Most Lake Highlands homeowners don’t need to look far for trouble. It’s around the corner and across the street. Earlier this year the Dallas Police Department took a close look at its busiest violent crime zones and designated two nearby areas as the city’s meanest neighborhoods.

Five Points, a square mile east of Greenville and north of Northwest Highway, topped the list with 350 violent crimes in 2008. The Forest-Audelia area in North Lake Highlands took second place, reporting 300-plus violent crimes.

Bad, but not as bad

The results came as no surprise to Dallas police who regularly conduct these highly focused studies. The two Lake Highlands-area crime hubs have taken the top spots two years running and have shown up on similar lists year after year, says Dallas Police Deputy Chief Tom Lawrence, commander of the Northeast Patrol Subdivision.

As bad as it might seem, he says, things are improving.

“What you don’t see — the news that isn’t often reported — is that both of those areas have seen a significant reduction in violent crime,” he says.

Five Points has seen a 37 percent drop since last year, and the Forest-Audelia area’s violent crime rate has dropped by 45 percent. The dip is due partially to increased police focus on the targeted areas, which are both saturated with low-rent high-density apartment complexes.

Tackling the problem

Residents of North Lake Highlands likely noticed an onslaught of police activity near the end of May, when police arrested more than 200 crime suspects around the Forest-Audelia area within 18 days. Police “blitzed” the neighborhood with division officers as well as tactical, gang, K9 and operation disruption units. Lawrence hopes the effort was successful.

“We made a lot of arrests,” he says. “With these types of operations, it sometimes takes a while to see the impact.”

Sr. Cpl. Tracy Glenn patrols the Northeast Dallas area most days between 3 p.m. and midnight, keenly aware of the top-two crime hotspots. He says the conduct around Lake Highlands’ apartment complexes took a turn for the worse following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Gang members from Louisiana settled in the Lake Highlands area, and criminal activity skyrocketed. It doesn’t help that police often make arrests only to see the offenders released, he says.

“Shootings, murders, sexual assaults, prostitution, break-ins, carjackings — you name it,” he says. “We catch them but they keep winding up back out here within a couple weeks and sometimes before we even fill out the paperwork.”

One afternoon, it’s hot and hushed as he patrols areas filled with apartment complexes.

“This is one of the worst complexes right here,” he says, turning into the Bent Creek Apartments on Forest Lane. In Five Points, he says the same about the Casa Verde Apartments, one of the most run-down and crime-ridden of the bunch, where paint is peeling and porches are piled high with trash and junk.

Apartment managers have a huge responsibility when it comes to keeping apartments and surrounding neighborhoods safe, Glenn says.

“A good manager can make a significant difference — they can enforce the code and kick out the tenants who don’t follow the rules, but a lot of them are more concerned with keeping the occupancy rate up.”

Shape up or get out

Neighborhood real estate broker and former city councilman Bill Blaydes has been crusading to take down the shabbiest of the city’s apartment complexes, including Bent Tree and two others owned by Amarillo-based American Housing Foundation, whose founder and CEO committed suicide as his affordable-housing empire crumbled under debt and questionable business practices.

A Southlake-based company purchased the properties following American Housing’s bankruptcy, but Blaydes says he hopes to find a buyer and developer willing to raze the property and rebuild.

But Lake Highlands has many multi-family complexes with a share of bad seeds scattered throughout, and expecting them all to be torn down doesn’t seem realistic.

Blaydes understands this and agrees with Glenn’s assessment — good managers can save an apartment community along with the surrounding neighborhoods. As an example, he sites El Paso-based Integrity Assets Management, a company that manages Sienna Palms, Montecito Palms and five other apartment complexes in the area.

“These apartments that end in the name ‘Palms’ are run by a man named Richard Aguilar out of El Paso,” Blaydes says. “They keep up with the maintenance of the property, don’t let it run down, and they are strict with the tenants — you have to follow the guidelines or you are out.”

Lake Highlands residents should feel good about this sort of progress, which is being helped along by solid police work, Blaydes says.

“I am extremely encouraged by what the police department is doing to force that kind of ownership, and I think we are going to be a far better city for it.”

Steve Wakefield, an attorney who once presided over the Lake Highlands Area Improvement Association, moved into the Woodbridge area of north Lake Highlands a few years ago. Around that time, prostitution, drug dealing, homicide and other violent crimes were on the rise in the Forest-Audelia area just a half-mile or so from his home.

“I had a guy walk up to my car window with a knife, and a prostitute once tried to jump in my car at that intersection,” he says. But Wakefield wasn’t about to let the bad guys scare him off.

“Some will move out of the neighborhood. Some will give up on it. But I really felt a call to duty to stay. I don’t think that a few people who aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do should force you out of your neighborhood,” he says.

Wakefield and his like-minded neighbors have rallied to prevent the sale of drug paraphernalia at neighborhood convenience stores, pressed apartment owners to comply with city code — even filing suit when appropriate — and encouraged city officials and police to enforce the code.

“It has gotten a lot better, though it’s still not where you want it, he says. “The catch is that you can’t ever let up.”

And he hasn’t. One key to area improvement is communication, he says. “Behind each of these high-crime, rundown apartments is a human being running things. If you can find that person, you can appeal to them and hopefully work with them. Sometimes they don’t cooperate, and then you just have to stay on them.”

And it’s not all about taking bad landlords to task. “We are also working with a non-profit group [Volunteers of America Texas] getting programs set up for at-risk kids, and, hopefully, the neighborhood churches and the community will be eager to participate.”

We’ve got to pull together

Wakefield grasps what police now tell us: no matter how concentrated the law enforcement effort, it will take more than that to turn the tide of crime in Lake Highlands. The cooperation of apartment owners, city leaders, and volunteers is essential, Deputy Chief Lawrence says.

Our area’s army of volunteers is one of the most vital combatants we have when it comes to crime reduction, he says. There are 1,500 to 2,000 volunteers involved in Northeast crime watch groups and similar organizations. Those are impressive numbers, but Lawrence says they could benefit by being more organized.

That’s where retired probation officer Felix Saucedo comes in.

“A neighborhood that is educated and aware will have less crime,” Saucedo says while patrolling his White Rock area neighborhood.

He helped form a crime watch group there, and as a member of a citywide crime watch executive board, he helps other neighborhoods do the same thing.

Dallas’ crime watch executive board consists of 10 directors — one from each of the seven Dallas Police Department divisions, one apartment community representative and one business community representative. Its purpose is to organize the city’s crime watch groups in order to make them more effective, and to help neighborhoods create crime watch groups. Police can’t be everywhere all the time, Saucedo says, “so we are their eyes and ears.”

Claiming more than 100 neighborhood crime watch groups, our neighborhoods can be a powerful crime fighting force, Saucedo says. And Lawrence gives these volunteer organizations partial credit for last year’s 21 percent overall reduction in crime in area patrolled by the Northeast Subdivision.

Time to hold heads high

Though it’s necessary at times to draw attention to crime, there also is a time to acknowledge the neighborhood’s successes and take positive action to continue to improve the quality of life in Lake Highlands.

District 10 City Councilman Jerry Allen says that time is now.

“It’s time for people in the area to hold their heads up,” Allen says. “There is a lot of work to be done, but crime here continues to drop every year.”

Allen meets monthly with a task force comprising police, a community prosecutor and representatives of city staff and multi-family complexes to discuss code enforcement and crime initiatives in District 10 — code enforcement and law enforcement go hand-in-hand, Glenn says.

Allen says apartment renters, in general, want a livable and crime-free community as much as homeowners.

“The folks in the apartments want a better quality of life, too. We want the good people in District 10 to have great places for their kids to grow up, and we want to drive the punks out, but that is going to take a team effort across the board,” Allen says.

Many apartment managers and owners have joined in that effort, he says.

The Madeline apartments near Audelia and Walnut in North Lake Highlands (just a couple streets away from Forest), for example, recently instituted a children’s learning center — the Learning Links Center, a real estate investment company, purchased the complex and aims to offer resources for disadvantaged kids in the neighborhood.

This should tell us something about our community’s potential future, which includes both multi-family and single-family residences, Allen says.

“Many of these aging apartment complexes just have to come down,” says Allen, who was a staunch advocate for razing three apartment complexes along Skillman to make way for a new Lake Highlands Town Center. “But others are salvageable.”

The efforts of Madeline owners evidences a community headed in the right direction, Allen says.

“With the city, law enforcement, homeowners, renters and apartment managers working together,” he says, “we can continue to see those crime statistics go down and the quality of life improve.”