The law on their side


The landlords of the house on Ninth between Zang and Beckley weren’t happy to see Ryan Presley show up on their doorstep.

Presley is North Oak Cliff’s community prosecutor, and he works closely with Dallas Police officers and code enforcement officers. This particular house was known to have criminal activity taking place under its roof and had numerous code violations — a yard full of junk, poor structural and sanitary conditions, and multiple tenants living in a single-family house.

Instead of slapping the owners with code violation tickets or the tenants with handcuffs, Presley worked with the two departments to come up with a different solution. He talked to the landlords to formulate a plan to bring the house up to code under a specific timeline.

The plan worked.

“You could tell it had the potential to be a really nice home, and it was at one point, and is again. A husband and wife and two or three little kids have a big yard to play in that once was full of junk. There’s a little swing set back there now, and it’s a home,” Presley says.

“When we first show up, [the owners] are trying to make it as easy on themselves as they can, and when it’s over, they sincerely say thank you — you’ve made me do what I’ve been needing to do, and I just put it off,” he says. “And if they have a nice building, they can charge more rent. If everyone is taking care of their property, everyone benefits.”

Remedying the code violations, which included converting the group home back to a single-family home, automatically got rid of the crime problems. And now the house stands as an example to other property owners.

“We are the strategy of the city attorney’s office that says, ‘We could sue everybody on this block because they all have problems, but what is the real problem, and let’s work together,’” says Whitney Sanderlin, West Oak Cliff’s community prosecutor.

The reason community prosecutors must be attorneys is that if offenders refuse to comply with their orders, they can sue on behalf of the city of Dallas.

“That’s a very frightening tool, because people don’t want to be sued,” Sanderlin says, “and I would rather not sue them.”

The money is daunting to offenders, too. Once a lawsuit is filed, the fine is up to $1,000 per day per violation, which adds up quickly. Code violation tickets range from $75 to $500. Either way, it’s to the offender’s advantage to work with the community prosecutor because that keeps the lawsuit or violation from being filed.

“Code [enforcement officers] can do the limits of what they can do, and same with police officers — they’ve been doing neighborhood policing for a long time,” Sanderlin says.

Sanderlin’s office is situated among the Southwest Police Division’s neighborhood policing officers, which is convenient since she often works with them to address issues, such as vacant houses and lots that attract criminal activity. Police can monitor the activity, but if nothing changes on the property, it will continue to be a magnet for criminals. And code enforcement officers can fine owners for violations, but often in the case of vacant houses and lots, no one knows who the owner is.

That’s where Sanderlin steps in, as she did recently with a lot on which no one had paid taxes or mowed since the ’80s. Every few months, the neighbors complained about the property’s high weeds. One neighbor had wanted to purchase the property for some time, but no one knew who owned it. Over time, Sanderlin discovered that a mortgage company had foreclosed on the property, but then the company went bankrupt.

“Finally we discovered the owner was this part of the mortgage company that didn’t go bankrupt, and they didn’t even know they owned it,” Sanderlin says. “The problem wasn’t just high weeds; the problem was, who owns the flippin’ property?”

Networking with other city departments to solve problems like this is a big part of community prosecutors’ job. Dallas’ community prosecutor program has been around since 2001, with the first in Old East Dallas. The program has been so successful that the city now has 14 community prosecutors, and Sanderlin says she won’t be surprised if Dallas eventually blankets the entire city with them.

That said, the solutions that Sanderlin and Presley come up with aren’t quick fixes. If problems could be solved easily, with a few police arrests or code violation citations, they would be. The kinds of projects community prosecutors tackle requires man hours, and lots of them.

“You see a problem and you want to fix it right then, and you can’t,” Presley says, “It just takes time.”

That’s why the program works only with neighborhood buy-in. Kidd Springs resident Vicki Keene is a believer because she has seen the community prosecution program in action on her neighborhood streets.

“This is probably one of the best things that the city has done for our community,” Keene says, mentioning older structures nearby that an owner refused to repair, and a community prosecution lawsuit that resulted in a demolition order.

“They attract the homeless,” Keene says of vacant, run-down properties, “and they bring the neighborhood down and make the neighborhood look bad.”

How community prosecution helps, she says, is with “egregious” issues, and it takes patience to get to the bottom of such problems.

And as Sanderlin points out, getting to the bottom means peeling back the layers instead of just dealing with what’s on the surface.

“We don’t want to just enforce high weeds and litter, when that’s not the problem,” Sanderlin says. “The problem is the people at the high school are bored after school, or the people who own the property don’t even know that they’re the owners. I love the thinking outside the box and saying, ‘OK, does this really help anybody to write another ticket?’”

For example, Presley says, if you arrest a drug dealer and put him in jail, another drug dealer will take his place because he sees the opportunity. The police work to address the individual criminal, and Presley and Sanderlin work to address the habitual crime by dealing with the property.

“I’ve seen landlords scared to do anything. They would like them out, but don’t know what to do,” Presley says. “Sometimes tenants are afraid to complain and afraid of being punished by the landlords.”

That’s one reason community prosecutors rely so heavily on neighborhood input. “They’re there when we’re not, and can see a property all day and night,” Presley says.

He offices in the Bishop Arts District police storefront, but like other community prosecutors, spends much of his time driving the surrounding neighborhoods, often alongside police or code enforcement officers so they can identify problems together.

In Presley’s territory, which extends roughly from Colorado to Clarendon and from I-35
to Tyler, the bulk of his time is spent on substandard multi-family housing, “everything from the roof down — leaky roof, unstable floors, bad plumbing, bad electricity, holes in the wall,” he says. “Buildings are expensive to keep up, and everybody’s having difficult times, but you’ve still got to maintain the obligation to tenants.”

Single-family properties and vacant lots being used as dump sites are another common issue, as are businesses in areas where zoning doesn’t allow them or businesses illegally using property — like the auto body shops along Davis that use their parking lots for other purposes and park junk vehicles on the side of the street. Keene mentions that this is an area Presley has focused on, and is getting close to a resolution.

“It looks like a simple problem, but the resolution is difficult,” Presley says. “Part of it is just that they’ve been doing it that way for so long that some people have gotten used to it and think it’s OK. It may be really out of necessity on their part — they are fairly small lots, and they don’t have a lot of space — but yet having junk vehicles on the side of the street, it doesn’t do anything to help that area. For people who want to do business with other retail shops in that area and can’t find a place to park, they may go elsewhere.”

Plus, he says, businesses should have an equal playing field. If one business is conducting itself properly and another isn’t, that’s unfair. Presley says he’s not trying to put anyone out of business; instead, he’s helping businesses comply with the law.

“Our job isn’t really to write tickets and punish them; it’s to work with them to fix the problem,” he says. “Instead of just writing a ticket and going away, we’re coming back, and we’re not going away until it’s corrected.”

This represents a shift in the way crime and code violations are handled, and Presley and Sanderlin say that because the police and code departments see that it can work, it has motivated them to look at their enforcement in a different way. Another more recent extension of this is the city’s community courts.

Community prosecution solutions take time, but the result is usually worth the wait.

“I think if we could work ourselves out of a job,” Sanderlin says, “that would be great.” —KERI MITCHELL

To report a neighborhood issue, contact North Oak Cliff community prosecutor Ryan Presley at 214.957.1093 or ryan.presley@dallascityhall.com, or West Oak Cliff community prosecutor Whitney Sanderlin at 972.768.8869 or whitney.sanderlin@dallascityhall.com.

JUSTICE SERVED

It’s a problem when people litter, dump illegally, sleep on Oak Cliff streets, have drug paraphernalia, urinate or drink in public, or commit other non-violent crimes cataloged as class C misdemeanors. Police can ticket for these problems, but people who commit such crimes often don’t have money to pay fines, so they opt to serve jail time instead. Then they end up back on the streets, committing the same offenses.

To find long-term solutions to such problems, the city created the community court system, including the West Dallas Community Court at Hampton and Singleton, which will begin operating after the first of the year. Any “quality of life” offenders in our neighborhood will now be given a citation that requires them to appear in the West Dallas Community Court within seven days.

The court’s goal will be to break the cycle of crime for these offenders. If they enter a plea of guilty or no contest (most do, the court’s social services coordinator Sarah Pahl says), then Judge Daniel Solis will asses a punishment to fit the crime — some sort of community service activity in the neighborhood in which the defendant committed the offense.

The court works with neighborhood organizations to come up with community service opportunities, so someone who commits a quality of life crime in a particular neighborhood might be mowing a few lawns there in a matter of weeks. In this way, Pahl says, people can see justice being served.

On top of benefitting the neighborhood, the offenders also receive help from the court. Pahl connects them with drug and alcohol treatment centers, job referrals, job training, job placement, or whatever other social services they might need to get on their feet.

To suggest a way that quality of life offenders can work their community service hours, or to offer a rehabilitation service, contact Sarah Pahl at 214.422.3736 or sarah.pahl@dallascityhall.com.


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