A heat map of crimes involving firearms through the summer of last year. Shutterstock and Troy Oxford

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As Violent Crime Rises, Dallas Council Conflicted on Whom to Blame

Murders are still high and aggravated assaults are up. Is this a failure of policing or of public policy?

During the first post-pandemic meeting of the City Council’s public safety committee, southern Dallas Councilwoman Carolyn King Arnold told a story. She said she watched a confrontation between a woman and a man at a nearby home. The woman appeared to push the man and flee to a car waiting in a nearby alley. The man walked back inside, retrieved a shotgun, and pursued the woman. By the time she got 911 on the line, the incident was over. It happened quickly, the type of crime that police struggle to get ahead of.

The city of Dallas has had a violent 2020. Aggravated assaults not related to family violence have increased by nearly 30 percent year-to-date over last year, from 2,563 to 3,325. Murders are about on pace to mimic 2019’s numbers, the highest increase in a decade. Through July, there were 128 homicides. In 2019, there had been 130. According to the department, murders are piling up due to conflicts that escalate between people who know each other. In July, 14 of the 25 killings were classified as such. (Three were family violence, three were robberies, and five are classified as “unknown.”)

As murders in 2019 crested 200 for the first time in more than a decade, Mayor Eric Johnson called for the police chief to come up with a plan to reduce violent crime by 5 percent. That reduction hasn’t happened yet. Now a year later, the City Council is still having a difficult time understanding the reasons why, as well as figuring out the best ways to curb the violence.

Arnold used her story to illustrate the importance of addressing, as she said, “the systemic issues in this city when it comes to providing neighborhoods with jobs, infrastructure, equal access.” A cop would have to get really lucky to intervene in a situation like she described. But if those resources she mentioned were sufficient, would these incidents escalate? It’s a hypothetical, but is it any more hypothetical than expecting more cops to catch such outbursts before a trigger is pulled?

For others on Council, the answer is binary. Councilwoman Cara Mendelsohn, of Far North Dallas, noted that Dallas instituted a violent crime plan last year and yet violent crimes are still happening. She articulated a vision of law enforcement that is precisely what protesters on the street are critiquing. We expect cops to somehow stop crimes they could never realistically be present for. The root problems of those crimes—years of disinvestment, a lack of employment opportunity, over-policing in Black and Latino neighborhoods—are not being adequately addressed, creating perhaps unnecessary police interactions that can lead to police violence. It is also not unique to Dallas. According to this New York Times report, the murder rate through June among 20 American cities was 37 percent higher than it was in 2019. Last year’s jump among that same sample was 6 percent.

But on paper, violent crimes are carrying over from 2019. That fact alone tells Mendelsohn the plan isn’t working. She asked Police Chief U. Reneé Hall what needed to change.

“A lot of our homicides and our aggravated assaults are due to direct conflict between two individuals who know one another,” Hall said. “There are other services, other areas that need to be looked at in order for us to be able to assess violent crimes.”

It’s an early look at what seemed to inform some of City Manager T.C. Broadnax’s proposed budget for the next two fiscal years. As the city manager noted in the budget’s preamble, the document “recognizes that we cannot arrest our way out of violent crime.” It does not “defund” the police department but does carve out millions of dollars for mental health services, resources for job hunters, and targeted infrastructure improvements in what it deems “underserved” communities. The mayor’s violent crime task force’s goals also have funding: remediation of rundown buildings, improved lighting, and money for “violence interrupters” to work with community members.

In unveiling the budget, Broadnax made plain that he believes these methods could have an impact on the city’s crime rates. The proposed budget sets aside more than $30 million for such programs in the next fiscal year.

“We’ve made more than 25,000 arrests this year already; we are locking up the individuals who are the most violent and are responsible for a lot of crime in this city,” Hall said. “But we’re still seeing aggravated assaults and homicides that are increasing.”

There is some good news. There have been 107 fewer rapes in 2020 than 2019, a drop of about 22 percent. There have been 664 fewer robberies this year than last, a drop of 25 percent. Property crimes are down. Burglaries fell by 6.5 percent, 4,679 in 2020 and 5,005 in 2019. The department’s targeted efforts on problem apartment complexes and intersections have also been successful. Starlight, the video monitoring program that now has cameras at seven locations, has produced 38 percent fewer calls and 66 percent fewer offenses at those locations.

Some believe these drops to be expected, considering the pandemic. In an interview with CBS 11 last week, Mayor Eric Johnson associated the property crime drops with people spending more time inside. “Those are called crimes of opportunity for a reason. When you have less opportunity, you have fewer crimes of opportunity,” Johnson said. “It’s harder to burglarize a house when people are in it. It’s harder to commit a robbery when there aren’t people on the streets.”

Watch for these discussions at the upcoming budget hearings. You can already see some of the differences in viewpoints, and the city manager’s budget appears to try to appease both.

Here is Mendelsohn: “This plan is just not working,” she said of the chief’s strategy to reduce violent crime. “In our role in governance, all I can do is look at the data and look at the strategy and see there is a leadership performance issue and this plan is not producing acceptable results.”

And then there’s Arnold, who sees the numbers on her street: “I’m just letting you know how it rolls out,” she said. “Maybe it’s different in your district, but I’m telling you what I saw with my own eyes.”

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