It was clear from the get-go that this was not going to be a run-of-the-mill crime watch meeting.
The neighborhood residents knew it the second they walked into Bishop Lynch High School, where roughly 30 uniformed officers from the Dallas Police Department’s Northeast Division, mostly high-ranking sergeants and lieutenants, were waiting to meet them.
“That’s never happened before,” says Marc Bryant, who has lived in Lake Highlands Estates for nearly 40 years and tracks crime statistics for his neighborhood’s watch. “In our meetings, it’s usually just the captain, and he gives a spiel.”
This is a routine Deputy Chief Jan Easterling knows too well: “Typically, [the neighbors] are coming and telling us all the things the police department needs to do, and we’re telling them things we can and can’t do.”
And when everyone goes home, they’re still harboring an “us and them” mentality that seems to be entrenched among civilians and police officers – a mindset that doesn’t do much to curb crime.
It’s this kind of ineffective approach for which Easterling has little tolerance.
“We have the same goal – to reduce crime – so let’s work together to get to that point,” says Easterling, who took charge of the Northeast Division last fall.
It was her idea to shake things up a bit by calling the recent division-wide meeting. Roughly 100 crime watch volunteers dutifully showed, unsure of what to expect but assuming it would be the same old, same old.
From the onset, however, this gathering had no hint of “us and them.” The police made it a point to mix and mingle with the crime watch leaders, and instead of a question-and-answer or panel discussion format, Easterling introduced a novel concept: getting down to business.
She asked everyone to break into five groups according to their crime sectors. Each group would consist of crime watch leaders and the sergeants and officers assigned to their neighborhoods. Most importantly, she told the group, neither police nor civilians would run the show.
“I really wanted it to be neutral,” Easterling says.
Instead, trained facilitators led each group in its assignment: to determine the sector’s number one crime concern, a decision reached by consensus on both sides. Whatever crimes they chose would be tracked over the following six weeks, and results would be reported back to the group.
This directive seemed to stun the crime watch leaders – “We’ve never had anything like this before where we had sort of a grassroots problem solving,” Bryant says – but before they knew what had hit them, they were filling into the meeting rooms.
It wasn’t long before the police, who tend to focus on violent crimes, learned that the neighbors had a different set of priorities.
“Most of the concerns they voiced were quality of life – loud noise at the car wash, litter, can’t go to Albertson’s because of panhandling, truants walking down the alley,” says Sgt. LaDonna Williams. “They see that every day, and it was valuable to us to see that we should maybe take a little more time to try to address the smaller issues, too.”
Of course, no sector chose car wash noise as its top concern. Each group picked a different focus: drug activity, apartment crime, truants, residential burglaries and auto-related crime.
Success or failure can easily be gauged for some of these, and others are more difficult to assess, such as drug activity, “which is a very hard thing to measure whether you’re making any headway or not,” says Lt. Michael Woodberry.
But even more than being able to measure the numbers, the police felt successful that night in showing the neighbors that they were both available and interested. Residents of Casa Linda, where Officer James Hughes lives, left with an entirely new perspective on their petty theft problem.
“Before, they felt that police weren’t responding,” Hughes says. “Now they feel like we are concerned and want to do something about it.”
It didn’t hurt that residents, who normally talk to police only via e-mail or telephone, were able to shake hands with the sergeants who oversee their neighborhoods and the officers who patrol their streets.
“In the past, street forces have not been able to communicate well with volunteers because they think they’re wannabes,” says Doug Woodham of Old Lake Highlands Crime Patrol. “[Chief Easterling] is trying to get back to the old days of the patrol officers driving through the neighborhoods and waving – ‘Hi, Mrs. Jones.’ They know you, you know them.”
Plus, individual crime watches can get bogged down with their own concerns, Easterling says. Tackling crime at the neighborhood level is a good thing, she says, but it sometimes helps to consider the Northeast Division’s 290,000 residents and the entire area it polices, which stretches from I-75 east to I-635 and from Texas Instruments south to the Lakewood Country Club.
“You’ve got to start bigger and narrow it down, and the only way to do that is get them to talk as a whole,” Easterling says.
That’s why she divided the crime watch leaders by sector, allowing groups in close proximity to network.
Easterling is as anxious as anyone to see whether the experiment – which she describes as a stepping-off point, not an end-all – actually works. But for her, it comes down to more than how many drug houses were raided or how many truants were caught.
“Other parts of it are perception – whether they feel safer in their homes or neighborhood, or they see officers, or they know what’s going on from a police perspective,” Easterling says. “Those are things that are intangible, but they are meaningful.”
Still, as Woodberry noted, “the proof is in the pudding.” Though the police are pleased with the apparent progress, they know that goodwill will get them only so far – ultimate success will require results. The wrap-up revealed that crime dropped in each of the targeted areas over the six-week period, but in some sectors, overall crime had risen. Easterling’s plan is to hold quarterly sessions similar to this first one to keep identifying and combating problem areas.
“I’m sure the citizens are happy about this,” says Lt. Paul Thai, “but I’m sure also that they are still watching us – whether or not we’re going to follow up on the problems and whether or not we’re going to solve the problems.”