Dear Dallas Police Chief U. Renee Hall:
When people here talk to you about criminal nuisance abatement ordinances, you need to be very cautious. You came here four months ago from Detroit to take over as our new chief. Detroit has made good use of certain kinds of nuisance laws, but Dallas may be different.
Criminal nuisance abatement is where the city blames property owners for crime on or near their properties and then punishes them if they don’t pay security to go out and collar the drug dealers, pimps and hookers so the police don’t have to.
The Dallas City Council Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee was briefed Oct. 19 on what would be a new version of an old story — a proposed ordinance to stiffen penalties for owners who do not “abate” (solve) crime on their properties, even including new criminal penalties for the owners. Anybody can see how it might make sense. We’re short on cops. By mangling them on their pension deal, the city has managed to run off half the experienced officers on the force. The city does not seem to be able to replace them, probably because the city has such a bad reputation now with cops.
Plus, City Hall has other stuff it wants to spend money on. So why not make crime the fault of the people who own the property where it happens? Make them go out and do something about it. Take it off the cops’ backs and off the city’s books.
It might even make sense to me, too, if Dallas didn’t have such a long, ugly history of City Hall corruption surrounding the concept. Chief Hall, you need to get some brainiac — somebody out in the community who isn’t working for you — to come in and give you an honest, no-holds-barred briefing on the 2006 report of the Texas House General Investigative and Ethics Committee on abuses by the “SAFE” team within the Dallas Police Department. In fact, if you want to be really sure you are getting the full story, you probably should get somebody from Austin, not Dallas, to brief you.
Here in Dallas, the establishment media did everything they could to keep Dallas residents from understanding what the committee had uncovered in weeks of hearings. Terry Keel, co-chair of the committee, a former sheriff and former assistant district attorney, said after his report came out, “The Dallas Morning News put it on page one, but they sure didn't report the hard-hitting part of the report.”
What the committee said in its report was that the criminal nuisance abatement program in Dallas had turned into something like an extortion racket carried out by Dallas City Hall. Property owners were targeted for what appeared to be political or business competitive reasons, so that one property owner got hammered by the police department while neighboring owners with just as much crime in their areas went scot-free.
Then the targeted owners were told they had to hire off-duty Dallas police officers as security.
“The Dallas Morning News referenced the issue of off-duty employment of officers,” Keel said back then. “It didn't really make it clear what the committee found.
“Citizens were being told that they should not expect the police to protect them, and they were scolded in some cases for calling the police. And then they were being threatened with civil action if they didn't do something about the crime. And the solution that was proposed was that you hire the police.”
You may think that was a long time ago, 11 years, and you might wonder what it has to do with today. You should be aware that there continues to be strong political pressure — usually directly from individual City Council members — to use your department, Chief Hall, to bring about certain outcomes in the real estate picture. For example, a consortium of nonprofits and community groups has sought for more than a decade to run off the owners of a business called Jim’s Car Wash on MLK Boulevard, not far from Fair Park in South Dallas.
I know there is drug-dealing in that vicinity because there is a great deal of drug-dealing all over that part of town. Nobody else on that block gets hammered the way the car wash does, and I happen to believe it’s because people want that land for development purposes, and they want to force the owners to sell it cheaply. But, hey, you’re new in town. Let’s not drag you all the way down the rabbit hole on that one just yet.
It’s enough for you to know that City Council members will grab a new abatement ordinance, as they always have in the past, and use it as a club to get what they want in the world of real estate. And they will use your officers, your sworn protectors of law and order, as their henchmen, just as they have in the past.
In 2014 — not all that long ago — I got a call one Sunday afternoon to go to the car wash. Usually, it’s jammed on a Sunday, a big revenue day for the owners. But when I got there, the car wash was empty and silent. When I arrived, Dallas police officers had closed the car wash with barricades. The police were set up in a nearby parking lot with dog teams to make sure no one took down the barricades. What ensued between the police and me was an embarrassing scene I’m sure all of us wish had never happened.
I asked why the car wash had been closed. A sergeant told me to ask the City Council or the mayor, and then he threatened to arrest me if I asked again. I did not ask again. Threatening to arrest me actually works.
I hope that, by bringing this up again, I’m not stirring the pot or making new trouble for the car wash owners. I checked with them yesterday, and they told me they have not had recent run-ins with your department.
I didn’t feel great about getting into it with the police officers who had barricaded the car wash that day for no apparent legal reason. I knew they were doing what they had been ordered to do. If anything, my anger was for the political sleaze-balls at City Hall who were misusing the police in this way.
But I know that you, Chief Hall, are a lifelong cop. You’re from my hometown, Detroit. You are too young to have my memories of the Detroit Police Department, but I’m sure you have heard the stories. You know that police can go wrong when they have bad leadership.
The investigative committee in 2005-06 heard testimony about police showing up en masse and parking and locking their vehicles all over the car wash during busy business hours. They also heard sworn testimony of bullets fired through the owner’s rural Texas home at night at the height of his problems with police.
When this business was put before a bunch of Texas legislators, they liked the car wash. They did not like Dallas City Hall or the Dallas Police Department. Not one bit.
So what am I saying? We can’t use nuisance abatement laws at all to fight crime? Oh, heck no. I know that certain kinds of abatement measures have been very effective, for example, in Detroit.
I’m just saying that you, Chief, need to be very careful and do everything you can to protect your department and your officers from political pressure and abuses of power that will only cheapen and degrade the force over time. Watch out especially for proposed measures that seem to stretch beyond what state law provides and allows. Why make our bad history your future?
Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.