Unmistakable pop-pop-pops rang out around 3:30 a.m. this summer moments after Phil Jahnke left a pizza joint in Deep Ellum.
The 33-year-old tour manager ran to his bus, but not fast enough. He collapsed on Elm Street, a “giant hole” in his leg oozing blood.
“My body has never gone through that kind of shock before,” said Jahnke, who was on tour with the artist he manages, Essenger. “I go, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve been shot.’”
Dallas’ premiere entertainment district outside downtown is home to more than 3,000 residents and draws thousands every weekend to its shops, bars and restaurants. But safety concerns scared off some artists, visitors and event hosts, leading business owners, community groups and residents to say misperceptions about the amount of violence in Deep Ellum have hurt the neighborhood.
Despite increased fears, violence is down across the city’s main nightlife areas, according to police data comparing crime in 2022 with this time last year. In the Central Division, which includes Fair Park, Deep Ellum, downtown, Uptown and Lower Greenville, overall violent crime is down about 4.3% for a total of 837 offenses, 38 fewer compared with 2021, according to police. The city has recorded an uptick this year in murders citywide and in the area that includes the entertainment districts. Deep Ellum has had at least four slayings; by this point last year, the area had recorded three, according to data kept by The Dallas Morning News.
The violence led the Dallas Police Department to create a new police unit focused on Deep Ellum as community leaders double down on public safety in the city’s main nightlife corridor, which stretches from Good Latimer Expressway to Exposition Avenue. The unit should begin its work in late October.
“Deep Ellum has been challenging … but you know what? We’re not gonna throw our hands up in the air,” Dallas police Chief Eddie García said. “We’re gonna keep working hard to make it as safe and vibrant as we possibly can for those businesses, for everything they do to our city.”
Crime in Deep Ellum attracts widespread attention because of the area’s popularity. But it accounts for only a small percentage of the city’s overall violence, García said. Even so, the chief said there’s “no question” they’ve had difficulties.
After the Aug. 28 shooting, Jahnke crawled to a parking lot and called police, who he said responded within about two minutes. Off-duty officers saw two suspects running and detained one, but that person was later released, Dallas police said. No arrests have been made.
In the weeks since, Jahnke said his friends from Dallas share the same sentiment: “‘This is the reason why we don’t go to Deep Ellum anymore.’”
Jahnke said he’s lucky to come away with only a broken fibula, but he’s frustrated. He’s in a walking cast and uses crutches, so others help him with routine tasks. He hasn’t heard any updates on his case, he added, and he’s now in $20,000 debt from his 30 hours in the hospital.
“I haven’t been able to sit down and mentally process the fact that I was involved in gun violence, and I could have possibly died,” he said.
A GoFundMe raised more than $15,000, but Jahnke’s still realizing the emotional toll. He also worries about his tourmates, which include the British band Monuments.
“Somebody in their tour party just got shot in the leg in Dallas, Texas — like what could be more American than that?” Jahnke said. “That’s traumatic as hell.”
On weekend nights in Deep Ellum, pedestrians flock to bars and nightclubs lining Elm, Main and Commerce streets. Officers patrol every block on foot and horseback, as well as from squad cars. Cars circle the neighborhood, unable to enter because of police barricades erected to prevent crime.
Partygoers wait in short lines outside businesses as popular hit songs and live music reverberate down the streets. One recent Saturday, a police sergeant confiscated a bottle of alcohol from two men and poured it on a patch of dirt. Other officers offered directions or checked on people in parked cars.
The most common problems in the district any given night include street racing, drunken driving and open containers, police have said. The district has been an entertainment hub for decades and is frequently dubbed the live music capital of North Texas. The area has a deep history in jazz and blues culture; community leaders say musicians such as T-Bone Walker, Henry Qualls and Willard Robison made the neighborhood famous.
Kelly Saunders, who has lived in Deep Ellum for more than 10 years and hosts an outdoor market there every weekend, said the area is always active, but has “an amazing daytime crowd.” She said the neighborhood has a small-town feel and “everybody watches out for each other.”
She said weekends can get rowdy, so she stays inside after 10 p.m. She said she moved to Deep Ellum because of its liveliness, and even though the district gets “a bad rep,” she’s always felt safe.
“Everybody’s like, ‘Oh, Deep Ellum’s so unsafe ‘cause I’ve seen one murder on the news,” Saunders, 39, said. “I can walk up and down the street and not feel unsafe. I mean, I feel confident going shopping, drinking or anything else any time.’”
The drop in violence in the city’s entertainment districts reflects a citywide trend. At the end of September, violent crime was down in Dallas about 4.1%, for a total of 8,449 offenses, a drop of 365 crimes compared with 2021. Violent crime dropped over the summer, opposite from what police typically see in Dallas and elsewhere.
Police and city officials buckled down on public safety throughout Dallas this summer after a spate of violence, including an uptick in murders and two mass shootings in the spring. Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson launched a “summer of safety” plan to provide free and low-cost opportunities for young people to keep them from violence. García said police are “putting resources where we feel they need to be.”
Murders citywide were up about 18% in mid-June over the previous year. Through Tuesday, they’re up about 8.2%. Police have tallied 172 murders, up 13 from the same point last year. Robberies are up 2.6% through Tuesday while aggravated assaults are down 3.5%.
Murders in the Central Division are also up more than 25%, jumping from 15 to 19. Deep Ellum had at least four homicides this year. They include the killings of Jermaine Lewis and Quintin Lowe, who shot each other May 13 after police say Lowe recognized Lewis as someone who’d tried to rob him; the fatal shooting of Ricky Burns on Aug. 21 after an argument; and the Sept. 3 slaying of Aareon Johnson, who was gunned down near Commerce Street.
The chief said the new unit should help. “With the resources that we’re putting in that area, we’re doing everything we can to ensure it’s safe.”
Deep Ellum has one “hot spot” — a 330-by-330-foot grid where the department boosted its presence as part of the chief’s violent crime plan. Police blocked off Deep Ellum streets earlier this year on Easter weekend instead of Memorial Day weekend.
García said 21 officers and two supervisors are currently assigned to the area, along with two lieutenants who oversee operations and three to five officers on horseback. Police also offer overtime for officers who opt to work there during the weekends.
The new Deep Ellum unit includes an additional supervisor and seven officers who work Thursday to Sunday, the chief said. The storefront unit will engage with businesses, work nights and help with lower-level crimes.
While on patrol, officers target open spaces where people tend to loiter, such as parking lots, to disperse gatherings. City officials and neighborhood groups also hope to boost lighting in darker areas.
The chief said Deep Ellum strategies need to include more than just boosted patrols — it’ll require a concerted effort by police, the community and city agencies. He said the neighborhood has seen incidents where an officer was only blocks away and “got there in seconds.”
Many public safety strategies in Deep Ellum this year were based on a community safety plan made in partnership between police, city officials, the Deep Ellum Foundation and the Deep Ellum Community Association after months of feedback from residents and stakeholders.
The plan called for ramped-up safety measures earlier in the year; a dedicated police force; partnerships with city departments for parking violations and to help people experiencing homelessness; a central neighborhood command; more lighting; and fewer late-night youth gatherings.
Stephanie Keller Hudiburg, the group’s executive director, said starting security measures earlier made a big difference. She said addressing quality-of-life concerns and smaller widespread issues — such as public intoxication — can prevent larger ones from happening.
She said the number of people living in Deep Ellum has grown exponentially in recent years. Between 2018 to 2020, the neighborhood grew from about 1,600 residents to more than 3,000. She expects another thousand residents by 2025.
While there’s more progress to be made, she said, the new police unit is a “huge step forward” because the officers can invest in the community and build institutional knowledge.
She said she’s heard both frustration and hope from business owners, with some thrilled about the increased police presence but others still struggling with debt and customers afraid to come to Deep Ellum after seeing high-profile crimes in the news.
The Deep Ellum Foundation also boosted lighting and cameras. The group now operates more than 35 cameras to which police have access. There are “hundreds” of additional cameras owned by police directly or businesses.
Saunders, the Deep Ellum resident, said the changes have already made an impact. If someone feels unsafe, there are resources readily available, including someone to walk people to their cars, if needed.
“The lighting is a huge improvement,” she said. “I can walk down Crowdus Street in the middle of the night and read a book, it’s so bright.”
Allen Falkner, who owns The Nines, a nightclub on Main Street, said crime in Deep Ellum has ebbed and flowed for decades. The perception of increased violence keeps visitors away and he said a hike in parking costs hasn’t helped. The weekend night street closures that allow only pedestrian traffic are terrible for business, he said.
“When you’ve got large congregations of people and alcohol and money, you’re always going to have problems,” said Falkner, a Deep Ellum Community Association board member. “I don’t feel like it’s really that much different [from the past], but again, the public perception has changed.”
He said he has hope, noting that daytime commerce is thriving in Deep Ellum. He said stakeholders are “learning on the fly” about how to address public safety.
“Hopefully, lessons learned from this summer will be carried over into next spring, summer or fall, and we will see an even safer Deep Ellum,” he said.
‘Take Deep Ellum back’
About a year ago, after a shooting killed two teenagers and injured four others near the intersection of North Malcolm X Boulevard and Main Street, the chief vowed to “take Deep Ellum back.” García echoes a similar sentiment now but adds it will take police, city officials and the community together to address violence.
“We want our entertainment districts to be enjoyable, fun — but safe,” he said. “That’s what I want as a chief, that’s what we want in the city of Dallas.”
Jahnke, who lives in Nashville, doesn’t plan to stay away from Deep Ellum — which he loves for its “great nightlife” and “super friendly” people. He’s still trying to come to terms with how a fun night turned into a life-or-death situation in the span of seconds.
“The one thing that I can’t scrap from my brain is the fact that I was walking down the street, eating pizza, and now I owe this hospital $20,000,” Jahnke said. “I still love the city to death. It’s just one of those freak accidents where it’s just wrong place, wrong time.”