Investigation: Dallas Police Gang Unit

A FOX 4 Investigation revealed that the Dallas police gang unit may be critically understaffed and the issue is affecting public safety, the city’s crime statistics and officer morale.

For comparison, Fort Worth has roughly double the number of gang officers, even though it has a half-million fewer residents.

Dallas police recently presented some gang crime numbers to the city council that looked encouraging at first glance. But FOX 4 has uncovered that the reason for what appeared to be a decrease in gang-related crimes is because the gang unit was essentially taken off the gang beat for nine months in 2016.

This has led to a dramatic drop in gang investigations when police and residents need them most.

Lamont Levels is a founding member of Dallas’s Bloods gang who left the gang shortly after he was shot and left for dead. He believes gang violence is a serious problem in Dallas.

“As soon as the sun goes down you're subject to hear gunfire,” Level said.

In January 2001, gunfire claimed Levels’ eyesight. He showed us the hoodie he wore when it happened.

“If I put it on, it will fit perfectly,” Levels said, describing the bullet hole in the sweater. “The bullet when right in my temple here and came out of my eye, severing both of my optic nerves, causing me to lose all light perception, meaning I'm blind forever.

I can't see a speck of light. I could look into the sun and not see anything."

Levels is concerned Dallas police are ignoring a problem.

“Either they as blind as I am or ignorant to the situation,” Levels said.

The police department estimates there are just under 10,000 documented gang members in Dallas. Levels said he thinks the number is actually much higher.

“I’m tired of seeing a lot of young kids die,” Level said. “I feel like our city is putting money over lives. "

In October 2016, a seven-year-old girl was shot in the chest in a drive-by shooting just three blocks from Fair Park in an area close to known gang activity.

The little girl, Adriana Espinoza, and her family were on their way to pick up a pizza. After she was shot, she turned to her dad, afraid she was going to die.

"My little girl looks up and here one of the bullets hit her near the heart, and she said 'They killed me they killed me' and I told her, ‘You're not dead, you're not dead, God is with you,’” said Ricardo Espinoza, her father.

Adriana barely survived.

FOX 4 has learned that when that incident happened, the Dallas gang unit had been reassigned to take calls at the 911 center. According to Dallas Police Assistant Chief Santos Cadena, the gang unit was not working the field at that time.

Some officers were also temporarily reassigned to the Violent Crime Task Force.

FOX 4 started investigating this issue after seeing a dramatic drop in gang investigations.

In Feburary, DPD told city council it investigated 1,022 gang offenses in 2014. In 2016, that number plummeted to 272 investigations.

Wes Melton is a former senior corporal who worked with the Dallas gang unit. He said, in his opinion, the numbers do not show a decrease in gang crime.

“It just means we are not labeling them properly,” Melton said.

Melton said he researched how many of Dallas’s homicides involved a gang member.

“I was able to prove 41 percent were involving a gang member, whether they were a complainant or suspect,” Melton said. “A lot of that was shut down."

Melton said his superiors at DPD told him to stop doing the research in 2016. He said he thinks city leaders should care, if they’re interested in protecting Dallas citizens.

"The importance of it is that when they go to trial and they're found guilty, a gang member can get a harsher penalty," Melton explained. “But if that information's not there, you're having people commit robberies or homicides or assaults that are not getting the penalty that they deserve… and the information's not there because the City of Dallas hasn't put the resources and the manpower to gather that information.”

Assistant Chief Cadena took over the gang unit in October 2016, after Melton resigned. Cadena said he was not personally aware of Melton’s research.

"For sure I'd like to have more gang officers assigned full-time,but we have to work with what we have,” Cadena said.

Cadena said the pension crisis has thinned DPD’s ranks to the pint that they cannot advertise openings for the gang unit because it would take away officers from patrol.

"It's a matter of having to do more with less,” Cadena said.

According to Cadena, in 2014, there were 14 senior corporals on the gang unit. In 2016, that numbers dropped to eight.

And even those few officers were part of what Dallas police call a “re-deployment” to the Violent Crime Task Force.

“[Gang unit officers] were still allowed to work [gang-related] calls as they came in,” Cadena said. “For example, if there was a homicide with a gang connection, our Homicide or Crimes Against Persons division would still be able to call on them for assistance.”

Former officer Melton said expecting patrol officers and detectives to also be gang specialists is part of the problem.

“If you're trying to prevent crime, you need intelligence to prevent crime, know the players, what they're doing, what they're saying,” Melton said. “If you're not doing that, you're really doing a disservice to citizens because you're really allowing crime to occur.”

Melton described the difference between a patrol officer and a gang officer. He said if an officer drives up to a scene and people run off, the patrol officer will know which way they ran. A gang officer will know who they are and where they ran.

Dallas Police Association president Mike Mata believes the city has a reason to keep the number of gang offenses low.

“You don't have a gang problem if you don't have gang numbers," Mata said. “When you start talking about gang murders and gang narcotics and gang violence it doesn't bode well with bringing business into the city."

After FOX 4 and Dallas city council members started asking questions about gang crime statistics, Interim Chief David Pughes re-assigned five senior corporals to the gang unit, but only temporarily.

And, for the first time since at least 2014, DPD is also counting five members of its FBI Gang Task Force in its numbers.

The FBI Task Force officers work on federal trafficking cases. So now, the department claims it has a total of 18 members in its gang unit. 

But this new way of counting officers was not pointed out to Dallas city council members in a March 27 presentation.

Mata said the five temporary senior corporals are a start.

“We need to take those temporary gang officers and make them full time gang officers," Mata said.

In the meantime, no one has been arrested in the shooting seven-year-old Adriana. Seven months after she was shot, the case remains under investigation.

Former gang member Lamont Levels said he regrets starting his former gang.

“I regret what I started big time because I see so many kids losing their lives,” Levels said.

Levels said he still has a lot of contacts from his old life and said gang members know police are running on empty.

“It's like you're handing them the streets," he said.