Let’s take a look at what Mayor Eric Johnson today called “the most important document that’s going to come out of City Hall this year.”
The Dallas Police Department 2021 Violent Crime Reduction Plan, presented to City Council members this morning by Police Chief Eddie Garcia, outlines a new approach to policing in Dallas. It focuses on the “hot spot” areas where the vast majority of violent crimes occur, and suggests that police will work more closely with public and private organizations—including city code enforcement, community organizations, and even local businesses—to address the root causes of crime.
The report admiringly cites “broken windows” theory, the idea that fixing up vacant lots, repairing broken windows, and otherwise cleaning up disorderly streets can help turn back blight and prevent more significant crimes. The model has seen some success in Philadelphia, where in the last several years police worked with code and nuisance abatement to see that more than 300 vacant lots were “treated.” Overall crime declined by more than 4 percent in the areas where this was done. That effort had previously been recognized by the Dallas mayor’s task force on safe communities. The report mentions all that. It doesn’t note the years of debate over whether broken windows policing really does work, or how the theory should be applied in practical terms.
When the broken windows theory has come under fire, it’s largely been from critics who contend it leads to an overly aggressive crackdown on minority communities, with residents of these communities punished disproportionately for low-level crimes. This is not that, Garcia stressed. “It’s not a dragnet approach,” he told council members, and is in fact “the opposite” of the kind of stop-and-frisk policing that has created claims of widespread civil rights violations in places like New York City. In other words, the crime reduction strategy seems to advocate literally fixing the broken windows—and not over-policing residents for minor infractions.
The plan does call for increasing police visibility and “intelligence-led offender targeting” in very specific locations, the latter a recognition that a small number of people are responsible for most violent crimes. On a map, the Dallas Police Department has the city broken down into 225 patrol beats consisting of 1,156 smaller reporting areas, which are again broken down into 101,000 grids measuring about 330-by-330-feet. Police will begin targeting about 5 percent of these grids. “It’s a much smaller footprint than what you would think from our classic hot spots,” Garcia said. “We’re not talking about four or five city blocks. That smaller footprint has been shown to work, which should give our community some assurances [that overly broad dragnet-style policing] is not what’s happening.”
Garcia’s only been on the job a few months, and this plan is intended to reverse a trend that’s seen violent crime increase over the last several years: by 14 percent from 2018 to 2019, and by 5 percent from 2019 to 2020. Measuring whether he’s successful won’t be easy. Percentages and crime statistics can be misleading; the causes of crime trends are even more difficult to understand. Nobody really knows what drives violent crime spikes. The overall trend in major U.S. cities over the last couple decades has been a declining violent crime rate, which criminologists are also at a loss to pinpoint precisely.
Mike Smith, a criminology professor at the University of Texas San Antonio and part of a team of UTSA researchers who developed the crime reduction plan with Dallas police, said as much to council members who wanted to know what’s been behind the recent rise in violent crime in Dallas.
“Violence is driven by a lot of factors,” Smith said. “How COVID played into it in particular is an interesting question. I think we have to be humble enough as criminologists to say we don’t really know the answer as to how and why COVID has impacted violence the way it has. In Dallas the increasing trend goes back a number of years. We have a bit of work to do that’s above and beyond whatever additional impact COVID has had in Dallas.”
There is certainly a perception of rising crime in Dallas. To the extent that Garcia was grilled on Wednesday, it was mostly by council members representing northern parts of the city with relatively low violent crime rates. Their constituents, they said, may be concerned that this approach will lead to fewer officers being available outside of hot spots. It won’t, Garcia said. “We’re using the resources we already have. Every resident of the city deserves a police officer. We’re not displacing officers from stations to do this.”
That doesn’t mean, with budget season already around the corner, that the police department won’t be asking the city manager’s office for more money. The department needs to “grow responsibly,” the chief said. “We certainly could use more staff, there’s no question about that. As we increase hot spots, what we don’t want is the phenomenon where in other areas call times and response times are affected because we’re spending time in these hot spots because of allocated staffing.”
Right now, no one’s proposing a tax increase to pay for that growth, City Manager T.C. Broadnax said. “As chief alluded, this is a crime reduction strategy,” he said. “We’ll have to manage how we add responsibly—if we’re going to add—and/or address the issues around infrastructure and community” that help reduce crime outside of policing.
The plan also reflects an understanding that, to use a phrase that’s becoming a cliche, you can’t arrest your way out of crime. Garcia likes a “weed and seed” metaphor. Weed out the most frequent offenders, seed economic development. He acknowledged the need for help outside of the police department itself: Code enforcement, nuisance abatement, the county health department, nonprofit organizations, businesses that can bring jobs and money to areas with high crime rates. Other programs run outside of the police department, like violence interrupters and street light additions, are already underway.
Garcia said the city should see results in the short-term, as police ramp up their focus on hot spots. Mid-term and long-term goals outlined the report will take more time, and more support from organizations and departments outside of the police. “We didn’t get into this situation overnight,” he said. “It’s going to take a while for us to get out of it.”