A Few Questions from Tracy Rowlett

Former Dallas City Councilman Charles Terrell speaks out to Tracy Rowlett.

Even at age 66, former Dallas City Councilman Charles Terrell could still comfortable in a cape and tights. That’s because he’s one of the city’s most famous crime fighters. A former Chair of the Texas Criminal Justice System, the Texas Department of Corrections, the Mayor’s Criminal Justice Task Force, and Goals for Dallas, Terrell has long warned of the dire consequences of crime, the mishandling of criminals, and the underfunding of police departments. For the seventh consecutive Dallas ranks first in the nation in crime among major cities, so once again, it’s Terrell to the rescue. Teaming with Dallas business leader Jack Hammack, the dynamic duo has launched a war on crime called “Safer Dallas, Better Dallas.” 

Rowlett: What is the goal?
To take Dallas from having the highest crime rate of any major city in the country to having the lowest. We want to make Dallas the safest big city in America.

Rowlett: What are the steps you must take to achieve that goal?
After 60 or 70 meetings with key people, we will focus on two directions:  First, the Dallas Police Department is woefully lacking in both strategic and necessary equipment. Secondly, the Police Department is tremendously understaffed compared with cities that have lower crime rates.  We have 2.4 officers per 1,000 population.  Our goal is three, and that leaves us about 750 officers short. New York City, which rated lowest in crime, has 4.8 officers per 1,000 population. Public safety has to start with an adequate police presence, and we don’t have adequate protection in Dallas.

CRIME FIGHTER: “This initiative better work, or Dallas is in deep trouble, ” Terrell says.

Rowlett: Without enough officers, are parts of the city less protected than others?
Quite frankly, all Dallas neighborhoods are less protected than they should be.  And there are times when officers have to be pulled out of neighborhoods to beef up a presence someplace in the city. For instance, more police are used to protect businesses in Deep Ellum, and they’re getting pulled from other areas, and those areas then become more vulnerable to crime. 

Rowlett: But for several years now, Dallas has led the nation in crime stats.  Why has it taken so long to launch a crime initiative?
Someone has to start one. And it hasn’t happened. We’ve had them in the past, but there hasn’t been any ongoing follow-through.

Rowlett: So why is this initiative different?
The importance of waging a war on crime hasn’t reached the necessary action level on the Council, and it hasn’t reached the business leadership, either. We talk about critical economic development in downtown and in the southern sector, but it simply will not happen if we don’t do something about crime.  This initiative better work, or Dallas is in deep trouble.

Rowlett: Deep trouble because development is stifled?
That’s just one area, but one that’s very important. What investor would want to come to Dallas without public safety?  Too many other cities have attractive economic incentives and safe streets. The whole image of Dallas is suffering because of crime. If you are running the city’s convention bureau, this sure doesn’t help your efforts.  Who wants to visit here and become a crime victim? 

Rowlett: You’ve had a lot of meetings with some of the best and brightest in Dallas. Can you, at long last, get all of those egos working together to fight crime?
Yes, because everybody realizes the terrible problem we have now with public safety and crime. We’ve met with civil leaders, community leaders, and media leaders. And in the process, we’ve identified about 50 people who’ll be on our steering committee.

Rowlett: But you have a lot of alpha types who always want to lead, not follow.  If you can’t change that, this effort could fail like all the rest, couldn’t it?
I don’t think so. Not on this subject. Not now. Everyone has been extremely supportive and enthusiastic.

Rowlett: But criminals travel. Don’t you have to get the state involved, too?
Absolutely. We get 550 parolees back into Dallas each month, and most of them haven’t learned a trade or improved their education while they’ve been in prison.  So, they’re returning without skills to a tight job market. Without jobs, they’ve got about a 90-day window before they get back in trouble. Today, we have more than 560 paroled sex offenders on Dallas streets, and only about 100 of them have ankle bracelets. The state is not doing enough to train and rehabilitate prisoners. The priority in Austin is on no tax increase and tight budgets. And it is just easy to kick the criminal justice system in the teeth. We pay for that.

Rowlett: What about Dallas County?
We have to get all of these entities working to solve the crime problem. Clearly, Dallas County jail problems impact our ability to control crime. The sheriff’s department and the commissioner’s court must be involved. 

Rowlett: You mentioned that the Police Department needs equipment.
Yes, and these needs come directly from the department:  cameras for police cars to gather evidence and record what the officer sees; cages for the cars just to separate suspects in the back seat from the officers; big guns for our officers who often have to confront criminals or crazy people who have big guns; Tasers; cell phones; bait cars to catch auto thieves; and we have an aged fleet of patrol cars. Chief Kunkle tells us if he had 100 more patrol cars, he could get 100 more officers on the streets.

Rowlett: So, with those needs, and the need for 750 more officers, where do you get the money?
You know, everyone wants a safe community. But, in Dallas, we are so afraid of raising taxes that we’ve allowed our neighborhoods to be less than safe. We just haven’t kept up with what’s needed to fight crime. We’re selling our story that all of us need to help to make this a safer city.

Rowlett: Yes, but you need, just from the outset, more than $5.6 million. 
And we are going to try to raise that money from local foundations and local businesses and civic minded individuals. We need their help to take care of the equipment needs. We’ll tackle the manpower issue on a public front.

Rowlett: Do we need to raise taxes to fight crime in Dallas?
Well, people don’t like to talk about raising taxes, but it is inevitable on this subject. The equipment is one thing, but to get the needed manpower there has to be a public income source.  Unfortunately, we are at the state ceiling on our sales tax, and we can’t–as Fort Worth does–designate a penny toward fighting crime. Hopefully, in revamping our state school finance system, property taxes will come down, and the council and the public will take some of that decrease and will apply it in a dedicated fund for public safety.

Rowlett: But you have to have public support if the crime rate is to come down.
Yes, and if it requires a public referendum to raise money, then we must take the lead to get it passed. But we are all in this thing. We need public help, business help, and help from wealthy individuals. This is a war. And it is crucial to the future of Dallas that we win it.

Photos: Rowlett: Tom Hussey; Terrell: Dan Sellers


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