One of the most common reactions to the news that someone lives in East Dallas involves crime. As in: “How can you live in such a dangerous area?”

Of course, that’s a fair question to ask of almost any resident anywhere in Dallas, given the city’s ranking near the top of a variety of high-crime lists – including the infamous top spot on the national murder list several years ago.

But, it’s especially relevant to East Dallas, given the area’s social and economic diversity. It is an urban neighborhood, and one of the facts of life in the 1990s is that urban neighborhoods must deal with crime, whether they are in Dallas, Detroit or Daytona Beach.

“If you live in the city, you have to be aware of crime – no matter where you live,” says Sgt. Mike Gurley, who commands the Dallas Police Department’s East Dallas storefront.

“A lot of what happens depends on how careful you are.”

Numerous issues affect crime in urban neighborhoods such as East Dallas, ranging from nationwide economic conditions to whether local residents remember to lock their doors and windows.

But one of the most important factors is what policemen and criminologists call population density: Are there a lot of people in a not-so-large area?

“An increase in population density almost always leads to an increase in crime,” says Deputy Chief John Chappelle of the Northeast patrol division, which includes upper East Dallas.

Chappelle says his area, as well as parts of lower East Dallas included in the Central patrol division, are distinguished by the number of multifamily dwellings (apartments, duplexes and the like), which increase population density.

Given, then, that there will be crime, what’s an East Dallas or Lakewood resident to do? And what kind of crime do East Dallas residents have to contend with?

As the high-crime summer season approaches, let’s try to put East Dallas crime in perspective.

The Most Common Crimes in Lakewood and East Dallas

The last place anyone would expect to be mugged is in front of a doughnut shop on Mockingbird Lane at 8 a.m. on a bright, sunny morning.

This is not, after all, New York’s Central Park at midnight.

But that’s what happened to an East Dallas woman recently, and it’s not all that unusual.

In fact, according to statistics compiled by the Dallas Police Department, one of the most common crimes in East Dallas so far this year has been robbery, involving both individuals and businesses.

“In that respect, the traditional crime in this area has changed and changed tremendously,” says Deputy Chief John Chappelle. “In the past, we were geared more toward preventing property crime.”

The numbers are staggering.

Through March in the Northeast patrol division, robberies had increased more than 100 percent compared with the first three months of 1990. In the Central patrol division, which includes lower East Dallas, the news was much better: The increase in 1991 robbery figures was so small as to be statistically insignificant. (See pages 8 and 9 of the Advocate for a map of the Northeast and Central patrol divisions.)

This does not make robbery the most common crime in East Dallas. There are a higher number of thefts – stolen bikes, pilfered lawn furniture and the like – and residential burglaries remain a serious problem.

In lower East Dallas, it’s not unusual for residents to put up with several reports of gunfire each week.

The news is that these traditional crime problems have to share top billing.

Chappelle cites several reasons for the surge in robberies: the nationwide recessions, more crime in general as drug users try to support their habits, and the increase in population density in the Northeast patrol division during the past several years.

The 1988 federal law that forbids adult-only apartments was particularly important in increasing the area’s population, Chappelle says.

Robberies of individuals are most often muggings. Criminals have been staking out areas where people walk (shopping center or apartment parking lots, for example) to find robbery victims. The police call it trolling for victims.

The business robberies, meanwhile, tend to be of convenience and video stores, gas stations and fast-food restaurants, places where criminals believe large amounts of cash are kept.

Most business and individual robberies, police say, are committed by men ages 18 to 26. They usually are easy to spot: They just don’t look like they belong in the fast-food restaurant or the convenience store parking lot.

There is good news associated with all of this. The statistics were much worse at the beginning of the year, when robberies were up by more than 200 percent when compared with the same period last year. Chappelle says a violent crime task force, which began in the Northeast patrol division and then became a part of a city-wide plan, has helped reduce crime.

The task force, police say, is arresting one important criminal each week, and it seems to be reducing the overall robbery level to normal levels.

Policing The Streets

For the Dallas police department, East Dallas isn’t East Dallas.

Rather, it’s just a couple of parts of two different police districts: Northeast and Central.

The police department divides the city into six areas, based on geography and population, and centered around a patrol substation: North Central, Northwest, Southwest and Southeast, in addition to the Northeast and Central divisions in East Dallas.

The Northeast division includes not only Lakewood, but Lake Highlands, parts of Pleasant Grove, some parts of North Dallas east of Central Expressway, and all of Dallas east of White Rock Lake. The Northeast substation is a postmodern blue and white building at 9915 E. Northwest Highway (670-4415).

The Central division includes lower East Dallas and parts of Greenville Avenue, as well as the Central Business District Downtown. The substation is located Downtown at 334 S. Hall Street (670-4413). There’s also an East Dallas storefront at 1327 N. Peak Street (670-5514), between Live Oak and Bryan streets, staffed by three officers and four civilian employees.

Each division is divided into beats, which are covered by the familiar white patrol cars with the blue City of Dallas emblem. The 81.6 square miles in the Northeast Division is divided into 25 beats and 207 officers, or 2.53 policemen per square mile. In the Central Division, the smallest of the six Dallas police divisions, there are 16.4 square miles, 33 beats and 256 officers, or 15.6 policemen per square mile.

The last figure isn’t as impressive as it sounds, however, since the Central Division’s population increases dramatically during the day, when Downtown office buildings are occupied. More people requires more policemen.

By comparison, the Northwest Division, which stretches from Interstate 30 to the Irving border, has 4.3 officers per square mile and the North Central Division has 3.8 officers per square mile. In fact, the Northeast police-per-square-mile figure is the lowest in the city – approximately half a policeman less than the two southern districts.

But it is necessary to keep each division’s area and population in mind when deciphering crime statistics. There are probably going to be fewer crimes reported in the Central Division, for example, since it’s the smallest division in the city. But the figure probably would have more meaning if calculated by crime per square mile or crime per population.

“If you lumped them all together, I don’t think there are more crimes per capita down here,” says Sgt. Mike Gurley. “What we have are the more noteworthy crimes, the higher-profile crimes that get in the newspaper.”

Statistics compiled by federal agencies use the latter method, which is why Dallas almost always has a higher murder rate than cities such as New York. There are more murders committed in the Big Apple, but six times as many people live there.

Fighting Back

There’s much more to crime prevention than keeping a loaded gun around the house and blasting away at the first suspicious-looking person who knocks on your door.

In fact, Dallas police officials say, it’s possible to protect yourself from crime without turning your house into a fortress and treating your neighborhood like an armed camp.

It’s often the simple things that people overlook. A home security system, says Cpl. Randy Ferguson of the Northeast patrol division, is never going to be completely effective. The security system is going to be even less effective for the person who goes on vacation but neglects to arrange for a trusted neighbor to pick up the mail and newspapers.

A bundle of week-old papers on the front lawn is an open invitation to steal televisions, video cassette recorders and other small appliances.

“I don’t even like to recommend that people get alarm systems,” Ferguson says, “because people think that’s the only thing they have to have to be safe. And it isn’t.”

The general rule in fighting crime, Ferguson says, is to increase time, noise and visibility.

Increasing the time it takes for a crime to be committed, whether by installing better locks or just be using existing locks, reduces the chances for a successful crime.

Increasing the amount of noise involved in committing a crime, such as making a thief break a window to get in a home, is a smart move.

Increasing the visibility around yourself and your property, such as parking in a lighted area, improves the odds.

What you should do, police say, is keep in mind a few simple, inexpensive and easy-to-follow guidelines.

+ Don’t be afraid to call 911. “Too often,” Ferguson says, “we have people tell us, ‘I didn’t want to call. I didn’t want to bother you.’ We don’t mind being bothered. We’d rather prevent a crime than investigate one.”

+ Don’t forget to lock your doors and windows. Ferguson has a checklist of bolts and locks that homeowners can install. But no lock does any good if you don’t use it. In 20 percent of the residential break-ins reported in the Northeast division, the criminal entered through an open door or window.

+ Don’t act like a victim. Don’t wear expensive jewelry when you run to the corner to buy a newspaper. Don’t carry large amounts of cash for a trip to the grocery store to get a gallon of milk. Criminals like to spend time outside stores looking for people to rob, based on what they wear and how they act. For instance, if someone seems to be watching you late at night in a grocery store parking lot, don’t wander aimlessly around the lot: Park near the entrance to the store. When you leave, don’t leave by yourself – most stores will be more than happy to have someone escort you to your car.

+ Don’t ignore your intuition. People who don’t pay attention to their surroundings are often the first ones robbed. Says Sgt. Mike Gurley: “If you go out late at night along Columbia Avenue, there’s a better chance something is going to happen to you than if you go out late on McKinney Avenue.”

Taking a Common-Sense Approach to Safety

The key to living in East Dallas and not being a crime victim, Stephen Prince says, is to remember that criminals are inherently lazy.

“If they’re going to have a wee bit of trouble breaking into your house, then they’ll skip it and move on to something easier,” says Prince, a four-year resident of East Dallas who lives on Oram Street near Skillman Street.

This is not to say Prince, an artist, and his wife, Helena, have not had their share of trouble. In the two-and-one-half years they lived on Worth Street near Fitzhugh Avenue, Helena’s car was stolen three times and Stephen’s was burglarized. But their apartment has never been broken into at either location, and they have had few other problems.

“You just have to keep an eye out for what’s going on, to be aware,” Prince says. “That’s one of the advantages we have with where we live now. There’s always a neighbor around to keep an eye on things.”

The Princes practice many of the recommended anti-crime tactics: They make sure their doors and windows are locked when no one is home, they use an alarm system, and they keep a presence around their apartment so would-be intruders assume someone is home.

In addition, Prince recommends owning a dog. He doesn’t think it’s a coincidence they have one and that their home hasn’t been burglarized.

“We like to live in East Dallas,” he says. “It’s worthwhile for us to do it. We’re close to Deep Ellum, we’ve made a lot of friends in the neighborhood, and I can walk one block and eat at any kind of restaurant I want.”

“There’s always going to be crime, no matter where you live. You just have to keep an eye out and be aware of your surroundings.”

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