“Unless the weather is [bad], it’s like this every day,” Lt. Jordan Colunga told The Dallas Express, referring to the criminal activity that can be seen in neighborhoods across the city.

Colunga is part of an undercover police unit in the Dallas Police Department, and last Tuesday, he and his colleagues observed a suspect at an apartment complex purportedly known for being a drug den.

The officers had seen the man quickly enter and leave the complex with the same bag in previous days. They followed his car to a nearby gas station, where they learned his registration was expired, giving them cause to pull him over as he dashed towards the highway. The suspect was arrested after police found he had PCP, crack cocaine, and a gun.

“This is intel-driven. We know that’s a dope house. We just need to get them stopped lawfully,” Colunga told DX during a ride-along.

DX spent three hours with Colunga in the late morning and early afternoon in northeast Dallas. His place network investigation (PNI) unit made several arrests for drugs and firearms as it focused on areas around apartment complexes plagued with organized crime.

A second arrest was made at the same gas station. This time, a man was smoking fentanyl in his car and attempting to sell the drug. He reached towards his waist in a panic — to the alarm of officers approaching the scene — but only to grab at the drugs. Another man was arrested at a different apartment complex after it was discovered he had a handgun and marijuana in his car.

The PNI units in Dallas aim to target organized crime in select areas of the city. This involves coordination with federal officers, one of whom was present for the ride-along.

Colunga described the day-to-day approach taken by his officers: identify a hot spot of criminal drug activity, find probable cause for traffic stops and subsequent arrests of suspects who bought drugs, get a confidential informant to obtain drugs at the targeted area, then get a warrant from a judge for a SWAT team to raid the drug house.

“I would call it controlled chaos,” Colunga told DX. “The real type of focus on intel and not going out blindly. When you do intel-driven police work, it’s really good, but part of policing is you have to make contacts. The criminal element is in public.”

“That’s what you’re trying to get these young guys to realize. People will talk to you,” he continued. “Talk to that store owner where the shooting is at — he probably knows more than you think. Talk to the neighbors where there’s drug activity. We’re doing better at that.”

Colunga said his unit has tremendous chemistry that began in training and blossomed in the field, where they feel a sense of trust from leadership and get results. Police leadership, he said, is focused on the long-term success of their officers rather than short-term trends that are often a distraction from effective police work.

“You don’t want to force a deadline so you don’t do it the right way,” Colunga told DX. “I’d rather not do a warrant than have officers hurry to produce because that is where mistakes are made. I’m not getting on anybody about not producing. It’s going to come. We got a good group.”

Colunga’s unit is a component of the Dallas Police Department’s Violent Crime Reduction Plan, which was first adopted in March 2021.

The implementation was followed by a decrease in violent crime each year since. Homicides in Dallas increased every year from 2017 to 2020, where it reached its 21st-century peak of 256. Dallas then reduced homicides in 2021 as the nationwide rate continued to increase. This citywide homicide decrease continued in 2022 under the plan, then ended with a spike in 2023 as overall violent crime decreased.

The core of the Dallas violent crime plan is the mapping of hot spot crime grids of 330 x 330 ft — roughly the size of a football field — that are then assigned to patrol units. The department is currently in its 14th phase of the grids, which are adjusted every 90 days based on an analysis of crime data across the city. Officials deployed the strategy after research showed roughly 0.05% of the jurisdiction accounted for nearly 10% of violent street crime.

This hot spot strategy aims to increase both lighting and police presence. Lonzo Anderson, DPD’s executive assistant chief over patrol and administrative operations, said the community has welcomed this increased visibility. The draft process of the violent crime plan included meetings with residents and business leaders, who Anderson said expressed overwhelming support.

“By all means, we have been … embraced by the community,” Anderson told DX. “There was nobody in this community that said they want less police.”

Anderson emphasized that this hot spot strategy does not mean the department is arresting its way out of crime — a point backed by the City’s crime data. The launch of the violent crime plan during the last few months of 2021 led to a 14% decrease in violent crime citywide and a 53% decrease in the targeted grids. Meanwhile, arrests decreased by 11% citywide and 53% in targeted grids. Warrant arrests increased over that period as police emphasized gathering intelligence and targeting repeat offenders, according to a DPD report.

This decline in violent crime played out against the backdrop of DPD’s staffing shortage. The department only fields around 3,000 officers despite a City analysis advising that approximately 4,000 are needed to properly maintain public safety and bring down police response times, which have been alarmingly high.

Additionally, City officials only budgeted $654 million for the department this fiscal year, with the Dallas City Council voting to spend much less on law enforcement than other high-crime jurisdictions, like New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

As previously reported by DX, a good deal of violent crime has been associated with apartment complexes in recent years, with a spate of murders at the end of 2023 and early in 2024 raising alarm bells.

“A lot of the apartment problems stem from the neighborhood around and drug houses,” Colunga told DX. “There’s still a lot of drug-driven crime. That’s just how it is.”

Anderson said Dallas police have weekly meetings with the management of these complexes and biweekly meetings with the PNI teams to discuss ways to curb the troubling trend.

“It’s not really about the apartment complexes,” Anderson told DX. “It’s about a few key individuals and their behavior in the apartment complexes. We’re still working with the management at the sites.”

In 2022, violent crime — which includes criminal homicides, sexual assaults, aggravated assault, and robbery, per FBI reporting guidelines — fell by 4.7% year over year. A more dramatic decrease was logged in 2023, with violent crime falling by 13.3%. That year, aggravated assaults declined by 17.1% and robberies fell by 7.4%.

Despite DPD’s success in bringing down violent crime over the last couple of years, crime overall has continued to tick up, with 105,766 reported incidents in 2020, 108,235 in 2021, 108,738 in 2022, and 110,481 in 2023, according to City data. One of the key elements driving crime up has been an alarming increase in motor vehicle thefts, as previously reported by DX.

Over the coming weeks, DX will be exploring some of the dynamics at play when it comes to public safety in Dallas, including the trends in criminal activity, the impact on residents and businesses, and the decisions being made at City Hall.