City Hall

Mayor’s Approach to Murder Will Be an Advisory Council. Is This a How-to Thing?

Mayor Eric Johnson is attacking the city's murder problem with weak-tea bluster.
Mayor Eric Johnson is attacking the city's murder problem with weak-tea bluster.
In the new mayor’s laughably pusillanimous response to the city’s murder problem, we are seeing the first symptoms of the last election. Pulling a page, poorly, from the previous mayor, Eric Johnson this week tried to take on murder with some grandstand speechifying. It was not grand.

At a scripted City Hall press conference where he refused to take on a tough question and then lectured reporters to stick to his own script, the mayor offered a maudlin invocation of the recent dead and then gave out a bunch of very weak-tea bluster about just by God not gonna stand for any more of these gosh darned murders.

This was the last mayor’s hole card — the big, bad Hollywood speech about not gonna put up with no more wife-beating. It did absolutely nothing for wife-beating but wonders for the previous mayor. He got on national TV with that stuff, mainly because he could pull it off. He’s a big ex-jock who does a pretty fair impersonation of the late cowboy movie actor, John Wayne.

Johnson shouldn’t even try it. He comes across more like Woody Allen bawling out Annie Hall. Yes, he runs a good meeting. I’ve said that already. But it looks like he’s going to run a really bad city.

His big, bad solution — a multi-ethnic citizen task force — is a ridiculous throwback to the 1970s, and that’s the real problem: Johnson was anointed by and personifies a cadre of old-time leaders who have no earthly idea what to do about a thing like murder in the land of today.

Johnson represents the return of the old traditional Citizens Council leadership. The Dallas Citizens Council is a private, venerable, elite, business leadership group that once ran the city with an iron hand. That iron hand has been weakened and even may be missing a couple of partial digits thanks to things like this being the 21st century, for God’s sake, but don’t tell them that. After all, they just won an election.

Griggs and Kingston were despised by the Citizens Council types for being aggressive, assertive and, most unforgivably, smart.

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Johnson’s victory in a runoff last June was not so much about electing him mayor as rejecting his opponent, former City Council member Scott Griggs, and Griggs’ close ally, former Council member Philip Kingston.

Griggs and Kingston were despised by the Citizens Council types for being aggressive, assertive and, most unforgivably, smart. One of their biggest, most hard-fought achievements — and probably most unforgivable in Citizens Council eyes — was a comprehensive housing policy.

The Griggs/Kingston housing policy addressed simultaneously the scarcity of affordable housing in the city, the city’s deplorable history of residential racial segregation, the city’s need to right the ship legally with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the problem of homelessness. Those were the negatives the new policy sought to resolve.

But the new policy attacked those negatives by embracing a larger enveloping positive theme of new urbanism — building the kind of green, tolerant, diverse, walkable city that younger residents crave. Lost in the recent murder news, we also recently experienced a very telling abandonment of the Griggs/Kingston housing policy. I’m going to circle back to this issue.

The larger point, including both the murder problem and the abandonment of the housing policy, is this: Citizens Council rule, which we are now seeing in its reinstated form, is not bad for us because it’s elite. The problem is not that the people behind it are rich.

The problem with a Citizens Council regime, as exemplified by Johnson’s weak, unfocused posturing on murder, is that Citizens Council rule doesn’t work. It’s muddled. It meanders. It’s phony and posing. It may get what it wants for itself sometimes, but it can’t get the big public things done, because it’s so lousy at politics.

Umm. They did win the election. I’ll come back to that one, too. But first, murder.

The murder problem in Dallas — it’s up by 23% for the year so far — has now boiled down to one thing. It’s a chief of police problem.

Everyone seems to agree that the murder problem is centered mainly in poor neighborhoods and involves gangs and/or domestic violence. Everyone seems to agree that the murder problem can only be attacked effectively by some sort of community engagement. So how do we make that happen?

Right now there is a huge amount of political unrest and a growing communal anger in the neighborhoods most affected by the murder issue. The dissatisfaction turns mainly on what really is an issue of police deployment.

Two months ago, Dallas Police Chief Renee Hall, faced with a serious shortage of troops, asked the governor to send in officers of the Texas Department of Public Safety. And she asked that the DPS cops be deployed specifically to South Dallas and to other southern Dallas neighborhoods.

The DPS cops have done what DPS cops do. They are mainly highway cops. In southern Dallas they have carried out a major campaign of vehicular ticketing and warnings for driving offenses in poor neighborhoods, where apparently those infractions are easy to find.

I still feel strongly it was unfair of elected officials and community leaders in those neighborhoods to accuse DPS of racial profiling. These officers have been doing exactly what we invited them here and asked them to do, and they are owed our thanks.

But with more time for reflection, I have come to understand that Dallas City Council member Adam Bazaldua, who represents some of the affected area, also has been entirely right about one very important thing: There isn’t going to be any community engagement, and we’re not going to touch the murder problem by enraging the target communities with a ticket-writing juggernaut.

It is wrong and unfair to characterize Bazaldua’s position as anti-law enforcement. As urgently as any of us does, he and the people he represents want the law to be upheld and children no longer murdered in their own homes. He’s saying that for a whole bunch of reasons rooted in a history that we all know well, this particular setup is not the way to get there.

So that brings us to the chief issue. What the chief needs to do is figure out how to redeploy the resources so generously offered by the governor, perhaps by sending the DPS cops into other areas of the city where they would free up Dallas police officers. Local DPS officers could then be redeployed to areas where violent crime rates are high.

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Dallas City Council member Adam Bazaldua thinks we can't engage the community by giving it thousands of traffic tickets.
But we don’t have a chief. The mayor and city manager are insisting that the chief is away on a medical leave that they cannot describe or explain without violating her privacy. They say it would also violate her privacy to say when or if she is ever going to return.

The city manager almost immediately flips and twists himself into a pretzel to accommodate an entitled part of town.

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All of this is patently absurd on the face of it. Someday soon we will find out what really happened to the chief.

When Johnson announced his task force on violent crime this week, he said that he had not spoken with the chief since her disappearance from public view. Councilman Bazaldua told The Dallas Morning News that Johnson had not spoken to him about the task force before announcing it. So Johnson put together his task force without consulting the chief of police or the council member from the target district.

Johnson also said that no law enforcement entities or persons would be involved in his task force: “We can’t expect law enforcement to do it all,” he said.

Sure, but especially in cases of murder, we must expect law enforcement to do some of it. Like catch the murderers. In fact, somebody needs to warn the members of this new task force: They could get themselves into some serious trouble if they kept law enforcement in the dark on anything they found out about the murders. I think that’s called complicity.

I said I would come back to housing. At the end of last week, the city manager sent a memo to the City Council announcing he was abandoning plans to create a new permanent housing center for the homeless near the majority-white Lake Highlands area. This came only weeks after Lake Highlands City Council member Adam McGough threw a huge public hissy fit because the city manager had announced plans merely to seek public comment on the proposed center.

This is exactly the kind of racial garbage that the new housing policy was designed to resolve. McGough, like his predecessors in that district, has been elected mainly on the back of a vow to drive affordable apartments out of Lake Highlands.

This dark undercurrent in our city politics is what has made Dallas one of the nation’s most segregated major cities. The new housing policy was designed to defeat that ugly theme by distributing affordable housing equitably across the city rather than concentrating it in segregated ghettos.

The upshot is this. The wishes of South Dallas to see state troopers redeployed elsewhere, expressed vehemently in two recent community meetings, have been ignored by the mayor and the city manager. And there is no chief on the job to fix things. But the city manager almost immediately flips and twists himself into a pretzel to accommodate an entitled part of town, trashing a housing policy that took years, blood, sweat and tears to craft.

And then the new mayor announces an anachronistic task force dramatically lacking legitimacy, political savvy or any ability to accomplish anything real, ever. That’s what the return to Dallas Citizens Council leadership gets us.

And, let’s see, I think I said I also would return to the issue of them winning the election. Yup. Sometimes democracy makes big mistakes. I think we are just beginning to pay the price for this one.
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze

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