For a crime fighter, Peter Fleet seems on the smallish side, his slight appearance lacking a command presence, his reedy voice a bit nervous around the edges. But two weeks ago, after his car was burglarized for the third time in three months, after the neighbors in his condominium complex suffered at least 20 similar smash-and-grab incidents, after the police seemed unable to meaningfully beef up enforcement, after the addicts and the prostitutes and the dealers acted more at home in his Oak Lawn neighborhood than he did, he decided to fight back with the only weapon he had at his disposal: the First Amendment.
On Thursday afternoons, as he does each afternoon that his work schedule permits, he stands near Wycliff Avenue with a group of like-minded neighbors and takes his desperation to the streets. Holding up placards for oncoming traffic, he protests the criminal activity that is sucking the vivacity right out of his neighborhood: "Crack Sold Here...No Police Zone...Free Car Stereo with a Purchase of Sledge Hammer." The irony of his message doesn't escape many passers-by, who honk or offer a thumbs-up in a show of solidarity.
"I decided to do this because I was angry that there was no police protection in my neighborhood," Fleet says. "I just wanted to get the attention of anyone who could help me do something to get rid of all the crime."
Fleet points to a tattered cloth that is strewn across an electrical wire high above the street. "You see that," Fleet says. "That's a symbol for drug users that crack is sold here." By "here," Fleet means the alley that runs behind his apartment on Dickason Avenue between Wycliff and Douglas. "It's known as Crack Alley," he says, offering a guided tour to anyone who doubts his resolve.
Fleet's methods might be a bit unconventional, but they bring into sharp focus the mounting frustration some residents feel as they daily confront the crime wave that has put Dallas in the reprehensible position of being the crime capital among the nation's big cities. It may also be a measure of the outrage some feel at what they perceive is the tepid response of police and politicos, who in a news conference last Wednesday outlined their opening salvo in a new local war on crime. These include a renewed crackdown on panhandling, a proposed ordinance making it illegal to possess a shopping cart away from the business property of its owner and "Lock, Take, Hide" signs, which will remind people to lock their vehicles and keep their property out of open view. For those who might question why no provision was made for increasing the size of the police department or boosting the morale of the existing force, Mayor Laura Miller emphasizes, "This is only the beginning. There are going to be a rolling number of initiatives, and a year from now, with a new police chief, if we don't see a reduction in the crime rate, I am going to be surprised."
Fleet finds the mayor's first crime initiative "really ludicrous...If I lock my car, the crackheads will just smash out my window. That's why a lot of us leave our car doors unlocked on purpose. It saves on the cost of replacing a new window."
Several cars parked in his complex bear the mark of their victimization, a sheet of plastic covering their broken windows. Up and down Crack Alley, which is lined with apartments, men loiter in small groups--crack addicts, says Fleet, waiting for their next high. Crack bags and condom wrappers litter the alley, evidence of the nighttime trade in sex and drugs. Dealers stand in doorways even in the daytime, shamelessly looking for new business. Laundry rooms, trash bins and crevices between apartments become makeshift crack houses and whorehouses, says Fleet, not that concealment from public view is much of a concern.
One graying protester who wishes to remain anonymous stands beside a sign that says "Drug Dealers, Not Panhandlers." Although he has lived at the condominium complex for the past 20 years, only within the past several months has he noticed such a dramatic surge in crime. "Because we are now busting panhandlers, their source of spare change has dried up," he says. "The same people I used to see on the street corner, I now see buying crack in the alley." They have to get their spare change from somewhere, he speculates, and it's probably by burglarizing cars and condos.
"That just drives me crazy," Fleet adds. "The city is worried about shopping carts and panhandlers when there are drug dealers and prostitutes breaking into houses and cars."
Calie Stephens, a security consultant who edits the Web site www.dallascrime.com, agrees there may be some unintended consequences from zealously prosecuting panhandlers. But he believes it's worth it, as long as it's part of a comprehensive strategy to enforce all the laws on the books, no matter how seemingly trivial. "It's the kind of zero-tolerance policing known as broken-windows theory that was so successful for Rudolph Giuliani in New York," Stephens says. It's based on the premise that if one broken window in a building is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. An unrepaired window is a sign that no one cares, so there is no price to pay for breaking another and another. "If you tolerate anti-social behavior, whether that is urinating in public or prostitution or even panhandling, things will just aggravate and get worse," Stephens says.
Arresting addicts, drunks and street people, many of whom are mentally ill, without providing them necessary treatment or housing might spark another set of issues with their own attendant costs and constitutional concerns. Zero tolerance for all petty crimes, even if done in a humane fashion, would require a major commitment to expand the size of the Dallas Police Department, which is already seriously undermanned, with a ratio of 2.4 officers per 1,000 residents, says Stephens, who advocates a 23 percent increase in DPD's size. "You could double the number of police here and still not have as many as they do in New York City [4.9 for every 1,000 residents]. Until we get more police, all of the mayor's little Martha Stewart initiatives will only be cosmetic and will do nothing to lower the crime rate."
Mayor Miller says she has no immediate plans to "significantly raise the number of officers" until she sees the results of a police efficiency study the city intends to complete within a year. "We would have to raise taxes, so we have to know for sure how many cops we need."
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Fleet has little doubt more police are needed in his neighborhood. Before taking to the streets, he attempted to enlist more law-enforcement help, making repeated phone calls to the police and his city councilman, John Loza. "I just felt like everyone was giving me the runaround," he says. The truth is, Fleet's neighborhood did receive "escalated enforcement," says Deputy Chief Danny Garcia, who also spoke with Fleet. "We targeted the area for three weeks and made several narcotics arrests. It was a zero-tolerance issue."
If there was any additional police presence, Fleet says, he didn't see it, and it certainly didn't make a difference. His car was burglarized two more times, and the drug business in his back alley continued unabated. "Within 15 minutes of my stepping outside my door, I can see a drug deal going on. That's why I couldn't keep quiet anymore. That's why I started this public protest."
Chief Garcia says many people have taken notice of Fleet. "His methodology may be awkward, but I support his message and applaud his efforts," says Garcia, who in response is planning more escalated enforcement for the area. "But we can't just park a squad car in the alley; we don't have the manpower to put an officer on every corner." Instead, the police hope to bring Fleet over to their side, enlisting him to organize a neighborhood crime watch program, meeting with him and the other protesters to discuss how they might videotape alley traffic to help police identify and arrest frequent perpetrators.
Fleet worries these measures are just temporary, a bone tossed by the powers that be to shut him up. "If they think I'm going to end my protests, they are mistaken," Fleet says. "I'm not going to stop until the crime stops."