DALLAS — As Joseph Pintucci's 18th birthday approached, his aunt and legal guardian Andrea Haag spent dinners listening to the Highland Park High School graduate rattle through the list of cars for sale he’d flagged throughout the day. His maternal uncle Ben Harrington would chime in on whether each one was worth the money.
A few years after Pintucci learned how to drive, his adoptive parents finally had the financial means to buy him a vehicle, which was all he wanted for his birthday. Haag was worried — like she’d been when Pintucci first got behind the wheel — that the search would be a rough experience. But the process of finding Pintucci’s white 2002 Lincoln town car ended up bonding their family.
"Shockingly, we got along beautifully,” Haag said. “Teenagers are rarely described as patient and discerning or judicious — especially my teenager. But he absolutely was all those things through this project, and just a joy. You can imagine how grateful we are for that experience with Joey now."
Less than six months later, Pintucci was shot and killed in that sedan in the parking garage of Dallas shopping complex near the city’s NorthPark Center. The teenager was waiting to sell marijuana. But when the buyers — three male suspects — showed up, police said, they placed guns to the heads of Pintucci and others in the car and took the vape cartridges. Before running away, one of the suspects shot and killed Pintucci.
The suspects laughed as they headed for the garage exit, witnesses said.
Pintucci is one of at least 135 homicide victims in Dallas this year as the city is expected to reach its highest homicide rate in more than a decade. Meanwhile, other large Texas cities such as Houston, San Antonio and Corpus Christi are on pace for declines.
After Dallas experienced 40 killings in May — its highest monthly total since the 1990s — Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott directed the state’s Department of Public Safety to send state troopers to reduce violent crime in a city that has struggled for years with a massive shortage of police officers. Since the troopers' arrival, they've seized more than 70 guns, according to the Dallas Police Department. Violent crime — though still up compared with last year — has also dropped by nearly 30% in the areas of Dallas where they're deployed.
But some city officials now say the troopers are doing more harm than good as an "overwhelming" number of residents complain that they are over-policing neighborhoods; questioning people about their immigration status; and stopping people for soon-to-expire, but still valid, inspection stickers. Dallas City Council member Adam Bazaldua recently called for Dallas police to indefinitely pull state troopers from his district that covers parts of southern and eastern Dallas where residents are more likely to live in poverty and be people of color.
"Small, tangible results may be good in the now," Bazaldua said. "But when this initiative is over and DPS leaves our community, it's going to be our city's mess to clean up. We're going to be the ones fixing these wedges that have been created between the community and law enforcement."
Even before that tension boiled over into public view, people were already attributing the homicide spike to city officials’ and law enforcement’s historically lackluster engagement with such residents. But that’s not the only theory.
Others point to understaffing in the Dallas Police Department’s homicide unit.
Yet as conjecture about potential causes seems as endless as the homicides themselves and officials remain mum on their strategy for using state troopers to combat the violence, many agree that the partnership won't be a long-term solution.
While the pace of slayings has slowed since May, Dallas is still on pace to experience nearly 220 homicides this year. The city hasn’t reached that figure in any one year in more than a decade.
As local and state officials quarrel over the best strategy to stem that dramatic rise, consensus on the underlying explanations eludes one of America’s largest cities. Meanwhile, outside of public view, relatives of some of Dallas’ homicide victims are left in sorrow as their loved ones’ killers remain at large.
"The grief has been horrific. I mean, truly, truly horrific," Haag said. "This is not a club you ever want to be a part of — and you just feel terrible knowing more people will."
A lack of homicide detectives
While they've tried to go about life as usual over the past six months, Haag and Harrington said that under the facade, everything has changed.
After Pintucci's death, a Dallas detective visited to go over the case. Two of the suspects in the murder have not been found. The 23-year-old man who was caught and charged with capital murder has been out of jail on bond awaiting his trail, according to court records.
Both Haag and Harrington said they've felt supported by the detective. He's responded quickly to all of their calls and texts. While he doesn't often reach out first, Harrington said that's partially because he's "just incredibly busy." In one instance, the detective received a tip for a possible lead in the case but had to wait to follow up on it because of other work, Harrington said.
"I understand that you have to prioritize," Haag said, "but when you are waiting to pull the person off the streets who shot and killed your child, that's not what you want to hear. Someone who runs away laughing is going to do that again."
Local activists and some police union presidents say such tradeoffs stem from an overworked homicide unit. According to a 2018 report by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, homicide units are optimally staffed when each detective is the lead investigator on an average of three to four new homicide cases per year. Some Dallas homicide detectives would have shouldered that much in May alone, based on the numbers of new cases and officers in the unit. Still, the department is posting a higher homicide clearance rate for the year than the national average.
At the end of the month, Assistant Chief Avery Moore announced eight detectives were added to the department's homicide unit, bringing the total up from 14 to 22.
But Dallas has a 2019 homicide rate of more than 9.37 victims per 100,000 residents.
Houston police, on the other hand, have more than 80 detectives assigned to homicide. The year-to-date homicide rate there is about 6.24 victims per 100,000 residents. And other cities with homicide rates less than a quarter of Dallas’ have more than half the number of detectives.
"Working as many cases as these detectives are working puts a strain on everyone involved," said Mike Mata, president of the Dallas Police Association. "It's just impossible to manage everything."
That's something Latina Sanders said she's felt all too often over the past month and a half. Her child, 13-year-old Malik Tyler, was shot and killed in June after he was caught in crossfire in southeast Dallas. Malik, a seventh grade student, was an innocent bystander, according to police, who have since charged two suspects, one within 48 hours of the boy’s death.
But as the search for the second suspect progressed, Sanders and her boyfriend, Christopher White, said they felt left out of the process. After Malik was killed, Sanders said, she asked the detective on her son's case to keep her informed. If there was ever a fresh lead on another suspect — or even just more dead ends — she wanted to know.
"They're failing to do that," Sanders said. "I've been texting him, calling him, reaching out, and I haven't gotten anything. I just need to know they're working on the case because my son can't rest until everybody's caught — and neither can I."
Dallas police declined requests for interviews with the lead detectives assigned to her son's and Pintucci's cases. In a statement, Dallas police said there are certain aspects of investigations that can't be shared with a victim's family to prevent compromising a case. They acknowledged that can cause relatives to "feel a disconnect from the detectives."
When Sanders first spoke with police after Malik's death, she told them she didn't want her son, who loved dance-offs and video games, to become "another black boy swept up into a statistic." She fears that's happening.
"As time fades on, there's other issues happening in Dallas. It's something new everyday, so I understand how it can lose focus," Sanders said. "But this has made me feel like they have just completely forgotten about my son."
A deeper staffing problem
The Dallas Police Department employs about 3,000 officers, according to department records. That’s down from more than 3,500 a few years ago as failing pension plans and low pay in comparison to that of neighboring cities pushed many young patrol officers to leave for suburban departments.
Everyone, from City Council members and the mayor to the police chief and union presidents, agrees on one thing: Dallas needs more cops. The consensus ends over whether that need has contributed to the violent crime the city is experiencing. Some say while an issue like homicide obviously can't be boiled down to a single cause, violent criminals feel emboldened with fewer officers to deter them.
Dallas City Council member Adam McGough said as much at a June meeting of the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee that he chairs. He also pointed to Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot's decision to stop prosecuting some low-level crimes.
"Whether it's the fewer officers, whether it's cameras in different locations and not working, whether it's response times," McGough said, "there's a feeling that if somebody wants to commit a crime, they can get away with it."
Creuzot said in a statement that McGough's beliefs aren't based on facts and that there's no correlation between his office's reforms on low-level offenses and the city's murder rate.
Meanwhile, experts say there's little direct evidence that having more officers leads to fewer crimes.
"Police themselves can do very little about preventing homicides from occurring in the first place because homicides are very situational," said Alex Piquero, a criminology professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. "It can become less about the numbers than what you're doing with them."
Others also warn against placing blame on the police department when there's little that more bodies on the ground might be able to fix.
"We want to say all this stuff about police chief this, Dallas lost all these officers that, we're looking at the wrong things," said Terrance Hopkins, president of the Black Police Association of Greater Dallas. "We've never been able to be everywhere all the time."
But some officials said that creates a contradiction: If the department's understaffing isn't the problem, why would sending state troopers to Dallas and beefing up police numbers be the solution?
"When we have 40 murders in a month, the city comes out and says, 'Well, there's not a whole lot we can do about this because they were family violence related,'" Mata said. "Then the next month comes, there's about 20 murders and they want to extol how we went 12, 13 days without a murder. You can't have it both ways — and the fact is, what they've tried won't have lasting results."
This isn’t the first time Abbott has sent state troopers to help a city police department. In October 2017, when he directed troopers to assist San Antonio police to combat a wave of violent crime, the Alamo City's violent crime and homicide numbers went down within six to 12 months, said Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson.
For security reasons, city and state officials have remained tight lipped when it comes to details on how many troopers were deployed to Dallas, how long they'll be there or what strategies they're using to curb the city's violent crime. Spokespeople from Abbott's office, DPS and Dallas police declined multiple requests for additional details.
Bazaldua, Creuzot and Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price said they welcome the additional help, but the troopers don't understand the city well enough to adequately police it. At the start of the month, DPS announced state troopers had made 9,000-plus traffic stops and issued more than 12,000 warnings. That's an average of about 260 warnings per day, and troopers have made one arrest for every 22 stops — figures, the three officials say, that would likely be matched anywhere in Dallas with such wide-ranging efforts.
Instead, they say, these policing tactics have disproportionately affected residents of color and often haven't aligned with the goal of lowering violent crime. They've heard from residents, for example, who are too afraid of being pulled over to even travel to nearby businesses — and from shop owners who complain that has led traffic in their stores to plummet.
“Those same types of policing policies would not be tolerated in other portions of this city,” Creuzot said. “If you go up to North Dallas or Highland Park, put DPS there and have them stop, pull over all the sports cars and give them a ticket for not having a front license plate, you’re going to have some problems.”
DPS spokesperson Katherine Cesinger said in a statement that the agency "rejects" claims that state troopers are harassing residents.
Responding to the rise
As city officials explore solutions to Dallas' homicide uptick, they've floated around ideas such as creating a gun buyback program, strengthening conflict resolution initiatives and improving community relations. But when asked whether enough has been done to curb the city's violent crime, longtime Dallas resident Eric Adejuwon had two words: "absolutely not."
The issue's personal for him. Over the past few years, he's run a mentorship program for high school boys. One of his mentees, 17-year-old college football signee Leroy Hawkins, was killed in June in downtown Dallas. Just six days after he celebrated his graduation from Desoto High School — and less than 24 hours after Malik Tyler's shooting — Hawkins was found shot to death in his car.
"It's hard not to be numb," Adejuwon said. "When you see all of these black people being maimed, shot, assaulted — it becomes a nightmare that translates into reality."
Black residents represent the third-largest racial demographic in Dallas, or about 24% of the population, according to the most recent estimates. Yet more than half of all Dallas homicide victims since 2014 have been black, department data shows.
As homicides rose this year, they followed that trend. Advocates have pushed for the department and the city's black residents to forge stronger relationships to start changing the situation. Adejuwon worries it still isn't a priority for officials.
"This murder spike should only be pushing the envelope for them to have better engagement with the community so this can stop — and that has not happened," Adejuwon said. "When you want to create a better relationship with this community that you serve, you have to be able to make a connection with those people. When you're isolating yourself or only showing your face on Fourth of July events, you're not going to see any change."
City Council member Carolyn King Arnold, who represents District 4, a southern Dallas area where most residents are black — and where the most homicides this year have occurred — did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.
Aside from Abbott's deployment of state troopers, Dallas police established a summer crime initiative to place more cops in eight "hot spot" areas for high crime and intensified operations through Project Safe Neighborhoods, a nationwide program bringing in federal law enforcement agencies' resources to help cities. The department has also tried to deter crime by increasing its presence in three locations identified for potential violent incidents and brainstormed new methods of community engagement, among other measures.
A smaller, still vocal group of community members — among them Bazaldua, the District 7 council member whose constituents have seen the second-highest number of homicides this year — has warned that those steps miss another layer and a simpler answer to what Dallas has experienced this year: the correlation of high concentrations of violent crime with high concentrations of poverty. Over 280,000 people in Dallas live in poverty, according to the most recent estimates, and that figure's grown more than five times faster than the city's population rise.
Experts say income inequality predicts homicide rates better than any other variable. And Dallas is one of the 10 most unequal U.S. cities among those with populations greater than 250,000, according to measurements of income distribution.
"It's indicative of a long history of our city allowing the southern sector specifically to continue to concentrate poverty populations," Bazaldua said. "We're not going to be able to address this head-on until we pay more attention to that."
Although they make up roughly 68% of the city's population, black and Hispanic residents comprise about 83% of those living in poverty. And it's those intersections of race, ethnicity and poverty that Bazaldua argues deserve a brighter spotlight.
"We need more of those loud voices that are pointing fingers to come to the table and put their heads together to figure out what is going to be the best way forward," Bazaldua said. "No matter what side of this issue you're on, we all want a safer, better Dallas. We're going to have to be able to actually start working together if we want to find that solution."
Finding a way forward
Since taking office as mayor in June, Johnson has avoided playing into narratives that Dallas is facing a crisis. He doesn't believe the murder count represents a spike and doesn't believe it'll become one. Coming at the issue with a set of fresh eyes, Johnson's advocated for a layered approach to tackling the uptick, one encompassing many of the problems others have underscored in isolation.
The issue might be a matter of the department's staffing numbers, Johnson said, but it doesn't just land on one factor. It's also about retaining officers, marshaling other personnel more efficiently, looping in other sectors of government to help — the list goes on.
"This is a challenge that cities face from time to time and, in fact, that this city has faced before," Johnson said. "But we are going to meet that challenge."
When pressed for specifics, Johnson deferred to the city manager’s office, which pointed toward the department's ongoing crime initiatives. As Dallas takes on that challenge, some people who've already been affected are trying to move on with their lives as they await further arrests in their loved ones’ slayings.
Pintucci's four-door sedan is still taken out on the road and retains its parking spot one block down the street from Haag and Harrington's home. But they're now the ones behind the steering wheel. Sometimes, they cruise through their neighborhood in the sedan, Haag said, bringing them back to a time before they received the phone call saying their son had been shot.
Malik’s mom and her boyfriend plan to soon move to Fort Worth. Sanders and White had already weighed leaving their Dallas apartment complex prior to Malik's death, but they’ve since sped up the process.
Malik’s four siblings struggle with reminders of their 13-year-old brother’s shooting while they live close to the area where he died.
Neither family has a concrete answer for why this year has seen a rise in homicides, but both believe there's more that could be done in the meantime— from offering additional resources for grief counseling to families to establishing better liaisons to provide them updates and information. As the two-month mark since Malik's death passes, Sanders said she still feels emotionally numb. She hopes that over time, that'll go away. White isn't sure it will.
"I don't know how to fix this, but there has to be a way — because there's no way you can prepare yourself for this. All I could tell anyone is be prayed up, try and stay close to the people who love you," White said, "and maybe you'll have enough strength to go through it."