matters get a little too responsive, things get a little too weird. Things start to smell bad, like my car wash case.
You know what would restore everybody's credibility? Knock the hell out of those dope houses. It's what the cops would rather be doing anyway. Just a suggestion.