Sometimes somebody who actually knows a thing or two looks at a story on the TV news and just can’t stay still about it. Documentary filmmaker Dustin Grant has been working for a year on a film about Jim’s (benighted) Car Wash on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in South Dallas, so he knows a thing or two.
Jim’s Car Wash is either famous or infamous for being the target of a 20-year campaign by the city to shut it down. Last June 7, the city finally succeeded in persuading a judge to close it on the grounds that it was a high-crime hot spot, defined as a “common nuisance” in state law.
On Nov. 15, WFAA Channel 8 reporter/producers David Schechter and David Goins teamed up on a story that said crime near the car wash had dropped dramatically after the city forced it to close. Grant, who has been digging deep on the car wash story for a year, knew better.
The product of Grant’s discontent is sort of a micro-doc — a very short film you can see here (YouTube) or here (Vimeo). It's not the full documentary he's working on, but a very focused interview with himself, which I think in print would be called a monograph. In this little filmette, Grant challenges the thesis of the WFAA piece, the facts presented in it and the conclusions drawn.
Schechter opened the WFAA piece this way: “Today we want to talk about businesses that are magnets for crime and how far a city can go to shut them down. Because few things erode the quality of life like a property where crime happens over and over again.”
Goins tells Schechter there were 11 crimes within 500 feet of the car wash in the four months before the city forced it to close and only one in the four-month period after. Case closed. Closing the car wash worked.
Grant says that’s complete baloney. They got their numbers unbelievably wrong. Nothing worked. And he addresses a question that’s prior to all this in the law: No matter how many crimes occur, whose fault is it?
As Grant observes, Texas law speaks directly to that question. The law says a business owner creates a common nuisance if she or he “maintains a place to which persons habitually go for the following purposes and … knowingly tolerates the activity and furthermore fails to make reasonable attempts to abate the activity.” And then the law lists a menu of common crimes.
Very important words here are “knowingly tolerates” and “fails to make reasonable attempts to abate.” If the business owner is doing everything she can to fight the crime problem around her, then the law recognizes that she’s not the nuisance. In that case the law understands that local government should do its best to give her a hand, not hound her out of business.
And let me stick in a little personal editorial caveat here. People sometimes want to talk about all this as if it’s the cops’ fault. Are they doing their job or just blaming crime on business owners?
Cops don’t blame crime on business owners. Politicians do. Cops do what they’re told. It’s City Council members who tell a neighborhood that all the hookers and drug dealers and gun-shooters are hanging out on their corner because a terrible immigrant from Pakistan or a white guy from East Texas is operating a car wash or a convenience store and he sent out engraved invitations to all the crooks in the world to come to his parking lot and shoot each other. Because, you know … Pakistan. East Texas.
The council members tell their constituents that kind of idiotic trash because, of course, they don’t want to tell the truth: We have way too few cops and way too many bad guys. All right, I’m back under control here. Let’s go back to Dustin Grant.
Mainly what Grant goes after WFAA for is terrible reporting, which I suspect was not even really done by either Goins or Schecter, who both are very capable hands most of the time. I would guess this work was done by the intern’s boyfriend’s roommate who wanted to help the intern finish up early so they could all go get drunk.
Grant says WFAA's claim about the number of crimes taking place are not just wrong, they're wrong by many magnitudes and, by the way, upside down wrong.
First, a couple of real caveats (as opposed to my personal ones). We are all stuck here using a third-party source for crime statistics, the LexisNexis community crime map, because the city’s proprietary crime map crashed and is now offline after police Chief Renee Hall (politician) tried to jimmy it to make her crime numbers look better. But at least we’re on the same map, so we can make some apples-to-apples comparisons.
The other thing is that there is a little bit of vagueness about dates and addresses here, so it’s difficult to be precise within a fine point on comparisons. But that’s OK. The comparisons are not about fine points, as you will see.
First off, Grant says WFAA’s number for the four months preceding the closure was short by 100%. They found 11 crimes in four months. Grant found 22.
How could that be, if we’re all on the same map? The map has little icons on it to denote crimes. But some of the icons are like folders: they open up if you click on them, and they have multiple crimes inside. It looks as if WFAA just counted the icons without clicking on them. That’s why I’m thinking intern … drunk.
The Channel 8 piece found only one crime in the 500-foot radius during the four months after the car wash closed. Grant found 24. I looked, and he’s right. I have another intern theory for that one, but … maybe another time.
Here is Grant’s main point: The central thesis of the WFAA piece is that bad businesses cause crime and shutting them down works. But their own source of data, had they used it with even minimal competence, would have shot that theory down dead. The truth is that crime remained absolutely flat in the 500-foot radius around the car wash after it closed.
One scene in Grant’s piece is especially instructive. If you go look, it’s about 2 minutes, 30 seconds into the eight-minute video. In it, you will see nighttime video of a street racer brazenly doing loud, squealing doughnuts with his car right in front of a Dallas police car parked at the entrance of the car wash three months after it was closed. The car speeds off into the night with the police in pursuit.
So crime was not merely flat after the car wash was closed. It was defiantly flat — middle finger to the cops flat. That’s flat flat.
The WFAA piece fails to mention two very pertinent elements. The first is that right after the car wash closed, the governor of Texas sent a battalion of state troopers in to assist Dallas police patrolling the area right around the car wash. But even that extraordinary extra police presence was not enough to even dent the level of crime at that location.
Closing Jim’s Car Wash did nothing at all to reduce crime in the neighborhood, but it did deprive the owner of income, of his right to do business legally and of his rights as a property owner.
The other element ignored by WFAA is this: Remember that part of state law that says a business owner is only a nuisance if he “knowingly tolerates the activity and furthermore fails to make reasonable attempts to abate the activity.” Dale Davenport, owner of the car wash, spent a year and thousands of dollars in legal fees trying to force the city to give him copies of his own 911 calls from the car wash. The city released the record of his calls only when Davenport’s attorney, Warren Norred, twisted its arm.
The calls in only one 18-month period filled 414 pages of a single-spaced print-out. Davenport meanwhile has spent tens of thousands of dollars on security fencing, lighting, security patrols — every single thing the city has ever asked him to do. He has never failed to do one thing the city asked. He did it fast. None of that is mentioned in the WFAA piece.
After I watched Grant’s rebuttal, I stayed on the crime map and had a little fun of my own. I compared the 500-foot radius around Jim’s Car Wash in South Dallas with a 500-foot radius around the WFAA studios in the Victory development near the American Airlines Center downtown.
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In the four-month period before the car wash was closed, WFAA said the 500-foot circle around the car wash saw 11 crimes. Grant says it was 22 crimes. OK. But in that same period according to my look at the map, the 500-foot circle around the WFAA studios saw 26 crimes — more than were counted for the car wash by either the WFAA reporters or Grant.
In the four-month period after the car wash closed, WFAA says the car wash area saw only one crime. Grant says it was 24. OK. But in that same period, the circle around the WFAA studios saw 26 crimes.
So, wait a minute. The crime rate around WFAA is obviously higher than the rate around the car wash. Is WFAA knowingly tolerating its own status as a crime hot spot? Are they failing to take reasonable steps to abate crime? Oh my goodness, they’re not doing the crimes themselves, are they?
Time for the judge to shut that mother DOWN! If he does, I’m going to go down there and see if an old man in a four-cylinder 2010 Toyota pickup can still do a doughnut.