Northwest Division officers get off to rocky start in Oak Lawn by not returning phone calls fast
Nancy Weinberger was awakened by sirens around midnight on Friday, Dec. 7.
The following day a neighbor informed Weinberger, one of the founders and leaders of the local crime watch group, that there had been a shooting a few blocks away outside Uncle Julio’s restaurant on Lemmon Avenue in Oak Lawn.
Weinberger immediately tried to call three officers from the Dallas Police Department’s Northwest Division, which recently took over jurisdiction of the area from the Central Division, to get more information. But it wouldn’t be until Sunday, after she’d read about the shooting in the newspaper, that Weinberger received any response.
It wasn’t exactly the type of service to which she and others have become accustomed from the Central Division in recent years. And it’s an example, Weinberger said, of why there are increasing concerns about the transition that officially took place Oct. 23.
“I think we have to give them time,” Weinberger said of the Northwest Division. “But I think we also have to be very insistent that this is what we expect, and we’re going to get what we expect because it’s reasonable.”
Weinberger acknowledged residents and business owners may have been spoiled by the Central Division and particularly former interactive community police officer Keith Allen. Still, though, she plans to bring up the issue at the next Oak Lawn Apartment Managers and Stakeholders Crime Watch group meeting, set for noon on Dec. 19 at the Oak Lawn library branch.
“I just want to hear what they have to say,” Weinberger said. “I just want to know if people feel comfortable, and if not, what do we need to do to make them feel comfortable.”
Lt. Thon Overstreet, a daytime watch commander for the Northwest Division, said officials have done everything they can to make the jurisdictional transition as smooth as possible. Unfortunately, Overstreet added, it’s not the only transition that’s taken place.
DPD also recently eliminated its interactive community policing program, sending about 60 officers assigned to the special squads back to regular patrol. Some representatives from crime watch groups and homeowners associations opposed the change, because interactive officers had become their liaisons to the department.
“There are parallel transitions going on,” Overstreet said. “There’s going to be some resistance to change both in the community and in the organization, but I think through education, we’ll overcome that.”
Overstreet, who trained in Oak Lawn as a rookie 25 years ago and also later worked as a supervisor in the Central Division, said he’s very familiar with the crime issues facing the area. Overstreet also cited some of the successes of the Northwest Division since its eastern boundary shifted from the Dallas North Tollway to Oak Lawn Avenue nearly two months ago.
Among other things, Overstreet said Northwest Division officers have busted six drug houses in Oak Lawn, including one that also harbored an identity theft ring.
“Give us a chance to do our strategy, to do what we do best, and then let’s look at the numbers,” Overstreet said. “You can’t argue with results, and we’re going to be measured by those results.”
Officer Steve Fuentes is the Northwest Division’s de facto version of Allen, who’d served the Oak Lawn area for more than a decade. Fuentes, one of the department’s original interactive community police officers 15 years ago, is now part of DPD’s neighborhood policing program.
Fuentes said the neighborhood program, which replaced community policing, is actually an improvement because it allows him to train other patrol officers to better interact with residents and business owners. Fuentes said since the Northwest Division took over, he’s met with all the key players, including Weinberger.
“In one hour I can learn from her what it would take me a year to learn on my own,” Fuentes said. “It all stems from making people the most important part of the puzzle. After that, catching the crooks and knowing the area is a piece of cake.”
Fuentes is currently working with the Cedar Springs Merchants Association on a proposal to erect banners that will help distinguish the shopping and entertainment strip.
Fuentes also recently orchestrated the pending removal of pay phones from the parking lot of the Valero store at Cedar Springs Road and Knight Street. Many believe the pay phones attract drug dealers and other criminal elements.
“We wanted to make sure we came in pretty strong,” Fuentes said. “I wanted to come in and follow up right where he [Allen] left off.”
While Weinberger is skeptical, others say they’ll just wait and see.
Donald Solomon, director of operations for Caven Enterprises, said many representatives from nightclubs along the Cedar Springs strip had become friends with Central Division officers. Caven owns J.R.’s, Sue Ellens, the Throckmorton Mining Co. and Station 4.
“I think what’s happened is we haven’t developed the relationships yet,” Solomon said. “I don’t want to be the person in the article that makes them angry at me or angry at Caven.”
Michael Doughman, executive director of the Dallas Tavern Guild, said none of the group’s members which include many of the clubs on the strip have complained about a dropoff in police service since the change.
But there’s no doubt the stakes are high, Doughman added.
The murder of a clubgoer near an ATM on Cedar Springs this summer shocked the community and hurt business, Doughman said. DPD’s beefed-up presence in the wake of the murder helped to reduce crime, and the hope is that the trend will continue.
“The safety issues are absolutely key,” Doughman said. “I think that has been addressed significantly. I think it’s absolutely much safer than it ever was before. I’m confident that this new police division is as committed as the old one.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 14, 2007