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Dallas code officers have been robbed, beaten and dodged bullets — and may soon wear body cams

A patch on a navy blue jacket reads Department of Code Compliance Code Inspector, City of Dallas.
Keren I. Carrión
The city of Dallas is thinking about equipping code compliance officers with body cameras as it considers a spending plan for the next fiscal year.

The Dallas city manager’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year includes $440,000 to buy 297 body cameras for code compliance and consumer health field staff. Code officers have been robbed, beaten and even have dodged bullets.

One Dallas code officer was robbed at gunpoint, his wallet and cell phone stolen.

Another was nearly struck by a bullet fired during a fight between two residents while tagging a nearby vacant property.

And a few months ago, a code officer was attacked by a bystander while issuing a citation to a resident.

Dallas’ Code Compliance Department enforces city environmental and safety codes, addresses neighborhood nuisances like illegal dumping, and checks local restaurants for unhealthy practices.

Delivering notices that a homeowner or business or business is violating city codes — and telling them they’ll have to pay to fix the problem — can be met with aggression, said Carl Simpson, the assistant city manager who oversees the division.

“We say we’re providing customer service, but not everyone sees what we do as a service,” said Carl Simpson.

That’s why the city manager’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year includes $440,000 to buy 297 body cameras for code compliance and consumer health field staff.

Simpson said the cameras will help increase accountability. They’ll be useful as training tools. And they’ll improve safety for these city employees.

“They don’t carry sidearms, they can’t take you to jail. And yet, they’re asked to come to your home or your business and ask you to do (or not do) something that you may not want to do,” he said.

Dallas Animal Services, a department Simpson also oversees, is in a similar position, and the city recently issued body cameras for its field staff. Dallas police have been wearing body cameras since 2015.

The city manager’s proposal increases the code compliance department budget from $34.8 million to $40.4 million. It adds $2 million to field two more teams focused on illegal dumping and includes funding to respond to blighted apartments as part of the city’s crime-reduction strategy.

The Dallas City Council is currently holding budget town halls to gather resident input and will finalize the city spending plan for the next fiscal year by the end of September.

Earlier this year, KERA News reported on the daunting task of keeping up with inspections across the sprawling city. With a roughly 13% vacancy rate, Simpson said the biggest challenges facing the code department are officer turnover and recruitment, and that a continued focus on code officers’ safety will help.

Keeping officers safe

Simpson said he hopes the body cameras will be a deterrent, “because if people know they are being recorded, then maybe they’ll be less apt to carry out these acts of violence.”

It’s difficult to calculate how much more dangerous the job of code officers has become. The city doesn’t have a centralized system for tracking complaints about code compliance officers or threats and attacks on officers in the field.

National statistics are also hard to come by. The Code Enforcement Officer Safety Foundation has tried to capture some statistics about threats, attacks and deaths on the job, but their statistics are largely incomplete. In Texas, code officers have come under attack in Fort Worth and Austin as well.

Simpson said it certainly seems more dangerous than when worked as a code enforcement officer in San Jose in the 1990s.

“The [body-worn] camera piece is just one piece of the many things that we’ve tried to do since I’ve been here,” Simpson said. “The safety of your team is critical. That’s the most important thing.”

Adding protection

When he came to Dallas from Sacramento in 2019 to run the code compliance department, Simpson was surprised by the relative lack of protections for field staff. Unlike California, Simpson said Texas’ training for code compliance officers largely leaves out self-defense, de-escalation, and situational awareness techniques that can prevent officers from getting stuck in a dangerous situation.

Since Simpson’s arrival, the city started issuing bulletproof vests and pepper spray to field officers. And it has purchased radios that allow code officers to call directly into police channels. Simpson also instituted trainings in officer safety.

“The number one thing is de-escalation techniques: How you approach folks, how you talk to folks and how you deal with the public in a manner that is non-adversarial,” he said. “The interpersonal skills just have to be on point.”

Body cams help out code officers when de-escalation doesn’t work.

“When we're trying to get justice and we take that [body-camera] video to the district attorney or the court system, I think we're in much better of a position to really analyze what happened,” Simpson said.

Accountability and training

Beyond keeping the city’s employees safe, Simpson thinks body cameras will improve the quality of service for residents.

The city often gets complaints that code officers were rude or disrespectful, Simpson said. Without body cameras, there often isn’t any way to know what actually happened.

“It'll be helpful to us if we determine that our code officer just had a bad day and maybe we need to have a discussion with him or her, or maybe the resident is just not feeling good because they're being given a direction that they don't want to adhere to,” Simpson said.

Simpson sees potential for using video collected on body cameras as training tools.

“We can use these videos potentially later on to say, ‘This is okay customer service, but this is excellent customer service,’” he said. “We can use technology, I think, to be better at what we do and also be safer at what we do.”

Got a tip? Christopher Connelly is KERA's One Crisis Away Reporter, exploring life on the financial edge. Email Christopher You can follow Christopher on Twitter @hithisischris.

KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, considermaking a tax-deductible gifttoday. Thank you.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.