SAFE as Hell

I don't want you to imagine this scene. It's not imaginary. I want you to see it. Picture this.

South Dallas at night. Jim's Car Wash, corner of Myrtle Street and MLK Boulevard. Right across Myrtle Street a dope house is doing a land-office business. Behind the car wash on Peabody Avenue are three more dope houses, all within 500 feet of the car wash. In a vacant lot behind the fence at the back of the car wash, crack zombies stagger through rubble like cankerous, bug-eyed babies with soiled pants, dragging filthy blankets at their heels.

And here are the cops. Several are on foot. Two more are parked in a paddy wagon. They are here writing tickets for "illegal solicitation of car wash."

Pardon me?

Yeah, you got it. Illegal solicitation of car wash. That's when a guy with a rag and a bucket goes up to somebody who's pulled into the car wash and offers to hand-wash his car for 10 bucks. Big problem down here on MLK.

Picture this: I'm standing on the tarmac at Jim's Car Wash, and the cops are all over the place trying to catch illegal-solicitation-of-car-wash guys, and me, being a naïve white boy from the Swiss Avenue Historic District, I'm kind of standing there muttering: "Hey. Officers. Big crack house right across Myrtle. Hey. Officers. Lookit. Three crack houses right over there on Peabody."

But, nooooo. They don't have time even to notice the crack trade, because they have to go after the illegal-solicitation-of-car-wash racket first.

You know what this is like? This is like an old black-and-white movie about Al Capone. Cops walk into the big garage in Chicago, and there stands Al Capone with his goons; they all got tommy guns; trucks behind them are loaded to the gills with bootleg; so the lead cop turns to a truck mechanic and says in a real tough voice, "Hey, Bozo! No droppin' cig'ret ashes on Mr. Capone's nice clean floor, or I'll hafta write you a ticket."

It doesn't make sense. Or does it?

We've been here before. This car wash is familiar territory. I have written about it at least four times over the last year and a half ("Payback," August 4, 2005; "Stuff It," June 16, 2005; "Ruh-roh," June 2, 2005; "Kickback City," May 12, 2005).

Two years ago the city of Dallas targeted Freddy Davenport and his son, Dale, who own the car wash, for special "SAFE Unit" enforcement aimed at forcing business owners to clean up crime in their areas. "SAFE" is an acronym for something.

Anyway, the Davenports are honest as the day is long as far as anyone has ever been able to determine. But to say there's a lot of crime around their car wash would be a dramatic understatement. Davenport tells me he has pleaded with the police department to do something about it.

On one occasion he says he informed the Southeast Patrol Division that large crowds were gathering outside one particular drug house waiting to be served.

"I told them there's 25 to 40 people standing in line. In fact, they charge $10 a car just for the privilege of parking and walking down that street to stand in line to buy crack."

The city's response? For one thing, I've been going down there myself and eyeballing that scene for the past two years, and in that time the crack houses sure haven't slowed down. I live only three miles from the car wash, but I can guarantee you if just one dope house like these opened up in sight of my neighborhood the police would scrub it off the street within months, maybe weeks.

But two years ago, instead of going after the dope houses, the city sued the Davenports because they hadn't done enough to "abate crime" in their area.

The way SAFE Unit operations worked at the time was this: Somebody sicced the SAFE Unit on your business. You didn't know who. You were told that if you had too many crimes on your property in a given period of time, the city would sue you. Then cops and code inspectors showed up en masse and wrote all kinds of violations on your property to use as evidence in the lawsuit.

The cops were even snagging speeders and drug dealers out of traffic and steering them to SAFE Unit targets so the offenses could be written up as if they had occurred at the targeted sites. Then the city said, "Look how many violations you have!"

Davenport caught them at it. As part of the evidence against him, the city attorney said police officers making a random sweep of his car wash one night caught a drug dealer who'd been parked there for some time.

"I had a secret camera that they didn't know about," Davenport told me, "and I videotaped that whole deal. It showed that that car came in, and right behind the car was the two policemen. It was a set-up deal, and I can prove it."

Last year an investigative committee of the Texas Legislature caught wind of how the city was using state nuisance laws to persecute the Davenports and many other businesses. A very cranky Mayor Laura Miller was hauled down to Austin to testify, as was police Chief David Kunkle, City Attorney Tom Perkins and a bunch of other city officials.

The investigating committee was especially incensed by sworn testimony showing that political agendas were sometimes at work beneath the surface of SAFE Unit operations, as when certain businesses became targets after failing to kick in money for a council member's birthday party or for a pet charity. The legislators tongue-lashed Dallas officials and even accused them of "official oppression," a class-A misdemeanor in the Texas criminal code.

Chief Kunkle agreed with the legislators that some of this SAFE Unit business had been less than copacetic. Later he made a big speech to the city council about how he'd reformed the process. Even though he never said it explicitly, the central idea in Kunkle's reform, as I understood it, was to get the SAFE Unit out of the political sewer.

OK, now we fast-forward one year to just a few months ago, when Freddy Davenport received a letter from the Southeast Division warning him that a brand-new SAFE Unit action had been initiated against his car wash.

But Davenport's son, Dale, had been meeting regularly with police at Southeast to make sure the car wash was still in compliance with the terms of the agreement that came out of the original SAFE Unit case against him. He was stunned to hear that it was all starting over again.

"I want to know where this came from," he told me.

I tried to find out for him. I called Assistant City Attorney Jennifer Richie, who had handled the earlier Davenport SAFE Unit matters, and asked her what had caused this new process to be initiated. She was very nice and said this was not her case or a case that belonged to the SAFE Unit in police headquarters at 1400 S. Lamar St.

"My understanding is that the SAFE team doesn't have this case," she said. "Last time I heard, SAFE didn't have the case. It was with Southeast Division."

So I called Patricia A. Paulhill, deputy chief over Southeast, and asked her about it. Paulhill was very nice and said her division was indeed carrying out an enforcement action at the car wash. But she said the case had been directed to Southeast from the SAFE Unit at 1400 Lamar.

"Actually we do have an open SAFE team referral at that location," she said. "It was a referral that was sent from Lamar."

So I called Deputy police Chief Sherryl L. Scott, who is over the SAFE Unit at Lamar. She was very nice and agreed that the new car wash initiative had been requested by her division at police headquarters, but she was uncertain why. She said it could have been the result of a request by any number of entities, including various divisions of the police department.

"It could have been through the Narcotics Division or other divisions that may be having problems over there," she said. "Any division on the department might call and say, 'Hey, we had a shooting out at this location. We need to check on this.'"

I would have tried to call Chief Kunkle, who has always been nice about returning my calls, but I knew that he was honeymooning in the Caribbean.

So let me put this together for you. This is the same old shit. Here comes this big bizarre mobilization—cops in paddy wagons, cops on horseback—cracking down on the illegal-solicitation-of-car-wash racket, turning a totally blind eye to the grotesque open drug trade all around the car wash. When the cops rack up enough citations, the city will sue the Davenports again and use the tickets as evidence.

The police, I believe, are almost as much victims in this as the Davenports. I can tell you exactly why their story is so fuzzy on where this all comes from. It comes from some place above them.

It's political. Follow this string far enough (which I intend to do), and it will lead you to City Hall, maybe up to the fifth floor where the mayor and city council have their offices, maybe somewhere else where city employees are busy helping developers get their hands on land they covet.

There's a reason the cops are down there at Jim's Car Wash busting people for washing cars and averting their eyes from a virtual crack cocaine circus going on all around them. There has to be a reason. A very ugly reason.

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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