Remembering Thabiti Olatunji, Fighter for Hope and Law in a Crime-Ridden Neighborhood

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Given the city's volatile history of enmity between police and black residents, theirs was virtually a death-defying act, a stunning commitment to the rule of law. For years the guy caught right in the middle of all that was an assistant city manager, Levi Davis, a black man who saw it from both sides. But nobody else did.

Olatunji was a member of AAMAN. When he went to Kunkle in 2004, it was with a version of the AAMAN demand — a demand for more cops, not fewer, for tougher law enforcement, not laxity, for a crackdown on the criminal elements he had found gnawing away at his neighborhood when he returned to Dallas to work.

A tough career cop with a special sensitivity to people who have been marginalized, Kunkle was eager to implement a philosophy called Interactive Community Policing, with an emphasis on personal bonds between police and community leaders. Kunkle's top people in the North Park area were David Brown, who is now his successor as chief of police, and Charles Cato, who is now first assistant chief.

Kunkle told me last week that a special relationship grew up quickly between himself, Brown, Cato and Olatunji, based in part on the confidence of the police that if they had his back he would have theirs.

"He gave us tough love," Kunkle said, "but he gave his neighborhood tough love too."

I saw that in action once during a meeting of the North Park Crime Watch in 2004, which Kunkle and his top people attended. The neighborhood had asked the police to do something about cars parked every which way, half on sidewalks and half off, usually belonging to drug dealers or pimps. The police had explained that the only way they could write tickets was to write them on any and all parking violators, not just the ones the neighborhood didn't like.

At that point in the meeting a nice-looking lady got up and started upbraiding the police for ticketing her husband, who had parked his car in the wrong direction in front of his own house. She was just getting into the part about, "Don't you have any real criminals to go after ..."

Olatunji gave the nod to some volunteers who quickly approached the woman and gave her a pamphlet on how to park a car. The obvious suggestion was that she might want to park her lip too, which she did.

He got it. I spent hours talking to Olatunji over the years, enough to know that he was deep and hard as a rock on the question of how things really work. He knew that the police and the law-abiding community absolutely have to be partners and that the partnership can only be a two-way deal.

You get our back. We get yours.

He was not a police suck-up. He was not an Uncle Tom. In 2008 when he felt he saw racism at work in a move to rename his beloved alma mater, Booker T. Washington high school, he went straight to war against it. And won.

But he also understood the rule of law and the life of communities at a profound level. He knew that endless stand-off, endless enmity and endless mistrust only empower the forces of lawlessness on both sides of the thin blue line. To solve that, he knew that somebody has to reach across that line and grasp the hand of a Kunkle, a Brown, a Cato.

He wasn't alone or unique in that belief. It's what Fahim Minkah was trying to do in southern Dallas in the '80s. It's what those older couples were saying — if you listened real hard — in the background of the coverage of the recent police shooting controversy in the Dixon Circle neighborhood. They thought it was tragic a young man had to die, but they supported the cops, not the angry mob in the streets.

After I heard of Olatunji's death, I got in my pickup and drove the streets of North Park. There are still some ragged edges visible, but North Park looks one hell of a lot better than it did 10 years ago. According to the crime stats on the city's web page, it continues to deal with challenges but less so than before. Things are moving in the right direction.

I know why we focus on confrontation in the news business. We're all about what people need to know right now, right this minute, and people need to hear about the big noise next door faster than they do the prayer meeting down the street. Explosions come before moral wisdom. That's just the dynamic of information and action.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze