Project Safe Neighborhood map

The home invasion and sexual assault of an 88-year-old woman in White Rock Valley this month rattled many in Lake Highlands. Though her neighbors have surrounded her with loving care following her attack, the victim will never be the same.

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She’s not alone.

When violent crime, including armed robberies, carjackings and shootings, happen close to home, family, friends and neighbors often experience lasting effects. Some may feel unsafe working in the yard or walking the dog. Others may refuse to leave the house at all.

The federal, state and local law enforcement task force working together as Project Safe Neighborhoods understands the way crime changes communities. Begun in early 2018 to fight a then-gentle rise in Dallas’ crime rate, the group redoubled their efforts when crime spiked in May of 2019. The task force focuses on two of Dallas’ highest crime areas – Forest/Audelia and Vickery Meadow – and on the narrow band between Skillman and 75 in between. The PSN map covers much of Lake Highlands.

PSN celebrated several high profile successes in its first 18 months. The team, which includes federal prosecutors, ATF agents, school district officers, DEA agents, Dallas police detectives and experts in other fields, made J’s Food Mart at Whitehurst and Skillman their first target. Long-known by weary business owners, parents and police officers as a hot spot for drug sales, prostitution and gambling, the stand alone shop was the frequent site of armed robberies, shootings and other violence. PSN didn’t just arrest a few bad guys or force J’s closure – the building was demolished in November of 2018. Not long after, their efforts closed Good Times Grocery, a crime-ridden bodega in Vickery Meadow.

About 200 felony arrests have now been made by PSN, including cases of distribution of child pornography, illegal firearms, cocaine, methamphetamine and heroine, among other serious crimes. Though their 2-year term is almost over, a 6-month extension is expected.

Last July, though, crime within PSN boundaries began ticking back up. To correct the trend, the team has enacted a few simple changes designed to effect swift results.

In cases such as a woman followed home from the store and robbed by gunpoint in her driveway, PSN is creating rapid response teams and working with 911 dispatchers and Dallas police to become involved soon after the 911 call is placed. With information fresh in the mind of witnesses and PSN investigators ready to roll, their solve-rate is high – and bad guys know it. PSN’s U.S. attorneys also prosecute in federal court, where release on bond is rare and sentences are lengthy. Once arrested, violent criminals go away – and stay away – from the community.

“Solving robberies is crucial for the victim,” says Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Adam McGough, recently named again by Mayor Eric Johnson to chair the city’s Public Safety Committee, “but it’s also extremely important to future preventable victims.”

“For every robbery you solve, you probably save 10 or 15 people from being robbery victims as long as those offenders are kept off of the streets and out of our communities,” he says. “No one does just one robbery.”

Dr. Annalisa Pask, a Dallas psychologist in private practice, says every crime prevented by PSN can have an impact on the entire neighborhood.

“Knowing victims of violent crime, or even hearing about violent crimes – especially when they have occurred close to home – can make us feel, on a very personal level, more afraid, more vulnerable, less secure,” she says. “Learning of an assault down the street or at the grocery store we frequent can pierce the ‘healthy denial’ most of us use to maintain our feelings of being safe in a world that is unpredictable, sometimes dangerous and often scary. When something awful happens to a friend, neighbor or loved one – someone we perceive as like us in important ways – we are more likely to be able to visualize something similar happening to ourselves. The resulting increase in anxiety can lead to changes in our behavior such as avoidance of places now perceived to be more dangerous, an increased hyper-vigilance that can be debilitating to daily life, and restrictions of normal activities. Chronic anxiety about such things can then lead to changes in mood, including increased feelings of depression, despair and/or helplessness.”

In addition to implementing new strategies to solve crimes which have already occurred, the PSN team is engaging with the community to build positive relationships. A recent National Night Out event drew more than 1,000 residents from the Forest/Audelia area, and U.S. Attorney Steve Fahey served as Principal for the Day at Forest Lane Academy.

McGough says it’s important for neighbors to engage and organize while working through their local HOAs, crime watch groups and law enforcement to build safe communities.

“Violent crime has a lasting impact. It can change neighborhoods,” he said. “Good people stop going outside, and criminals take over. The alternative is true, too. When good neighbors go outside, they keep neighborhoods safe.”

It is also important, he says, that support is provided in communities to help possible offenders get access to training, jobs, and positive activities, instead.

“We can prevent the creation of some robbery offenders if we can demonstrate the availability of better options.”

Crime-ridden J’s Food Mart is now gone at Whitehurst and Skillman

PSN law enforcement officers with children at National Night Out

DEA agents interact with children and their parents at National Night Out

ATF, Department of Justice and DPD reps at National Night Out