Each month, The Advocate visits with Sgt. Michael Gurley and Sr. Cpl. Edward Vasquez of the East Dallas Storefront police station, 1327 N. Peak Street (670-5523). Three police officers and five community service workers are employed at the Storefront, which coordinates multi-lingual services ranging from tutoring to crime prevention. The Storefront is becoming known for its bicycle patrol officers, who pedal the streets of East Dallas weekdays. The City of Dallas funds the Storefronts, but numerous volunteers and organizations provide both hours and funds to develop special programs aimed at building better relations among police officers and neighborhoods.
Advocate: What goes on at the Storefront?
Edward: People come in for everything. Most of the people, it’s informal. Word travels. A guy came in yesterday with a drinking problem. Some come by, they don’t know where else to go – they’re hungry, they need a job, they have a family problem…
Mike: People don’t usually come by to say “hi” though…No, they usually have a problem, maybe not a traditional police problem, but they come by looking for help.
Edward: Immigration questions. Drivers’ licenses. A lot of people can’t read English, so they come in for translations. Income taxes – that’s hard enough for us to fill out, much less not being able to read it or understand it.
Mike: It’s unreal, even in a typical day, the number of situations that develop. Last month, I think there were about 2,800 contacts. We have translators fluent in Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, two dialects of Chinese, Spanish and Thai. And English, of course.
(Among the programs offered by Storefront officers are emergency food and clothes distribution, a community garden, neighborhood crime watch support, Girl Scout assistance, a cooperative program with the Lone Star Camp Fire Girls summer day camp, counseling, child-care assistance, Operation H.E.A.T. and cultural awareness programs.)
Advocate: Do people feel more comfortable stopping by the Storefront, as opposed to a traditional police station?
Mike: Very few people have been to a police substation. It’s not the kind of place you can just drop in. But the Storefronts tend to have a more open atmosphere. And if you come in three or four times, you’ll recognize someone working there, see the same person again and again, and you’ll get to know that person. We get a lot of information that way that other officers don’t get. We get it on one level, they get it on another…
Edward: Like the dope house. We were riding through a neighborhood on our bikes, and a guy flagged us down and told us about a dope house next door. So we decided to set up a watch, and along comes another guy coming out of another house, stuffing some dope down his pants. So we got something done there. Of course, by the time we got into the house, they had flushed the dope down the toilet. But at least that house is out of action.
Advocate: You know, when people see a police car, they tend to freeze or hit the brakes or whatever, even if they aren’t doing anything wrong. Does the same type of thing happen when you’re riding the bikes?
Mike: I think the bikes take that edge off. Like Tuesday, we had kids waving at us and talking to us…Cars honk at us. (You know, that scares us half to death, but they just want to wave, to be friendly.) If we can get out into the community and just talk with people, that’s really what we are trying to accomplish. If people get to know us, get to know our names and that they can call us up and ask a question or ask for help, I think they are more likely to do that than they are to call a police officer they don’t know.
The Storefront is less structured…you have to be self-motivated. An officer can come in here and set up his own agenda to solve problems, pretty much run his own show. That’s what we expect of the officer. One of the reasons Ed came was because of his narcotics background. (Editor’s Note: Edward worked several years as an undercover police officer, making drug buys and seeking out drug operations.) He gets all of the drug problems now. He can go into a school and start talking drugs, and they know it’s not from a book.
Edward: There’s a lot of rock (crack cocaine), a lot of marijuana, a lot of heroin here in East Dallas.
Advocate: Heroin? I thought that drug had kind of disappeared.
Mike: At times, within two blocks of the Storefront, you can probably buy anything (drugs) you want.
Edward: I think if people really knew how bad the drug problem really is, it would really scare them. It’s sad, really. It’s depressing, after awhile, because we keep putting these dealers in jail, and the courts keep letting them off.
Mike: Some of these (neighborhood) kids, their closest adult friend is someone employed in the Storefront. And that helps, because if they’ve got a question or a problem, they can get help. They don’t feel isolated or feel dumb asking a question. So we’ve built some rapport here.
Edward: We’re just at a harassment stage with these (drug) people. We’re taking their money, their property, any property they might have. But most of them stay in business. Some serious charges need to happen in enforcement.
Advocate: What other programs are available through the Storefront?
Mike: Another program is a home-security survey. Just call us and an officer will come out and from front door to back door, tell you how to help secure your home or business. Free. That’s probably our best program, but it is one of the least used. We’ll walk through the home or business with the owner, talk about lighting, landscape, locks, that type of thing. Most of the things we suggest are pretty inexpensive, but they work.
Advocate: How effective do you believe alarm systems can be in protecting a home?
Edward: Professional burglars will case the house, while the drug addicts just seem to hit whatever. The alarm, well, all that will do is scare them off. The professional will leave, but the crackhead will just grab something and run off.
Mike: I think most criminals are lazy, burglars included. A good alarm system usually includes some yard signs and window decals. A burglar will see these and just pick an easier target. You know, we’ve got a deadbolt program for low-income households, people who need additional security but can’t afford it. If they’ll give us a call, we’ll give them a deadbolt, and we’ll even install it for them.
Advocate: All people need to do is call, and they’ll get a free deadbolt?
Mike: That’s right, if they can’t afford one, they just need to call the Storefront. It’s that easy, but we don’t get many calls. (Editor’s Note: This program is limited to low-income families.)
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