This article is part of our State of the City project, in which The Dallas Morning News explores the most critical issues facing our communities. The first series focuses on public safety.
In one of the last homicides of 2020, 32-year-old Isaac Mozeke was shot by an unknown gunman while taking an evening walk to a convenience store.
This seemingly random act of violence occurred on a corner in one of the most violent neighborhoods of Dallas — one that has been a pervasive problem for decades in a city that is struggling to find answers to a recent uptick in violent crime.
It is one of the reasons why, though they have to deal with a global pandemic that left thousands of residents out of work and birthed a housing crisis, Dallas city leaders still consider public safety a top barometer of the state of this city.
Murders and aggravated assaults began trending upward in 2015 after years of steady declines, with a spike over the past two years, according to a Dallas Morning News analysis.
But in Dallas, the overall crime picture is actually mixed — with encouraging decreases in the rates of some crimes given the city’s growth, but also some neighborhoods where the problem seems intractable. Much of the city’s violent crime has been prevalent in small geographic areas — many of the same spots since at least 2009 — where police have zeroed in on tackling the issue.
Criminologists found Dallas was not alone in experiencing an increase in violence. But the recent uptick in murders and aggravated assaults became a thorn in the side of Police Chief U. Reneé Hall, who ultimately resigned at the end of 2020. And it became a clear signal to new Chief Eddie García, who took the helm in February, that his tenure would largely be measured by how he tackled violent crime.
After the last homicide spike in 2004 when there were 248 murders, the city’s population grew nearly 17% to about 1.4 million in 2019, when the number of murders reported was 196.
In that time, because of population growth, the homicide rate decreased. In 2004, the rate was 20.2 murders per 100,000 residents, according to crime data reported to the FBI. In 2019, the most recent year for which FBI figures are available, it was 14. Last year’s figures have not been reported to the FBI. The Dallas Morning News compiled its own 2020 crime map.
Violent crime such as robberies and aggravated assaults showed declines, too. Property crimes such as burglaries, larceny, motor vehicle thefts and arson also fell during that time, according to a News analysis of crime data reported to the FBI, Dallas Police Department reports and news accounts.
Yet despite those encouraging long-term declines, there has been a leveling off of progress since 2014, as murders and aggravated assaults have generally risen over the past five years.
Whether that is a temporary blip or a longer-term trend has yet to be determined.
Mayor Eric Johnson said recently that all residents deserve to live in safe communities and that crime trends in Dallas had been “heading in the wrong direction for a few years now.”
To get a handle on crime, police have focused on specific geographic areas — which are often about a square mile and are located throughout the city — that have generated the most persistent crime for decades.
“You’ll see the same red spots over and over,” said former Deputy Chief Malik Aziz, who spent 29 years with the Dallas Police Department and oversaw crime reduction plans since 2004.
“The only thing you can explain is that wherever you meet dire stretches of poverty, or unemployment, where you can’t make a living wage to live or survive, then you put together a recipe for disaster.”
Even before he stepped in on Feb. 3, García said he had two main goals: To gain the community’s trust — and reduce violent crime.
It will be a challenge as the longtime resident and former police chief of San Jose, Calif., gets acclimated to Dallas. Although the cities are comparable in size, they are drastically different in socioeconomic status.
“You truly see here poverty-driven crime,” García said.
Early in the new chief’s tenure, the Dallas mayor spoke favorably of García’s approach.
“Chief García has already faced numerous challenges in less than two months on the job,” Johnson said. “And so far, I have been impressed by his leadership and his commitment to reducing violent crime.”
García will present his detailed crime plan to the City Council in the coming weeks. He previously touched on a few of his ideas: focusing on hot-spot policing and targeting drug houses. He also referred to the need not only to weed out crime but also to plant seeds in the community to draw young people away from criminal activity.
This is in line with what experts say cities should be doing.
While there is no doubt Dallas’ violent crime and property crime rates are nowhere near the historic highs of the 1980s and early 1990s, the numbers in recent years have shown a slight reversal of a downward trend seen since 2004, and that has caused concern.
In 2004, Dallas registered 16,165 violent-crime incidents. Fifteen years later, in 2019, they had declined 27%, according to crime data reported to the FBI.
After 2004, murders and aggravated assaults dropped fairly consistently until about a decade later, when they began trending up again. The city is still far below its peak of 500 murders in 1991 as the crack epidemic fueled violence. That year, the murder rate was 48.6 per 100,000 people. By 2004, it was less than half that.
Robberies showed some declines after 2004 until they started increasing in 2016. But even with 4,400 robberies in 2019, they were still 41% lower than in 2004.
Aggravated assaults between 2004 and 2019 went in waves, with 2019 seeing the most pronounced annual upswing at 6,369 incidents — up about 17% from the previous year, but still down compared with 7,863 in 2004.
Property crimes saw the most dramatic declines during that 15-year span, dropping by nearly half to 45,279 incidents in 2019. Those crimes — which include burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft and arson — did tick up 2% from 2018 to 2019 even though the population increased less than 1%.
With an unprecedented public health crisis, Dallas was not alone among major metro areas in seeing homicides trend up over the past two years.
Thirty-four large cities in the U.S. saw a 30% increase in homicides last year compared to 2019, according to a study by the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, a national criminal justice nonpartisan think tank. Mayor Johnson sits on its board along with law enforcement officers and criminologists from around the country.
Even though the uptick in Dallas during the pandemic is in line with national trends, that’s little comfort to residents who perceive the crime problem getting worse in their neighborhoods. Property crime victims — not victims of violent crime — are by far the most common.
Jennifer Daigle is one of those. After eight break-ins, she doesn’t feel safe in her Oak Cliff home. The burglaries, she said, began soon after she started renting there in 2015.
Someone took her two dogs but she got them back. Thieves also took a lawnmower and a barbecue pit.
Most commonly, thieves take parts from her boyfriend’s work van, or they break in and steal the tools he uses as an air-conditioning technician. The couple guesses they’ve spent about $30,000 to replace what he’s lost.
“It’s a terrible feeling when you go out there and your car’s been broken into and your stuff’s gone,” Daigle said.
“I feel like our calls are just as important as a crime where people get hurt, because it’s a violation of our safety.”
García points to some improvements in crime statistics so far this year. He said there’ve already been some month-to-month reductions aggravated assaults.
But homicides are higher than this time a year ago, at 63 versus 49, according to Dallas police crime statistics as of April 18.
Meanwhile, overall property crime in Dallas is down about 8%. Home burglaries are more than 30% lower than a year ago.
“We’re cautiously optimistic as the months get warmer,” García said. “We need to wrap our arms around the murders. One murder is too much.”
One strategy that has paid off in recent years is hot-spot policing. In 2008, Dallas police officials created what they called targeted action area grids, or TAAGs. The approach helped them zero in on small geographic areas that drove the city’s overall crime. During that time, the city saw violent crime reduction over seven years.
Hot-spot policing has been one of the department’s most consistent crime-fighting tools in that span. Murders dropped to historic lows in the wake of its implementation. In 2014, police reported 116 murders. Since then, violent crime has gradually increased. According to data compiled by Dallas police, there were 252 homicides in Dallas in 2020.
In far northeast Dallas, the intersection of Forest Lane and Audelia Road accounts for a high number of aggravated assaults. In southern Dallas, areas like Westmoreland Road in Oak Cliff, St. Augustine Drive and Bruton Road in Pleasant Grove, and the neighborhood just east of Julius Schepps Freeway (Interstate 45) in South Dallas have seen more violence than other parts of the city.
Residents of these areas see the toll of crime. It’s not unusual for one family to be the victim of more than one.
That’s what Isaac Mozeke’s family is living through.
Shot to death at the corner of Malcolm X and South boulevards in a residential neighborhood on Dec. 28, Isaac was not the first in his family to die violently.
In 2007, his older brother Ishmael was shot to death at a park in Oak Cliff. Ishmael was 19.
Their mother, Melody Bell, a former schoolteacher, had pushed her two boys to excel in school and the arts. They graduated from Skyline High School.
But after Isaac lost his older brother, he experienced psychotic episodes for the first time, family and friends say. About 10 years ago, Isaac and his mother moved to the heart of South Dallas, despite some concerns from family members about crime.
“She became very protective of Isaac,” said Sheffield Bell, Melody Bell’s brother.
The mother often urged Isaac to be home before dark, her brother said.
“I want to keep him close to me,” Sheffield Bell recalled her saying.
“She was afraid she was going to lose him.”
Isaac was shot and killed in one of the most violent areas of Dallas — DPD’s TAAG area referred to as Julius Schepps Central. The motive and person behind the shooting remains unknown.
His death was a shock to those who knew him and his mother, a well-known Dallas griot — a storyteller, poet and musician — who also went by the name Afiah Bey.
About three weeks later, Bell suddenly died of a heart attack. Family members say it was from a broken heart.
Rebecca Jones, Bell’s sister, hopes police can find justice for Isaac’s murder.
“It affected the whole family,” she said. “It’s three missing from my family. Two murdered, and one who had to pass that.”
What experts say
While hot-spot policing and other strategies have had some success, community advocates say improved public safety depends on addressing underlying issues such as poverty, lack of jobs and upward economic mobility.
Jerry Hawkins, executive director of Dallas Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation, a nonprofit dedicated to equity, said that to him, public safety means neighborhoods where basic needs are met: housing security, access to public health programs and grocery stores, reliable transportation. He said long-term solutions will require acknowledging decades of racist policies that limited people’s housing and economic opportunities.
“Crime is always going to be here as long as we have segregation in our community and we have poverty in our community,” Hawkins said. “What about the conversations about those issues?”
Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot said crime reduction will require a multifaceted approach and begins in the community.
“Today, this office focuses on violent and repeat offenders who have a negative impact on the quality of life in Dallas County. We count on law enforcement to bring us the cases so we can make appropriate decisions on whether rehabilitation or incarceration is appropriate,” Creuzot said in a statement.
In the last budget cycle, the Dallas City Council voted to reallocate about $7 million from the Police Department’s overtime budget to other public safety initiatives, such as street lighting. Council member Adam Bazaldua, who represents South Dallas, which has a cluster of TAAG areas, said the investment in lighting has reduced crime.
“As much as there was political backlash when the budget amendment occurred, there were moves that were made and are showing success,” he said.
Records show the department has about 3,100 officers, an improvement from 2019 when it nearly went below 3,000 officers, but still far from its 3,690 officers in 2011. DPD says its recruitment efforts improved after the council voted to increase starting pay, which put Dallas in line with surrounding cities. A staffing audit of the department found that it needed to deploy officers more efficiently but did not recommend a staffing level.
Experts say there’s only so much that police presence can do to curb crime.
City officials need to think about crime as if the city were seeing an uptick in cancer rates, said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri.
They wouldn’t demand that the head of a hospital resign because there’s a “general understanding that what drives that [cancer rates] is only very partially under the control of the local hospital.”
“The same is true of crime,” Rosenfeld said. “What drives up crime and what drove up crime last year — compared to previous years and cities across the country — were a host of factors over which the local police department has little or no control.”
Staff writers Krista Torralva and Everton Bailey Jr. and staff researcher Alyssa Fernandez contributed to this report.
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