Tyrone Paxton was shot dead in broad daylight in mid-morning on April 19 last year. His body fell next to the road at 2800 Cleveland St. in Southeast Dallas, alongside a vacant, grassy lot overlooked by nearby apartment buildings and their parking lots. Dallas homicide Detective Derick Chaney believes as many as 50 people might have witnessed what happened when Paxton was shot. Chaney has distributed 300 fliers in neighborhood stores trying to find someone who saw the shooting.
So far, no one has stepped up.
There’s more: A shooting at a drug house in the 3300 block of Pine Street left one man dead on Jan. 3; Demarcus Washington was gunned down in a fight in the wee hours of Oct. 16 in the back parking lot of Club Pinky in the 4300 block of Malcolm X Boulevard; a home invasion and killing at an apartment in the 3600 block of Pine; another man was shot dead by someone in a passing car in the 2600 block of Pine; early in the evening of Dec. 11, 61-year-old Andrew Smith got in a fistfight at a bus stop in the 3500 block of Malcolm X, fell into the street and was struck and killed by a car. Whoever he was fighting took off, and no witnesses have come forward.
And so it goes. Bodies fall. Witnesses vanish. Killers roam free.
Over the course of 2016, DPD made arrests in 84 of the 172 murders committed in the city — a clearance of about 49 percent, well below the department’s 55 percent three-year average. To boost those numbers, Deputy Chief Thomas Castro, who oversees the department’s crimes against persons division, and his homicide detectives are heading out into neighborhoods for a series of meetings to try to ramp up the community side of “community policing.” Their message is simple: Unless the good people step up and help the police, the bad guys won’t be stopped.
“Somebody’s going to have to take that first step and come forward, otherwise we’re going to continue to have this kind of violence,” Castro said Tuesday morning following the first of four community meetings held Monday night at Salem Institutional Baptist Church on Crozier Street, just blocks from the killings on Pine and Malcolm X.
For a short while Monday night, the church was the safest place to be in a tough neighborhood as about a dozen cops, including Castro, plainclothes detectives and a handful of other brass met with about twice as many neighborhood residents to talk about murders. In the way of such meetings, the talk veered off topic as neighbors asked the police for more resources, more patrol cars on the streets and more efforts to shut down gambling and drug houses.
The turnout was slightly higher at Tuesday’s town hall meeting held at Cedar Crest Cathedral, where five detectives offered the same pleas for the community’s trust and help, using four unsolved murders and a string of sexual assault cases in the area as a backdrop.
Detective Andrea Isom is working the “alarmingly brutal” September murder of Maria Romero-Villegas, who was stabbed several times in her neck and stomach outside her home on Kellogg Avenue and was found the next morning by a child walking to school. Like so many other cases in South Dallas, though, there just isn’t enough information to nail down a suspect.
Likewise, Todd Haecker, a sexual assault unit detective, says he has “a rash” of particularly violent sexual assaults in the area on his case load. But, despite similarities in the offenses, the department can’t definitively connect the crimes due to a lack of information. At least four such cases have been reported since October.
The circumstances make the intersecting theme of both town halls clear: Unless the community steps up to make itself safer by sharing information with police and by putting peer pressure on businesses and property owners where crime takes place, there’s only so much police can do.
Dallas City Council member Carolyn King Arnold stressed the importance of community involvement in solving violent crime to Tuesday’s town hall attendees at Cedar Crest Cathedral by making reference to the Dallas Police Department as a whole being “down about 300 officers,” referring to a December total officer count of 3,252, well below the desired 3,500-officer threshold.
“So if you see something, say something,” was Arnold’s refrain.
While police routinely hold community outreach and neighborhood watch meetings to discuss crime, Castro said he thinks the meetings his team has scheduled might be something new, with homicide detectives and supervisors coming out to talk specific cases while trying to build trust between the department and neighborhoods. “Obviously, we’re missing something. There’s some kind of disconnect there,” Castro told the group as he sought new ideas to build a better relationship between cops and the community. His hope is that the meetings produce something tangible in solving these cases, which he can bring back to the neighborhoods to encourage more involvement from the people there.
Those at Salem Baptist seemed willing — a few stayed to talk with detectives after the meeting — though there were a couple of pointed questions about how the police can prevent retaliation against anyone who comes forward as a witness then returns home to live in a neighborhood where murder and assault are too common.
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At Tuesday’s town hall, Castro and the detectives who presented cases in and around the Cedar Crest neighborhood addressed the perceived issue of retaliation directly. Castro said fear of retaliation is largely unfounded because it occurs so infrequently, but that ultimately, “somebody’s going to have to take that chance.”
Much information can be shared anonymously or through Crime Stoppers, Castro said, and witnesses can often provide police with helpful leads without necessarily ending up in court. “I know it’s tough,” he said. “I know it’s scary.”
Of course, the same thing could be said about just living near Pine Street. Any steps to improve things confront the people there with a stark choice — do nothing and endure or take a chance and step up. “Sitting back and keeping quiet ... I believe those days are over if they want to take their neighborhoods back,” Castro said Tuesday.
Two more community meetings with homicide detectives are scheduled this month, on Feb. 9 at Lake Highlands Recreation Center, 9940 Whiterock Trail, and Feb. 21 at Fretz Park Library, 6994 Belt Line Road. Both are at 6 p.m.