In 2019, a group of activists, most of them carrying firearms, patrolled an apartment complex in a southern Dallas community called Highland Hills. They called themselves community engagement specialists. They were with community activist groups Guerrilla Mainframe and Black Empowerment Movement.
When gunshots were fired, they rushed to the site. When a domestic dispute turned violent, they stepped in and calmed the situation until police arrived. In a matter of just a few hours, the group saw drug abuse, gun violence and domestic violence all on display in one apartment complex. They said similar activity was happening on any given night in nearby apartment blocks.
"They were murdering, shooting and robbing everything over here," Marcus Russell, one of the activists, said at the time. During the time they patrolled the complex, though, the activists insisted it became a calmer place to live.
The Dallas Police Department says most of the city’s murders, robberies and aggravated assaults were occurring in apartment complexes like these. The city has identified 47 areas as crime hotspots in Dallas. Of those, 26 are apartment complexes. At the city’s public safety committee meeting on Tuesday, Dallas police Sgt. James Stephens said nearly one-fifth of all violent crime last year happened in apartment complexes.
Tackling that statistic means taking on a broad range of issues. For the last few months, DPD has been cooking up a plan to do just that.
Stephens told the public safety committee that the department’s plan included a new team of uniformed officers to work with different departments in communities in the city. Through this, they’ll be able to create a plan tailored to each community seeing violent crime.
“It’s not necessarily a one-size-fits-all.” – DPD Sgt. James Stephens
“It’s not necessarily a one-size-fits-all,” Stephens said. “We want to tailor our response to the specific problems that we’re finding – and part of that is talking to the community and asking them what is a concern to them.”
But City Council members on the committee said the plan isn’t specific enough and it doesn’t do a lot to address violent crime happening in these communities now.
City Council member Adam McGough, chair of the public safety committee, said DPD should already be communicating with these city departments and apartment complex communities. “Quite frankly, it’s easy once you dedicate the time and energy and resources and form the relationships to address these problems,” McGough. “The concern is that we haven’t been doing that.”
Stephens also said they plan to boost engagement in these communities through different events. McGough said that would be difficult considering the shortage of officers at DPD.
To combat crime, the city has turned to other avenues of engaging with different communities in Dallas. For example, the Dallas Cred team
is dispatched to different high crime areas in the city to help interrupt patterns that lead to violence.
Dallas generally uses its nuisance abatement ordinance
to go after apartment complexes that law enforcement claims are causing problems. After a number of “abatable” offenses, DPD can slap a placard on a property that says it's a habitual criminal location, if the owner can’t prove you took “reasonable steps” to prevent the abatable activity.
“Reasonable steps” is not defined in the city ordinance, which often leads to a lot of confusion from property owners about what they’re supposed to do to prevent crime on their properties. Stephens said part of DPD’s plan was to create a team outside of the nuisance abatement program to help volunteering property owners understand how they can help prevent crime.
DPD has received credit in recent months for a decrease violent crime. A determining factor of the department's crime reduction efforts will be its ability to reduce crime in these apartment complexes. City officials said DPD's plan needs more work if they want to pull this off.
"Right now, I don't even see an intentional focus about what is the cause of crime in over half of our grids in the violent crime reduction plan," McGough said. "The strategies we are currently using are not working."