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Clues to Crime Problem and Murder Rate Could Be in MLK Boulevard 911 Calls

The city closed Jim's Car Wash on MLK on the grounds it was causing crime in the neighborhood.EXPAND
The city closed Jim's Car Wash on MLK on the grounds it was causing crime in the neighborhood.
Jim Schutze

The mayor wants an answer to the city’s astronomical murder rate — twice San Antonio’s, four times Austin’s — right away from the city manager. I can think of a quick way to get there. Release the record of 911 calls from Jim’s Car Wash.

Wait. I’m serious. This is about what causes crime. Where crime comes from. Why we have so much of it. All of that is in the 911 calls from Jim’s Car Wash at 2708 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in South Dallas.

In fact, I’ll go further. Dallas is hopeless and helpless in the face of a horrific crime wave because Dallas, including both City Hall and the city’s only daily newspaper, is dominated by inane, self-deluding, hypocritical ninnies who are fundamentally dishonest with the public and dishonest with themselves about what causes crime, and we will get nowhere with murder or crime in general until someone finds a way to pour a bucket of cold water on all of them.

The city has been stonewalling a Public Information Act request for 911 calls from the car wash for months. The answer is right there in those calls. Right there.

After an epic 19-year battle fought at City Hall, in the courts and in the state Legislature, the city last June finally succeeded in closing down the car wash on the grounds that it constituted a crime hot spot and public menace. The owner, Dale Davenport, has vowed to reopen and is suing the city.

His car wash is a special focus of a documentary film project underway for the last eight months about small businesses and crime in Dallas. The producers began months ago filming Davenport filing open records requests for his own 911 calls from the car wash over the last several years. Even though Davenport is looking mainly for a number — how many calls — the city appealed his request to the Texas attorney general, arguing the city should not be required to produce the record of calls because some of the calls could involve ongoing criminal investigations. Because the Dallas Police Department cited ongoing investigations, the AG granted the city a blanket denial of Davenport’s open records requests based on prior AG opinions.

I have written here about the car wash more times than I care to count over the years, always from a view sympathetic to the car wash and critical of the city. I would argue now, especially given the mayor’s newly urgent interest in violent crime, that this is about way more than 911 calls.

Let’s go up to 10,000 feet and look back down. Here is the core question: Is the owner of the car wash a person who tolerates, attracts, fosters or profits from crime and thereby makes crime worse in his area? Or is he an honest businessman who has been fighting crime for years by calling the police to report it?

The implications are inescapable. If the owner is the one causing crime at his location, then we know what to do. We should go after bad business owners who foster crime, as the city does now using nuisance abatement law.

But what about the other possibility? If a high crime rate is ambient in the neighborhood around the car wash — if crime goes on there with or without the car wash — then we need to look at the neighborhood. Not the car wash. We need to look at the people in the neighborhood. We need to find out what’s wrong.

You can be a hard-right conservative about it if you want, even a racist, and blame everything on black people. Or you can be a liberal and look at underlying economic and social causes like racial discrimination. That’s not exactly relevant, yet. We haven’t gotten that far.

I’m saying let’s put that question aside for the moment. Where does the crime come from? From the car wash? Or the neighborhood? Let’s settle that point first, then talk about the rest later.

Remember this: Jim’s Car Wash, that one address in the center of South Dallas, has been at the bull’s-eye of this debate in Dallas for almost 20 years. In 2006, after months of investigation and hearings, a joint investigative committee of the Texas House and Senate issued a report citing the car wash as the poster child for official corruption in Dallas.

State Rep. Terry Keel, co-chair of the investigative committee, lambasted Dallas City Hall and The Dallas Morning News for fostering a fundamentally wrong-headed mindset in which crime is viewed as a foreign element imported into neighborhoods by small businesses: “What is left unsaid is the point that they were selectively targeting businesses while ignoring surrounding crime,” Keel said.

The surrounding crime. That’s the whole question. And we could settle it in about five minutes by looking at the record of 911 calls from Jim’s Car Wash, which the city has been battling to suppress.

Let’s use some common sense here. If Davenport, who owns the car wash, was the master criminal the city has painted him as being, why would he have been on the phone night and day begging the police to come do something about the crime around his car wash?

And while we’re using our common sense, let’s ask the other obvious question. Why would the city suppress the record of 911 calls? What is the motivation? What would the record of calls tell the public that Dallas City Hall thinks would be harmful or deleterious?

If Davenport is telling the truth, if he was calling 911 all those years before the city shut down his business, then it’s highly unlikely he was deliberately fostering or profiting from crime in his area. The crime wasn’t coming from his car wash. It was coming from the neighborhood.

If you are our mayor right now, that’s extremely useful information. Now you don’t have to beat up on the city manager to tell you where crime comes from. You might even look at another additional important indicator showing that the city’s murder rate is highest in areas of racially segregated poverty. In other words, you might look at people, not car washes.

Ah, but that has always been the big allergy, the forbidden thing, the no-go. The one thing Dallas never seems to want to do is look frankly at human and social causes, because those are always going to come down to the unmentionable ball of wax — race, segregation, poverty, illiteracy, inequality, injustice.

Nobody in the city’s old white oligarchy will go there. Nobody in the old black power structure will, either. It’s the moral bargain at the core of segregation. We will never speak honestly to each other, nor will we speak honestly to or about ourselves.

Just blame the car wash.

For the last eight months, documentary filmmaker Dustin Grant has been investigating the city’s relationship with small businesses. I asked him this week why he thinks the city is fighting so hard not to release the record of 911 calls from the car wash.

Davenport is seeking not only the records of 911 calls but also notes from meetings with city officials at which Davenport agreed to carry out anti-crime and security measures on his own property. Grant said, “The preponderance of evidence would suggest that they are hiding the fact that the car wash is not the problem, that the neighborhood is the problem.”

Dale Davenport at a city hearingEXPAND
Dale Davenport at a city hearing
Jim Schutze

Warren Norred, the attorney representing Davenport in his appeal of the city’s decree closing his business, says that crime probably could be eliminated or greatly reduced simply by forbidding all public gatherings: “It is true that, if you relegated everybody to stay in their own home and didn’t allow them to have visitors, then you would have no crime because for crime you have to have two people.

“But by definition, if you want to have a vibrant city you’re going to have to have safe places for people to interact. There is an old saying that a ship is safest in the harbor but that’s not what ships are for.”

Let’s imagine that the problem of the 911 calls from the car wash could be unknotted. Somehow, for whatever reason, based on whatever legal rationale, the city releases the overall count. Nothing about the nature of the calls, just the count. And maybe the city also releases the notes of its meetings with Davenport, so that the public could see what Davenport was asked to do to fight crime and what he did do. What would that give us?

If the record shows that Davenport is lying — he never called 911, he refused to do anything the city asked — then we have a significant signpost on the road to a solution. The city needs to beef up a police task force and go after bad small business owners in crime hot spot areas.

That’s not what the record is going to show. The record is going to show that Davenport has been one of the bravest, most ardent crime-fighters in the neighborhood. And that will turn the signpost around. Then the mayor, in his concern over murder and crime, knows exactly where to look. The neighborhood.

And guess what? He won’t go there. Ever. This mayor will never take on the politically tough challenge of addressing crime at its root. He’s not up to it, and, even if he were, his handlers wouldn’t let him. So they’re not going to let go of those 911 calls.

I just want to make one point one last time. If we never see the 911 calls, the city’s refusal to release them is evidence of its own. No public hoopla, no number of grandiose manifestos from the mayor’s office about cracking down on murder can overcome this cover-up.

The car wash may be at the center of it, but the car wash is the least of it. This is about a deliberate refusal to look at the only evidence we need.

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