The message from Dallas City Hall is that it can't really fight crime. The message is that you need to do it yourself. Or else. And, man, does that message ever come across.
Ask Barbara Edmondson, an apartment developer and operator. She spent a quarter-million dollars rehabbing 20 townhomes in a 30-unit complex on Dixon Avenue, midway between Fair Park and Rochester Park in South Dallas.
But she's having a little problem. People are afraid to rent from her because of the crack dealers who operate an open-air drug bazaar on her parking lot.
"Yesterday they had my gates marked with balloons, and the gates were absolutely packed with drug dealing," she told me last week.
I'm stupid. I have to ask. What balloons?
Birthday balloons. You know, the big fancy Mylar kind filled with helium.
"That's how they mark, so people will know where to come in to get their drugs," Edmondson explains.
That's for daytime. She has video of the operation at night. The drug dealers send kids down to the gates on the street to wave people in with flashlights.
You might be like me. You thought drug dealers hid from the police. Not in South Dallas. They use spotlights to attract attention to themselves.
Edmondson tells me, "The one that I call 'the Judge,' that we found out is the main drug dealer, the police asked me to get his license tag number."
What? Now I'm really stupid. The police asked you to get the Judge's car tags? She says yeah. They told her they wanted to be sure they were going for the right guy.
How about just going for the guy selling crack cocaine out of a pea-green Malibu convertible with balloons tied to it and spotlights pointed at him?
Edmondson's not stupid. She asked her apartment manager to get the tags. The manager, a woman, drove out there, eyeballed the Judge and wrote down his tags. "She got the license, and as the manager goes out, the Judge raises his fist and shakes it at her."
And for what? Last time Edmondson insisted that police do something about the Judge, they went out there and asked him to move his car off her property and onto the street. No mention of the crack cocaine sales.
The attitude Edmondson has gotten from the cops--until recently, when she had a chance to talk to the new chief, David Kunkle--has been that crack is a part of the culture. There's nothing she or they or anybody else can do about it.
"They told me that the money is unbelievably good in the drug industry. The greed is so great, you get them out and someone else will take over their territory."
They did have a suggestion. She says a police official handed her the rate sheet for hiring police officers off duty. "They were not doing their duty through the police department," she says, "but they were willing to do it on the side."
I wouldn't be so struck by stories like this if I didn't keep hearing them from so many people. Khraish Khraish and his father own single-family rental properties in South and West Dallas. He caught some guys hauling stuff out of one of their properties on Canal Street, southeast of Fair Park, less than a mile from Edmondson's properties.
"I confronted these people, who were stealing appliances out of my house. I said, 'I want you to stop.'"
No. Not stop. They attacked him instead, for irritating them.
"I literally called 911 as I was being assaulted," Khraish tells me. "I'm telling her, 'They're running after me! They've got me!' I was screaming as this was happening."
He got loose and outran them. They gave up the chase, went back and finished hauling off his appliances. He returned to his property and sat there on the stoop, waiting for the police to come. For hours.
"No one ever came," he said. "That's a typical story. That's what happens out here."
Marsha DiMarco's family has been in the apartment business in Southern Dallas for 30 years. Her father owned a lumber yard and was a builder. She manages her own property and is also a manager for other owners. DiMarco's not a newcomer or a shrinking violet.
But some properties you just have to let go. She told me about an apartment building she owned just off Hutchins Avenue, three blocks from the river in North Oak Cliff. She said there was a really bad drug house next door.
"They were just shooting at police every day," she said.
Oh, wait. I must be having another attack of the stupids. I have to back up. They were what?
"Shooting at police," she said. "Shooting at tenants, shooting at people just driving by."
"It got so bad, we pretty much told the city they could have this property back, because there was just no way we could keep people there."
I hate it when that happens.
So why would the cops act like they can't do anything about rampant crime? There are at least two answers here. Some cops, after all, still do fight crime. Another side of these horror stories from property owners is that some lone officer takes pity on them, gets mad, hikes up his or her drawers and kicks ass.
Sam Jamal-Eddine, an apartment owner I wrote about last week, says a single Dallas police officer, operating more or less like the Lone Ranger, has come to his assistance.
Hidden in the haystack have always been great cops in Dallas--heroes. They put their heads down, mind their own business, do police work the way Lance Armstrong rides a bike.
But the larger part of the answer is that the rest of the cops are right, too. It is hopeless. It's hopeless because we don't have enough cops. Dallas is almost unique among American cities its size for having allowed the ratio of cops per capita to fall in the last decade, while the cities that have seen sharp decreases in crime, Chicago and New York notably, have been boosting their per capita rate.
We have 2,942 uniforms on the force now, according to the department's public information office. Using the Census 2003 estimated population of Dallas, that works out to about one cop for every 410 residents. New York has one cop for every 220 residents.
Figure it out.
More cops means higher taxes. When the city council ran up a couple of very small Mylar balloons two weeks ago, suggesting we might need to raise taxes, Laura Miller, supposedly our strong-mayor type, immediately came out against a tax hike.
Coming out against a tax hike in a city that has one of the highest crime rates in America is sheer political cowardice. But that also tells only half the story. The other half is that Miller, aided and abetted by many on the council, then wants to blame the crime rate on private property owners.
We can't do anything. So you do it. Or we'll punish you.
I attended hearings in Austin last week before the Senate State Affairs Committee on proposed changes to a law Dallas has been using to punish property owners for their failure to reduce crime. It's a so-called nuisance abatement law, designed to help cities shut down crackhouses and hot-sheet motels. But Dallas has been using it to whip up on owners of legitimate businesses. The Senate, like the House before it, is trying to figure out why.
During those hearings, Kathy Carlton of the Apartment Association of Greater Dallas told the committee the city comes after property owners with a whipsaw approach. It made me think of the sword and the cross.
On one hand, the city may sue you, because you haven't done enough to cleanse your area of crime. On the other hand, Carlton testified that the city has been telling owners, "You need to hire more security, and we recommend off-duty police officers.
"They offer phone numbers [for hiring off-duty cops]," she said. "They even offered to put a police officer on the payroll as an assistant manager."
Wow. That's like a bad mafia movie. We tink youse needs a partnuh fer youse bizness, and dat's us.
I discussed this issue in detail last week with Chief Kunkle, with Deputy Chief Julian Bernal, who is over the police department's nuisance abatement team, and with Lieutenant Jan Easterling of the department's public information office. I asked them if they thought property owners might get a message that they either need to accept the cross and hire some off-duty cops or they'll get the sword--a lawsuit.
Kunkle said, "We don't believe we're doing that. As far as sending a message that that needs to be done, I have not seen that occur."
Easterling said the department videotapes all meetings with property owners to document that nothing improper has taken place. Chief Bernal said it would not be in the department's interest to stray from a straight-up enforcement of the nuisance statute.
But look: This off-duty cop thing is a huge industry in Dallas. When I got back to town, I called Gerald Henigsman, executive director of the apartment association, and he told me his group had surveyed their members to see how much they spend each year for off-duty city of Dallas police officers.
Twenty million a year.
You got it. From apartment owners alone. Think of all the other kinds of off-duty work cops do.
A cop gets a base rate of $35 an hour for working off-duty security. If he or she works one shift a week, 48 to 50 weeks, that's a gross of around 14 grand a year. That's a fairly good incentive. You might just suggest, while you're out there telling Barbara Edmondson you can't do much about the Judge while you're on duty, that she hire you off duty.
I have known Henigsman since he was a city of Dallas deputy city manager many moons ago. I asked him if he thought there could be any kind of deliberate extortion going on.
"To be perfectly honest with you," he said, "I don't really believe that there's an actual decision that this is going to be an opportunity to push employment.
"They have to come up with something that they can tell people. Obviously the whole idea is to try to get the property to assume more responsibility for crime control. I think it is a natural instinct to say, 'Hire some off-duty Dallas policemen.'
"They would prefer to see a Dallas policeman rather than a hire-a-cop, because they probably feel that they're going to get a higher-quality service. To say there's a conspiracy, I couldn't really say that."
I said OK. But you were a deputy city manager. You know way more about City Hall than most people. What about the property owner who's not so sophisticated about this stuff? Somebody who's never really had a run-in with City Hall or the police before. Now all of a sudden, here comes "the Safe Team" from City Hall, talking about a lawsuit against you for not reducing crime, and somehow somebody over here on the side, maybe a cop who has nothing to do with the Safe Team, suggests you hire some off-duty cops.
Might you not get the idea you're being squeezed?
"Sure," Henigsman said, "I think you're absolutely right. They read a totally different meaning to it. They read that, 'I'm being told to hire them.' It's a misunderstanding, a difference between what the police think they're saying versus what the owners think they're hearing."
Yeah. Well, I see his point. But I'm not quite willing to cut City Hall that big a break. I don't exactly blame the cops for all this. Their main problem is they're wearing the wrong uniform at the Little Big Horn.
Certainly we can't blame Kunkle: He hasn't been chief that long. He's shown nothing but integrity so far.
But ultimately City Hall issues are leadership issues. And what is the message from our elected leaders? Their message is that they're going to suck up to what they imagine to be the wishes of rich North Dallas and oppose any and all tax hikes. That means Kunkle might as well just go ahead and change his name to Kuster.
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And this is the really amazing part: Then they're going to blame the fact that this city has one of the nation's highest crime rates on us.
Don't allow any crime to happen on your property, you naughty devils, or we'll have to come out with the Safe Team and sue your socks off. Hire some off-duty cops. Oh, and that other thing. Don't be late with our tax money.
Next week, let's talk some more about off-duty.
You guessed it: It gets worse.