Not too long ago, Lakewood resident Lori Lass was concerned that crime was increasing in her neighborhood, especially what she called “opportunistic” crime.

“There’s been this rash of theft,” she explained a few weeks after the incidents had occurred. “In one week, we had something happen every night on our block. It’s all been stuff taken out of the car or the back yard. Two different houses saw somebody messing with someone’s car. I’ve heard from people that it’s the same thing over on Belmont.

“What finally got rid of them [the thieves] is it rained for three or four days in a row.”

Welcome to the fickle world of crime, where something as minor as inclement weather — or as major as an economic recession — can trigger inspiration or apathy in the criminal mind.

Opinions on crime, not to mention police response to crime, vary widely in our neighborhood. Some residents say they’re lucky to live where they do. Others aren’t so sure. Much of the difference is arbitrary, but not all of it. Communities with strong Crime Watch programs and residents who know their neighbors are more likely to feel secure but, as Lass’ experience points out, that sense of safety can go down the drain in a matter of days.

“My particular block is the farthest you can get away from the lake, and we’ve always thought that normally that protects us from a certain amount of transient theft,” Lass says. But after the recent incidents?

“We are all very concerned. One woman was threatening to put in an alarm.”

Nothing makes us feel quite as insecure as knowing a stranger has been in our yard, our garage, or worse, our home. Yet statistics show that crime in our neighborhood is down. As of late 2002, crime in Lakewood, Lass’ neighborhood, was down about 17 percent from the same time in 2001 (452 offenses, as opposed to 542 the year before).

An analysis done in November 2002 of a larger area of East Dallas, provided by Sgt. Mark Stallo of the Dallas police department’s crime analysis unit, shows that overall crime was down in our neighborhood as compared to the same time in 2001. And by no small number: More than 1,700 fewer incidents were investigated. In some pocketed areas of our neighborhood, burglary, theft and robbery — the types of crime most common to our area — did experience a slight increase.

So if overall crime is down, what accounts for the misconception that crime is on the rise? Well, says A.J. Klein, patrolman and community policing liaison for much of East Dallas, “unfortunately, crime revolves in cycles,” often giving residents the impression that they are more vulnerable.

“Historically, crime revolves around school time, holidays and things of that nature,” he says.

Theft — and car theft in particular — usually increases near holiday seasons, Klein says, not to mention in summer, when back yard and garage thefts are more likely to occur.

“Historically, every year, we see the same cycle,” he says.

So, while some residents may rightly feel they are more susceptible to being victims, they shouldn’t misinterpret that as a permanent trend resulting in rising crime rates, Klein says.

“Crime,” he says, “is statistically down. Dallas is as safe a city to live in as any other major metropolitan area.”

So there’s the good news. The bad news? Well, obviously, crime hasn’t been eradicated, and barring unforeseen circumstances, it probably won’t be. And we’re all still susceptible to having a chiminea stolen off our deck or a laptop stolen from our car.

Last summer, Klein says, police reports indicated that an unusual number of items were stolen from porches or lawns, at times with no apparent logic.  “There were quite a few thefts involving ornate stuff, lawn furniture, things of that nature,” he says. “Nobody could really understand why anyone would steal somebody’s planter or somebody’s lawn chair … just one. Not the whole set.”

And though violent crimes are low here compared to other parts of the city, our neighborhood does have its own problems to deal with.

“Our East Dallas area has problems with burglary of motor vehicles,” Klein says. “That is a huge sore that has raised its ugly head for quite a few years in this area. People who live in this neighborhood like to dress their cars up and show them off. But when they do that, they raise the attention of people who don’t have such nice wheels.”

But the police, and Crime Watch coordinators throughout our neighborhood, stress there are things we can do to protect ourselves from this kind of crime, from the simple (lock your car) to the more proactive (start a Volunteers in Patrol program in your neighborhood — see sidebar).

One thing we’re unlikely to see anytime soon, however, is a more significant dip in our crime rates. Dallas police spokesmen say the department is understaffed and call-driven, which translates into a reactive, rather than proactive, response to crime.

“People think that there should be a police officer in every neighborhood,” Klein says. “But we are so call-driven that they hold calls. We have a priority system in our dispatch. If people call regarding a parking violation or maybe even a criminal mischief — say somebody spray painted their mailbox — that is a lower priority call. We may not get to it for two hours.”

Meaning the perpetrator could be in front of the TV munching on Cheetos before police can even get to the scene of the crime.

Klein adds that officers are already responding to eight to 15 calls a day, and are often called off their regular beats to investigate incidents elsewhere in the city.

It’s a situation that rubs some residents the wrong way. Norton Rosenthal, Crime Watch chair for Forest Hills, says he is satisfied with police response in his area, but says he would like to see the police patrol his neighborhood more.

“The portable units at Sanger Elementary get burglarized all the time,” he says. “I’ve no reason to be unhappy [with the police department]. But what I would like to know is, is it the more crimes are reported, the more patrolling they do?”

He adds that he’d like to see Dallas follow in New York City’s footsteps. “My understanding of what they did, from reading Mayor Giuliani’s book, was daily, hourly, weekly statistical analyses of where crime was happening, and they concentrated their resources there,” he says. “They were able to anticipate where it was happening and, for all practical purposes, they’ve eliminated crime.”

Lakewood’s Lori Lass would be happy with just a little more face time with the officers assigned to her neighborhood.

“My lawyer friend asked, ‘What detective did they assign?’ I’m like, ‘Huh?’ They offered to do patrols at $40 an hour,” she says, referring to the police department’s tradition of offering the contractual services of off-duty officers to neighborhoods who want extra coverage.

“We did feel frustrated by the police. If you’ve got a rash of stuff that’s not stopping, and you get a block that’s willing to participate, wouldn’t you take advantage of it? There was no offer or suggestion that they’d drive down our block more, since they knew it was a problem area. If felt like there was nothing they could do proactively.”

It frustrates the officers as well, Klein says.

“We just don’t have time. The department right now is a little bit short of help, but we’re trying our best to accommodate citizens as best we can with the amount of personnel that we have.”

He hopes the community-policing program is helping. Klein, and liaisons like him, spend time at neighborhood gatherings, such as homeowner’s association, Crime Watch and Chamber of Commerce meetings, talking to area residents and putting the word out as to how to best fight crime.

His number one and oft-repeated piece of advice?

“I know for a fact that some people don’t report incidences of offenses. They just don’t think that it will help, or they may think that it’s not anybody else’s business. But if it’s not reported, its not recorded,” he says.

Victims of any type of crime should report it, Klein says. Even if you carry no hope of recovering those hedge trimmers lifted from the garage, reporting the incident gives the police department a clearer picture of what’s going on and where. Being armed with accurate information can only help, Klein says.

In the meantime, he says, the department is taking “baby steps” toward a better system, which will eventually translate into a safer neighborhood.

“This year, we probably won’t reach a million calls dispatched,” he says. “Last year, we had more than a million.”

That’s good news to many residents.

“The essence of urban life is to feel safe,” Rosenthal says. “If people don’t feel safe, we’ve failed as a culture.

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