Downtown Dallas Inc. says residents, workers and business owners downtown are dealing with too much crime and too few cops. To fix things, the nonprofit advocacy group is petitioning the Dallas Police Department to add a first watch to its patrols downtown. As things are now, calls received between 2:30 and 6:30 a.m. are handled through DPD Central Division dispatch, leading to response times DDI believes are too long.
It isn't that downtown is dealing with a higher proportion of crime, DDI President John Crawford says, it's just that there are more people living and working in the area.
"Because of all this increased activity and the fact that we don't have a so-called first watch, that's the impetus for writing the letter [to DPD]," he says. "What we don't want to see is more stress on the police department and the residents."
Essentially, as reported in the white paper DDI included with its letter to DPD, downtown residents, workers and business owners are tired of the small property and nuisance crimes that are often associated with chronic homelessness. The first challenge listed by DDI is "vagrancy."
Downtown's vagrancy problem, as evaluated by DDI, stems from changes made at The Bridge and Austin Street homeless shelters that reduced the shelters' overnight capacities and led to more people sleeping outdoors downtown. Sleeping in public is illegal in Dallas thanks to controversial law passed in the 1990s, but DDI complains that the ordinance against it, and those against other crimes like panhandling, aren't enforced often enough. The Downtown Safety Patrol observed 19,234 nuisance crime offenses in 2014, according to DDI, but Dallas Police issued only 4,649 tickets. Because the cops have to witness panhandling to issue a citation, response times are critical DDI says.
"Without a police presence overnight, we just get a lot of folks that, whether they're homeless or just passing through, that with no police presence, they feel they can have an open container, that they can lay down in the parks and sleep. Last week, for instance, we woke up 129 people in a five-day period that, through that overnight period, were just laying around sleeping. That's a violation of a city ordinance, but there's no one present to enforce it," Martin Cramer, DDI's vice president for public safety says.
Jim Truitt, a vice president at Forest City, the management company that owns The Continental, Wilson, Element and Mercantile apartment buildings downtown, says some of his residents are scared to go Main Street Garden after dark, according to the white paper.
(Note: I live in The Wilson. I've never been frightened in the park after dark, nor have any of the neighbors I asked)
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None of that's to say that DDI wants to criminalize homelessness, Crawford says. Panhandlers specifically, Cramer and Crawford say, aren't typically homeless.
"The vast majority of those panhandlers are not actually homeless. They're people that come downtown, predominantly on DART Rail and the bus line, to make their income," Cramer says. "That's how they make their living. That's their job," Crawford added.
After a meeting with Dallas police Chief David Brown last week, Crawford says he's hopeful downtown will get the cops, and the first watch, he and DDI want. DDI is gathering signatures from downtown stakeholders as part of a letter writing campaign to Brown.