SAFE as Hell

I don't want you to imagine this scene. It's not imaginary. I want you to see it. Picture this.

South Dallas at night. Jim's Car Wash, corner of Myrtle Street and MLK Boulevard. Right across Myrtle Street a dope house is doing a land-office business. Behind the car wash on Peabody Avenue are three more dope houses, all within 500 feet of the car wash. In a vacant lot behind the fence at the back of the car wash, crack zombies stagger through rubble like cankerous, bug-eyed babies with soiled pants, dragging filthy blankets at their heels.

And here are the cops. Several are on foot. Two more are parked in a paddy wagon. They are here writing tickets for "illegal solicitation of car wash."

Pardon me?

Yeah, you got it. Illegal solicitation of car wash. That's when a guy with a rag and a bucket goes up to somebody who's pulled into the car wash and offers to hand-wash his car for 10 bucks. Big problem down here on MLK.

Picture this: I'm standing on the tarmac at Jim's Car Wash, and the cops are all over the place trying to catch illegal-solicitation-of-car-wash guys, and me, being a naïve white boy from the Swiss Avenue Historic District, I'm kind of standing there muttering: "Hey. Officers. Big crack house right across Myrtle. Hey. Officers. Lookit. Three crack houses right over there on Peabody."

But, nooooo. They don't have time even to notice the crack trade, because they have to go after the illegal-solicitation-of-car-wash racket first.

You know what this is like? This is like an old black-and-white movie about Al Capone. Cops walk into the big garage in Chicago, and there stands Al Capone with his goons; they all got tommy guns; trucks behind them are loaded to the gills with bootleg; so the lead cop turns to a truck mechanic and says in a real tough voice, "Hey, Bozo! No droppin' cig'ret ashes on Mr. Capone's nice clean floor, or I'll hafta write you a ticket."

It doesn't make sense. Or does it?

We've been here before. This car wash is familiar territory. I have written about it at least four times over the last year and a half ("Payback," August 4, 2005; "Stuff It," June 16, 2005; "Ruh-roh," June 2, 2005; "Kickback City," May 12, 2005).

Two years ago the city of Dallas targeted Freddy Davenport and his son, Dale, who own the car wash, for special "SAFE Unit" enforcement aimed at forcing business owners to clean up crime in their areas. "SAFE" is an acronym for something.

Anyway, the Davenports are honest as the day is long as far as anyone has ever been able to determine. But to say there's a lot of crime around their car wash would be a dramatic understatement. Davenport tells me he has pleaded with the police department to do something about it.

On one occasion he says he informed the Southeast Patrol Division that large crowds were gathering outside one particular drug house waiting to be served.

"I told them there's 25 to 40 people standing in line. In fact, they charge $10 a car just for the privilege of parking and walking down that street to stand in line to buy crack."

The city's response? For one thing, I've been going down there myself and eyeballing that scene for the past two years, and in that time the crack houses sure haven't slowed down. I live only three miles from the car wash, but I can guarantee you if just one dope house like these opened up in sight of my neighborhood the police would scrub it off the street within months, maybe weeks.

But two years ago, instead of going after the dope houses, the city sued the Davenports because they hadn't done enough to "abate crime" in their area.

The way SAFE Unit operations worked at the time was this: Somebody sicced the SAFE Unit on your business. You didn't know who. You were told that if you had too many crimes on your property in a given period of time, the city would sue you. Then cops and code inspectors showed up en masse and wrote all kinds of violations on your property to use as evidence in the lawsuit.

The cops were even snagging speeders and drug dealers out of traffic and steering them to SAFE Unit targets so the offenses could be written up as if they had occurred at the targeted sites. Then the city said, "Look how many violations you have!"

Davenport caught them at it. As part of the evidence against him, the city attorney said police officers making a random sweep of his car wash one night caught a drug dealer who'd been parked there for some time.