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OPINION: The Crime Capital of America

Dallas has held that shameful title for seven years. Here are six ways to change that.

OPINION: The Crime Capital of America

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The recent decision by Police Chief David Kunkle to assign 60 officers to high-crime areas in Dallas is the kind of proactive crime-reduction tool that works. I know because I’ve seen it work before, when I was the mayor of Dallas more than a decade ago. What amazes me is how City Hall in a few short years has let those tools go to rust—and the lessons go to waste.

When I became mayor in December 1991, Dallas had experienced an increase in the number of violent crimes in all four major categories—murders, armed robberies, aggravated assaults, and rapes—every single month for 20 years.

By my fifth month on the job, Dallas achieved its first reduction in all four categories in two decades. Crime continued to fall every single month for the next four years.

How did we do it?

It was no magic act. We did it by applying common sense, by requiring accountability, and by being persistent in demanding results. With the support of a unified City Council, I explained the mission in clear, unmistakable terms. “We will reduce the number of violent crimes, in all four categories and in absolute terms, within one year.” No excuses.

A police department plagued by City Hall interference, bad hiring, too few officers on the payroll, low morale, and racial tensions can always make excuses. I can hear them now. “We don’t have enough officers.” “The drug dealers are just killing each other.” Blah, blah, blah.

To Chief Kunkle’s credit, he has set an ambitious goal himself: reducing crime by 10 percent and homicide by 20 percent. That’s a tall order. Here’s how he can get there.

The first step is the easiest. Identify where the criminals are. Go arrest them. It sounds simple, and it is simple. So why did it take until July, one year into Kunkle’s tenure, for the Dallas Police to decide to do it?

Second, establish permanent patrols in high-traffic areas. We put 75 cops on bikes in downtown and later on Jefferson Boulevard with orders to patrol. The deputy chief for downtown was ordered—not allowed but ordered—to double the force in any week in which the previous week had seen a crime increase.

Third, use your resources. We had 3,000 police officers. The police chief was told the police should go where the crime is—not where some City Council member wants them or last year’s budget put them or this year’s organizational chart places them.

In early 1992, Chief Bill Rathburn identified the 50 concentrations of violent crime in Dallas by day of the week and time of day. He sent his 100 best officers to those locations, which averaged six square blocks, with a clear mandate: make felony arrests and be respectful to citizens. The result was 647 felony arrests in six weeks, with zero citizen complaints.

Fourth, tell the criminals to stop committing crimes. Here’s the big “aha.” The police know most criminals’ names and addresses. That’s because they’re either out on parole, out on bail, or a member of a gang. So, in one instance, after four weeks of drive-by shootings caused by gangs, we assigned two uniformed officers each to 75 people identified as gang members. They said, “Hello, we’re from the Gang Unit and we’re going to follow you around until you quit the gang or your gang stops shooting people.” The drive-bys stopped for two years.

On another front, because 80 percent of violent crime is committed by people out on parole or on bail, we created a welcome wagon for parolees. A police car drove up, two officers walked up to the front door of the apartment or halfway house, and they sat the parolee down for a little chat. It was a direct way of letting potential criminals know that we knew exactly who they were.

Fifth, increase police presence. The West End, the State Fair, and Deep Ellum can attract large crowds. The chief doubled and tripled the force at each, put them on bicycles, on lifeguard stands, on horses, on tall buildings with binoculars, and at the entrances. Result: attendance at all three increased dramatically (West End sales increased 40 percent in one year) and crime plummeted.

Sixth, make the bad guys uncomfortable. Criminals will move somewhere else when the heat shows up. So we followed them. The business community donated six mobile storefronts equipped with lights, bikes, computers, and a holding cell. Each deputy could park that puppy in a different location every week or every day—in front of a crack house or bootlegger or known drug location. The hitch? The deputy had to show felony arrests or he couldn’t use it again.

Bottom line: crime in Dallas stopped climbing, started falling, and kept falling.

So why didn’t City Hall keep it up? I’m as puzzled as you are. It could have been that once crime was down, people took it for granted. Maybe too many councilmembers fought for too many other priorities. Maybe the weak-mayor system left nobody in charge. Most likely, it was a combination of the three.

But I do know this: it is absurd that Dallas is the crime capital of America. There’s no reason for it. However, there’s one surefire way to end it: stop making excuses.

Steve Bartlett is president and CEO of the Financial Services Roundtable. He is a former five-term member of Congress and a former mayor of Dallas.

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