Police have arrested somebody they hope will turn out to be perpetrator of nine or more serial rapes in the area around Fair Park in South Dallas. Those rapes have sparked an important conversation about law enforcement in the city. Let's get down to brass tacks.
The community in the area where the rapes occurred has expressed outrage that it took Dallas cops three months to alert the public to the activities of a serial rapist in a poor black neighborhood. The comparison is with Lake Highlands, an affluent mainly white area where a serial rapist was arrested last April: The Lake Highlands rapes went public after the first victim was attacked.
Dallas Police Chief David Brown, stung by criticism that his department didn't take rape seriously in South Dallas, pointed out that his own mother lives in the rape area: "I'm a Dallasite, born and raised in the southern part of Dallas, and my mother lives in the neighborhood where these sexual assaults occurred," Brown told Channel 11 CBS News. "I take it very seriously."
It's tough to ignore that one.
Another line that pops up in a lot of the coverage of the Fair Park rapes is that the victims of the rapes have taken a long time to talk to police. Their reticence has been attributed to trauma.
These are all reasons why we should not let this matter slip away before we drill down and get some answers. The contrast with Lake Highlands seems stark, but several possible factors may help explain it. Let's figure it out.
The first factor is racism -- the stubborn paradigm by which white crime is serious and black crime not. There is not a single major institution in Dallas -- from the police to the media to hospitals to the banks to the church community -- that has not been there at some point in the past. Some may still be more racist than they know or admit to themselves.
Another possible explanation is a historically oppositional relationship between the neighborhood and the police department. How real a thing is that? Look, community activist Thabiti Olatunji, who died a year ago, spent a decade working to get the police department to enforce the law in North Park, a black neighborhood near Love Field. He succeeded in large part because he was able to forge a personal relationship with former police Chief David Kunkle.
On the one hand, it's absurd to suppose that our current chief is neglecting South Dallas because he's a racist. But it's not absurd to suppose that Dallas police officers of all ethnicities may not perceive the area around Fair Park as police-friendly. That makes a difference. Big difference.
We see this same drama played out again and again in minority neighborhoods. When residents of the Dixon Circle area in southern Dallas took to the streets a year ago in protest of a fatal police shooting, it was easy to conclude from TV footage that Dixon Circle was a place where everybody hates the cops. But a closer look found many law-abiding residents begging for protection from criminals.
That's the kind of sorting out that must be done, and, as in North Park, it takes work and time. The law-abiding people in the neighborhood are really the ones who have to start the process. They have to organize. They have to meet with the police. Some of that already seems to be under way in the area of the recent rapes.
But there's a harder part, and this is the most difficult challenge that Olatunji had to confront in North Park. Community policing is a two-way street. The good people in the neighborhood have to name names -- rat out, snitch on, call the cops on the bad people. The good people have to figure out that every time they snitch it's like presenting a bill to the police department: "Here it is. We told you. Now pay us back by doing something about it."
The cops have obligations in this relationship, too. They have to know who the good people are and then deal with them in a trust relationship. The good people won't call the cops if the cops are going to ride in roughshod and treat everybody in sight, good, bad or ugly, like a criminal.
In real life, the roughshod mistakes don't happen so much anymore in poor minority neighborhoods because the cops are a bunch of white racists. Certainly that was the story 25 years ago. But today the more common reality is that a diverse police force under an African-American chief makes mistakes in poor neighborhoods because of unfamiliarity with the individuals in those neighborhoods.
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You can talk all day and all night about how it's up to the cops to go out and meet the community and make themselves friendly with everybody, and it's all bullshit. Most of time most cops' jobs are like boxing: When that starting bell rings they start punching out calls and try to keep going until the end of the 10th round.
The other thing for us to recognize is that police departments are heat-seeking. They know which areas can make trouble for them with the City Council or the media. They know which ones don't make heat for them. They go where the heat is first.
The political reality is that it is up to the good people in a neighborhood to do the reaching out. They must demand, in fact, that the police come in and enforce the law. Then they must pay for that enforcement by snitching. They have to show the cops they intend to cooperate with them. They have to do it the hard way, by informing on bad guys.
The white people in Lake Highlands snitch. So do the black people and the Latino people in Lake Highlands. Snitch, snitch, snitch -- snitch all day long, snitch all night. That's how you get police protection. You organize. You demand it. You snitch. Simple.