Will Dallas' New Violent Crime Task Force Work?

On February 5, Dallas Police Chief David Brown delivered some bad news to the City Council's Public Safety Committee. Through the first month of 2016, violent crime was up by 26 percent over the previous year. There'd been one fewer murders, but the number of rapes (13 percent) robberies (21 percent) and aggravated assaults (37 percent) had spiked. The ebb and flow of crime rates can be a mysterious thing, and the one-month jump could very well prove an anomaly if Dallasites behaved themselves just a little better over the following 11 months, but Brown wasn't going to take any chances. Modest upticks in violent crime in the previous two years had put a big, bold asterisk on his boasts of a "12th consecutive year of crime reduction."

A month later, Deputy Chief Paul Stokes was standing in a strip center parking lot at Forest Lane and Audelia Road, black tie flapping in the stiff early evening breeze while cars idled in the drive-thru of the killer fried chicken joint on the opposite corner. He was there to brief a gaggle of reporters on DPD's newest crime-fighting initiative, the Violent Crime Task Force. Composed of 170 officers pulled from various specialty units (SWAT, narcotics, gang, K9, the METRO task force), the unit is currently flooding five of the city's most crime-ridden neighborhoods (Forest Audelia, Five Points, Ross Bennett, Hatcher Scyene, Hampton Ledbetter) with an eye toward reversing the surge of violence.

"When we go into these communities, we are not going to be an occupying force," Stokes said, anticipating concerns about disproportionate police presence in poor and minority neighborhoods, as the five target areas all are. "We are not taking over the area. We are there to make the quality of life better for the citizens.

"This," Stokes added a moment later, "will be a great, great task force."

The academic literature suggests that Brown's approach is the right one. Study after study has shown that intense deployments of officers to problem areas — an approach known variously as "hotspot policing" and "directed patrol" — significantly reduces crime in those areas. "The evidence is pretty overwhelming," says John Worrall, a criminologist at the University of Texas at Dallas. Skeptics predicted that criminals would respond to ramped-up police presence by moving elsewhere, but research suggests that doesn't happen. In fact, the crime-reduction benefits have been shown to bleed into surrounding areas not targeted by police.

David Weisburd, director of George Mason University's Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy and a professor at Hebrew University in Israel, pioneered research into hotspot policing in the early 1990s. An influential 1974 experiment in Kansas City led by George Kelling, one of the fathers of the broken windows theory, had concluded that "routine preventive patrol in marked police cars has little value in preventing crime or making citizens feel safe." Following Kelling's lead, the criminology literature — and thus the practice of big-city police departments — began to shift away from the traditional model of having officers spend the bulk of their time criss-crossing designated beats.

The hotspot model offered a corrective of sorts. It "developed out of the observation that crime is very concentrated in small microgeographies." Weisburd says. In Minneapolis, where Weisburd first tested his hypothesis supporting targeted deployment of patrols to problem areas, 3 percent of the city's addresses accounted for 50 percent of the crime. That figure holds remarkably steady across urban areas. "Any city you look at — Tel Aviv, Seattle — about 5 percent of the streets produce 50 percent of the crime," Weisburd says.

It makes sense, then, to put more cops in those areas. Harvard researcher Anthony Braga neatly summarized the underlying philosophy in a 2005 meta-analysis of hotspot policing: "The appeal of focusing limited resources on a small number of high-activity crime places is straightforward. If we can prevent crime at these hotspots, then we might be able to reduce total crime." That review and subsequent research have consistently confirmed that hypothesis. Executed properly (i.e., in a way that's less invasive than the "stop, question and frisk" method), Weisburd has found that hotspot policing can address crime problems without generating resentment in poor and minority communities.

Dallas has been doing hotspot policing under various names for a quarter century. In 1989 there was Operation CLEAN, in which two dozen officers blanketed a 1/20-square mile area in South Dallas that had been engulfed by the crack epidemic. A few years later Operation Summer Heat targeted crime in West Dallas housing projects.

It wasn't until David Kunkle became Dallas' police chief in 2004 that hotspot policing became a truly integral part of Dallas' crime-fighting philosophy. Kunkle, whom Brown replaced in 2010, oversaw a series of aggressive, targeted deployments like Operation Kitchen Sink, which cracked down so hard on drug-filled apartment complexes in the Forest/Audelia area that around two dozen residents filed formal complaints claiming their units had been illegally searched, and Operation Disruption, which Jim Schutze described in 2005 as "tak[ing] 60 cops off regular duty and send[ing] them into targeted areas to do a kind of intensive rolling law enforcement, turning over every rock to see what scurries out." More far-reaching than any individual operation was Kunkle's adoption of CompStat, a variation on the policing model that New York City had implemented with great success a decade earlier. The inner workings of CompStat are complex and vary from department to department, but its basic premise is that police departments should allocate personnel and resources based on real-time analysis of crime data, shifting officers to certain neighborhoods or tasks based on spikes in crime.

DPD refined its CompStat model in 2009 to more easily identify high-crime areas. Rather than use DPD's standard units of analysis — beats, which cover multiple neighborhoods, or reporting areas, which cover maybe a dozen blocks — the department divided the city into thousands of tiny squares, each 1/16th of a square mile in area. Analysts took data on the prevalence of serious crimes, from car burglaries on up to murder, combined it with the home addresses of known criminals, gang members and parolees, and came up with about two dozen "targeted area action grids" (TAAGs) that included only about 5 percent of Dallas' land area but, as Weisburd might have predicted, were responsible for not quite half of the city's crime.

It's hard to know exactly how much credit to give CompStat for Dallas' decade-long reduction in crime. Crime was dropping nationwide (albeit not quite as steeply as in Dallas), and offenses like shoplifting and aggravated assault were artificially reduced by changes to the way officers responded to and reported them. But it was a key component.

Not that CompStat completely supplanted DPD's specialized hotspot initiatives. Operation Disruption, for instance, gave way in 2011 to Community Engagement Units, 50 officers in each of the department's seven divisions focused on neighborhoods with the highest number of 911 calls. More recently, DPD assembled "crime suppression teams" to combat the ongoing spike in violent crime. Those units were disbanded several months ago, officers say.

To sum up, DPD has spent years pouring officers into its crime hotspots. Which raises the question: What's so special about the Violent Crime Task Force?

For starters, it has a Twitter account: Stokes said in a conversation on Tuesday morning that the new task force is much more focused on changing neighborhood dynamics than Dallas' previous efforts at hotspot policing. The task force is going after "not only [the] person who's wanted but also the nexus" that connects that person to the broader crime problem in the area. These efforts will be buoyed by intensive community outreach efforts, reaching out to neighbors, building relationships with apartment managers, playing on swing sets with small children.

One might expect all of this to have a negative effect on the units task force members are being drawn from, but Stokes says the impact will be minimal. Gang, narcotics and METRO task force officers will be doing the same work they normally do, except their efforts will be more tightly focused on certain geographies. SWAT will still respond to call-outs; they'll just patrol problem areas in the meantime.

Think about it for more than two seconds, however, and the project sounds too good to be true. A sustainable reduction in crime achieved with no additional resources and without negatively impacting anything? That's downright MacGyver-esque.

Worrall, the UTD criminologist, hasn't studied the task force closely, but he says that, as a general rule, gains achieved through hotspot policing are fleeting. "Eventually patrol levels return to normal, and so does crime," he says.

In the meantime, the task force members are quietly seething at the new assignment. The men and women who have spent years training to be in DPD's specialized units didn't do so because they wanted to spend entire days driving around a 1/16th-square-mile patch of Dallas making traffic stops, as one task force member described a recent deployment. Close to 20 of those officers demanded to be reassigned to patrol duty when they learned of their task force assignment, according to department sources. The new task force certainly does little to alleviate the generalized feeling among officers that they are being shuffled around like pawns on a chessboard, according to the political crisis du jour. Slow response times? Aggressive panhandlers? Violent crime? Just throw more cops at the problem; their normal jobs probably weren't that important anyway.

Stokes thinks the officers will come around. "I think you've got to go to the core of why you become police officers: It's to serve the community," he says. "This is where the greatest need is."

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson