Are Surveillance Cameras the Answer to Rising East Dallas Crime Rates?

All of the unmistakable and depressing signs are gathering over my neck of the woods in Old East Dallas. We seem to be in for another spike in crime, and I'm wondering again what I can do about it.

The choices run the gamut. Do absolutely nothing—ignore it like a bad sound under the hood of my car. Or hide in the shrubs with a shotgun.

I hate this stuff.


surveillance cameras

Word of a scary attack flashes up and down the block like lightning—back door kicked in, mother and nanny racing from house, babe in arms. The incident winds up in a typical East Dallas Keystone cops scenario, with a posse of pissed-off mothers and non-English-speaking construction workers all chasing the bad guy together.

He escapes, but the angry mob gets back the stolen stuff.

A few days later, one of the same mothers confronts another bad guy trundling an air-conditioning compressor out of an alley on a two-wheel dolly. He flees too, but Annie Oakley gets the compressor back.

Crime comes and goes like weather. If you have been through it before, you already know how difficult the calculation is. So you shoot a guy to save an iPod? Does that equation really balance out?

But to do nothing? No way. We have achieved a lot of success in these inner-city neighborhoods by physically running off crime—just like those mothers and construction workers did. Word gets around. Those people are crazy over there.

We could probably be more sophisticated about it in my area. Technology offers interesting potential, especially in the area of video monitoring. Richland Park Estates is an area in North Dallas that got national attention two years ago when it became one of the first middle-class neighborhoods in the country to subject itself to 24-hour video surveillance. I drove through there a few weeks ago to see how they were doing.

It's a small subdivision, about two and a half square miles, a block north of the LBJ Expressway, near Richland College. The houses are one-story frame construction on slabs, about 2,500 square feet in area, worth from $175,000 to $200,000, built in 1978 and '79.

The neighborhood fronts Audelia Road, a major urban thoroughfare, and is walled at the back by railroad tracks on a high berm. To the north and south are apartment complexes.

As I turn off Audelia, there is an immediate, enveloping sense of cloistered separation. The air is still, lawns trimmed neatly, houses well-tended. An outwardly cheerful sign greets me: "SMILE! This entire neighborhood is under 24-hour recorded video surveillance. Richland Park Estates Crime Watch." The same message is repeated in Spanish just below, but in harsher terms and without the "smile."

I look around for cameras, of course, but they are concealed. Eventually I find my way to the meticulously kept home of Dick Becker, former president of the homeowner's association, who shows me the books he keeps on neighborhood crime.

Using data from the police department, Becker has built Excel files showing crime within Richland Park dropping from high rates to almost zero since the cameras were installed two years ago.

"To give you some idea," Becker says, "just in our homeowner's association area in the last 100 weeks there have been 28 incidents. In the previous 12 weeks before cameras, we had 27 incidents."

Hmm. Not too shabby.

Becker tells me, however, that the cameras alone are not enough. "You have to have a good crime watch group, which we have here."

The cameras are monitored by homeowner's association volunteers who have been trained and vetted through the Dallas Police Department's crime watch program. When they see something suspicious, they jump in cars and eyeball the situation. Then they may call the cops.

Becker says the neighborhood also has some unique physical advantages. "We only have three driving entrances."

Of 143 households, 100 to 110 participate in the neighborhood association in a typical year. Dues are $100 a year. The association levied a special assessment of $50 to pay for concealed cameras at all of the entrances and along all of the peripheral alleys. Becker says 114 households contributed. "A lot of people gave a lot more than $50."

The system itself is the brainchild of Butch Davis of Omni-Watch Security Systems of Dallas. Approached by Richland Park residents, Davis cobbled together elements of commonly available surveillance equipment and household Internet systems with an ingenious compression algorithm of his own.

Collaborating with Bill Mott, a Richland Park resident who has since gone to work for him, Davis created a network that can be monitored by volunteers from their home computers.

From what I saw, it works like a charm and doesn't crash anybody's Internet connection.

Richland Park has also designed into the system a measure of privacy: The cameras look into public areas only. They cannot be turned or panned to peer into windows—a restriction the neighborhood placed on itself to allay concerns about invasion of privacy.

From a car window, I gather that the residents of Richland Park are sort of diverse—mostly white but not entirely. The residents of the adjacent apartment complexes are the same formula but in reverse—mostly of color but not entirely.

Becker and I drive the alleys in his SUV and experience the following encounter: Proceeding down a narrow alley in crime-watch fashion, Becker and I, both old white guys, come upon a young man, probably 17 or 18, black, very nicely dressed and carrying a backpack, who is inside the confines of Richland Park Estates, walking along a drainage ditch toward a steel fence bordering an apartment complex.

"Here's a problem child," Becker says. "Watch what he does."

The young man proceeds to climb the fence toward the apartments. Becker lays on the horn. The young man keeps climbing, unperturbed. Becker opens his car door part way, leans out and shouts, "You know you're not supposed to do that!"

"OK," the young man says politely, continuing to climb.

"Well, OK," Becker says, "but you're still doing it."

"Sir?" the young man asks, climbing.

"You're still doing it."

"Yes, sir," he says. "I intend to continue doing it."

"OK, I'll call 911 and tell them that we don't appreciate it."

"Yes, sir," the young man says, now over the top.

"Take care," Becker tells him, driving off.

All so civil! The problem here, it seems to me, is that the fence-climbing kid can't get out of Richland Park Estates and into his apartment complex except by climbing a fence. The streets of Richland Park are public streets—Dallas streets, like mine. But the effect of the cameras, the patrol and the fence is to convey to that kid that he is not allowed to be here. At all.

Later that week, I came back to Richland Park and knocked on doors. I found Mary Allen at home, with a somewhat less sanguine view of the crime situation than Becker or the people at Omni-Watch.

"We've had a lot of crime despite the cameras," she told me. "This house across the street for about nine months was a crack house. People went in and out of that house. The cameras didn't catch anybody. The reason we figured it out was because of the unsavory characters that kept going in and out, the prostitutes in their little skimpy outfits and so on."

She said the apartment complex behind her, the one the fence-climber was trying to enter, just on the other side of the alley, is a major drug-dealing center. "There was one day where they took a whole meth lab and dumped it in one of the neighbor's trash cans."

But she said her only wish for the cameras would be to have more—more and more—in order to survey what isn't already watched. I asked her about privacy.

"I have thought a lot about that," she said, "but I think I'd rather have safety right now."

Mott of Omni-Watch says the system works mainly as a deterrent, but he believes the deterrence only works if the system also catches people every once in a while.

"We have in my neighborhood caught and had arrested three different people now committing crimes, because of the cameras," he said. He believes that the word gets out on the street and criminals tend to stay away.

The City of Dallas is hoping Mott is right. It has installed 32 surveillance cameras downtown and 14 in the Jubilee Park neighborhood of South Dallas, all monitored by 911 operators. It's too soon to know what long-range impact those cameras will have on crime. We still don't have enough cops, and they can't all concentrate on camera calls.

The coda to all of this is that after I spend several weeks worrying about the poor kid who has to climb a fence, my son comes home from Austin, and his truck gets burglarized in front of my house. Again. For the third time. I'm so angry I'm right back where I was the last time this happened, fantasizing about hiding in a bush and blasting somebody to kingdom come.

These equations are difficult to solve—human life versus property, safety versus privacy. I just don't feel like getting on my liberal high-horse about the way anybody else tries to work it out. We are all laboring in the same vineyard, struggling to defend livable communities from the barbarians.

Richland Park is a little more North Dallas. They use cameras. We're more Third World in East Dallas. We use irate mobs. I'm on the side of anybody who doesn't give up.

I hate telling that kid with the backpack that he can't be where he wants to be. But I also understand how these cycles take on the aspect of war, and everybody's liberty suffers in war. My big idea is to hope for this current cycle to ebb. Always worked before.

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