Myrna Mendez said it’s not uncommon to see women hanging out by a stopped car in the Northwest Dallas neighborhood where she’s lived for 30 years. Open drug sales are a daily occurrence.
She said most parents worry about their kids walking home from the bus stop around Harry Hines Boulevard and Royal Lane. And it’s become worse in the last five years.
“It’s now a problem during the day and night,” Mendez said in Spanish.
The problem isn’t lost on police, who between January and July arrested 88 people in stings targeting those who drive along the Harry Hines corridor looking for sex. In mid-summer, police said they arrested seven men on suspicion of soliciting sex from people who turned out to be undercover officers. All but one of those arrested were people of color.
On Wednesday, Dallas officials will consider whether to allow police officers to stop drivers seen at least three times passing through a roughly 2 1/2 mile stretch in Northwest Dallas over two hours. Police say it’s intended to stop people trafficking women for sex. Anyone stopped could face a fine of up to $500.
Police say the expanded powers would give them the ability to pull over drivers they suspect of being pimps. Currently, a police officer could stop someone for a traffic violation or for soliciting a prostitute — but not for making rounds in the area.
Proponents have described the proposal as a way to get officers closer to apprehending suspected pimps and sex traffickers in an area police described as an “epicenter of prostitution” in Dallas. Businesses have complained about the activity.
“This has been a problem here for decades,” said Eric Lindberg, president of the Northwest Dallas Business Association, which represents about 50 businesses. “I think it’s still a problem because historically there’s been a lack of concern from city management — that’s just my gut feeling.”
Opponents have argued that the proposal could lead to civil rights violations and ultimately push illegal activity to other parts of the city.
Mendez knows something needs to be done, but she isn’t sure about the best way to combat the problem. She worries about immigrants, particularly those who are undocumented, being swept up in arrests.
“It’s one thing to stop them,” she said. “But I hope they don’t arrest people just to make arrests.”
The area where police want to target prostitution is a warehouse district largely made up of businesses that close between 3:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. Foot traffic all but stops after that, Lindberg said.
It’s not uncommon for some owners to return to work in the morning and find used condoms in their parking lot, he said. Lindberg, who has an office on Shady Trail, believes he has seen people involved in prostitution during the daytime.
“This ordinance is really about protecting the businesses that employ families in that area, who pay taxes and are doing the right thing,” said Lindberg.
Wednesday marks the second time in as many months that the planned change comes before elected leaders, which would take effect in the Harry Hines Boulevard corridor from 4:30 p.m. to 8 a.m. — the longest of any of the no-cruising zones in the city. Other areas with the rule go from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m., and 3 p.m. to 1 a.m. City records show the plan is projected to generate $45,000.
Under the proposed change, police would focus their efforts on drivers circling parts of the West End Historic District downtown. It would affect areas of Harry Hines Boulevard, Shady Trail, Walnut Hill Lane and Southwell Road. Such a rule exists in Deep Ellum where the goal was to cut down on traffic and noise.
Dallas isn’t the only Texas city with a “no-cruising” zone. El Paso also has rules against drivers repeatedly passing through parts of the city late at night and into the early morning.
After the local proposal was forwarded to the Dallas City Council without discussion by the public safety committee on Nov. 9, members voted two days later to delay the plan after several of them raised concerns.
Council member Omar Narvaez, who represents the district the proposal impacts, said at the time that no one consulted him about the planned city code expansion.
“[Prostitution] is a problem,” Narvaez said last month. “But at the same time, how do I know that the vast majority of these businesses that are owned and run by people of color, that those folks aren’t going to be the ones that get targeted or pulled over when they’re just trying to get to work?”
Narvaez didn’t respond to requests for comment from The Dallas Morning News about the proposal.
Assistant City Manager Jon Fortune, who oversees public safety, described the proposal during a Nov. 11 city meeting as a means of intervention and assured Narvaez that it wouldn’t be “intended to target random people driving down the street.”
Lt. Gerald Smalley, who oversees Dallas police’s vice unit, said during the same meeting that a detective initially pitched the plan because police are looking to target the pimps who run prostitution rings or force people into sex work, often watching from afar.
“When we are out there and conducting surveillance, we see these men congregate, they cruise this area, they park in parking lots, they intimidate the women, and there’s been violence and shootings associated with their activities,” Smalley said. “One of our priorities is to go after these traffickers in that area of town.”
He said diversion programs are offered to sex trafficking victims, people engaged in prostitution and people soliciting sex.
Jessica Brazeal, chief programs officer for Dallas-based sex trafficking victims advocacy group New Friends New Life, told The News that she appreciated the police department coming up with ways to address sex trafficking and prostitution in the city. She didn’t think this proposal alone would go far enough.
Sex trafficking could involve multiple situations, including ones where people who are victimized could be forced into recruiting or overseeing others who engage in sex acts for money, Brazeal said. There could be practical reasons why people may be repeatedly driving around the same area, she said, that have nothing to do with sex or criminal activity.
Brazeal also said she wonders how much extra money and time it would take to enforce the proposal and if the results warrant the effort.
“This appears to be mostly geared at slowing the demand, but that’s a small piece of it,” Brazeal said.
Council member Jennifer Staubach Gates, who chairs the city council’s Public Safety Committee and whose district borders Harry Hines Boulevard, said she supported the proposal initially. But she felt that the concerns raised about the plan were valid.
“We are hearing from constituents that they have a lot of concerns about prostitution, and DPD has informed us that they need more tools in their tool box to deal with this issue,” Gates said. “But at the same time, we have a responsibility to make sure enforcement isn’t insensitive to our minority communities and that there aren’t unintended consequences.”
Mendez said she understands prostitution is complicated. She hopes council members and police take more initiative to talk to people in the area to find solutions.
“This has been a constant problem,” she said.
Staff writer Nic Garcia contributed to this report.