About 10,000 people fill Fort Worth’s West 7th bar district on a cool October Saturday evening. Despite the constant stream of people on the streets and sidewalks, the 14 officers patrolling the area say this is among the slowest Saturdays they’ve seen in months.
For these officers, a slow night is confiscating one hand gun, a DUI arrest and constant patrolling and vigilance in the 12 city blocks that make up West 7th, an area the officers call “the box.”
“We’re out here investigating and making our presence known,” Sgt. Jeff Cunningham, who oversees and supports the West 7th officers, said. “We’d like to try to get ahead of any kind of problems.”
In the past year, the police have seized about 108 guns and recovered 19 stolen vehicles through patrolling early in the night.
Following the shooting death of TCU junior Wes Smith, the city of Fort Worth and Mayor Mattie Parker announced a six-point plan to address safety in West 7th. Elsewhere around the country, entertainment districts also pose a challenge to city and law enforcement officials and their experiences could offer a guide for Fort Worth’s future action.
Much of the work of officers in West 7th is focused on finding guns and drugs that could cause altercations to escalate and become deadly, Cunningham said. If the West 7th unit had 25 officers, they could use them all, but more police resources doesn’t address root problems: a problematic environment, including many bars that create opportunities for people to be victimized.
“You have problems when you mix alcohol and a large group of people,” said Kyle Burgason, a researcher at Iowa State University studying criminal justice. “How your environment is set up can deter criminality.”
Hour by hour in West 7th
9 p.m. Sgt. Jeff Cunningham heads out to his first call of the night in “the box.” He was promoted in May to oversee the handful of officers assigned to working and patrolling West 7th. In the Fort Worth Police Department’s dedicated substation near the West 7th bar district, officers mark on a white board how many guns and drugs they seize. The priority is getting these things out of potential perpetrators’ hands before the night gets too late.
There are two calls Cunningham is asked to assist with — one is a traffic stop and the other is a man who refused to sign a ticket. After a lengthy discussion, the man signed the ticket and continued on to West 7th.
10 p.m. Cunningham encourages his officers to eat before the night gets too late and foot traffic picks up. Tonight, he chooses Fuzzy’s Taco Shop near TCU. Before he can get there he comes across a young man passed out in front of a bar. He helps another officer call a friend to give the man a ride home.
By the time Cunningham heads back to the West 7th area, the roads are nearly impassable and pedestrians fill the streets.
11 p.m. Another traffic stop. An officer peels away to investigate a red Camaro that officers suspect might contain drugs or a gun. The other officers start to make their way to the areas where they plan to be stationed for the rest of the night. At this point, it will be faster to get to any calls on foot as traffic increases.
Midnight. Police shut down several of the roads. Now there is essentially only one way in and out, making it easier to pursue people who are breaking the law. Cunningham walks around the bar district observing the bar-goers and nodding at the several off-duty police officers working at the entrances of bars. Several of the parking lots and side streets lack illuminating street lights.
1 a.m. In the last hour before bars close, a young girl and her friend ask for help calling an Uber. Rideshare services often clog up the one road leading in and out of the district. Pedestrians going to their last bar often cross outside of the designated crosswalk.
2 a.m. The bars let out and the roads open. It takes about an hour for the area to fully clear out as people loiter in parking lots and street corners. A street sweeper makes its way through the streets, encouraging people to leave.
Suddenly, a white truck passes by the officers driving quickly in the wrong direction. Officers stop the truck and take the driver to jail on suspicion of a DUI. They let the rest of the vehicle’s passengers leave with citations.
3 a.m. Officers head back to the West 7th substation to finish paperwork before heading home.
Along with the officers patrolling West 7th on weekends, several of the bars employ off-duty police officers and private security. The police have other resources at their disposal already: a ban on open containers outside bars and 13 cameras continuously monitored by officers in the Real Time Crime Center.
Parker and assistant city manager Fernando Costa hope to expand those resources through a series of policy changes in partnership with business owners and the Fort Worth Police Department, including more lighting and bollards to close roads.
“Everything is quite encouraging,” Costa said.
If these investments deter crime in the West 7th area, the city should be mindful of it popping up elsewhere. The Fort Worth Police Department should be able to analyze its data to determine if changes in West 7th are negatively impacting other parts of the city, said Grant Drawve, a researcher at CAP Index studying risk assessment.
West 7th is one of four major entertainment districts in Fort Worth; the Stockyards, Magnolia Avenue and downtown also have higher concentrations of bars compared with the rest of the city.
How does West 7th compare to other entertainment districts?
Since 2010, the West 7th ZIP code, 76107, received about 17% of all new alcohol permits issued in Fort Worth, the Report previously found. Magnolia Avenue and the 76104 ZIP code made up only 10.5% of all alcohol permits issued between 2010 and 2022. Downtown alcohol permits were about 7%, according to previous reporting.
Despite having a higher concentration of new alcohol permits, crime data from the four areas look similar, with downtown standing out. Over the past six months, downtown reported the most crime within a half mile of Main Street with 583 incidents. Of those, 116 were either simple or aggravated assaults.
The Stockyards saw the second most reported crimes with 249 incidents and 55 assaults. West 7th saw 227 reported crimes. Of those, 63 were simple or aggravated assaults and one was the homicide of Wes Smith. The Near Southside/Magnolia Avenue area had the fewest reported incidents, 173 with 43 assaults.
The Deep Ellum neighborhood in Dallas has been fighting off its public reputation for violent crime since the 1990s. Its entertainment district is larger and saw more crime in the last six months than West 7th. Crime is more prevalent there per capita compared with West 7th, data shows. However, crime decreased there in 2022.
The area has its own foundation dedicated to investing in safety and amenities in Deep Ellum.
“I think safety is kind of like breathing. A lot of us take it for granted,” said Stephanie Hudiburg, executive director of the Deep Ellum Foundation.
The foundation published a community safety plan in 2022 to evaluate the community’s priorities and make recommendations for improvements. The plan called for a dedicated police unit and command center.
The public improvement district also has allowed the foundation to establish a designated drop-off and pick-up zone for rideshare apps. West 7th could benefit from a designated area, Cunningham said. Now, rideshare vehicles often clog up the one way roads leading into and out of the area.
Preserving safety in a bustling entertainment district such as Deep Ellum takes constant effort, Hudiburg said.
“It has taken us years to get to the point that we are at, and we continue to see others trying to follow suit and look at what we’re doing,” Hudiburg said.
Parker pushes six new programs
Following Smith’s death, Parker understood that paying more officers to patrol the West 7th area likely wouldn’t solve the problem. Instead, she directed assistant city manager Costa to work on changes to city policy supporting the work of officers.
“Putting more officers (there) wasn’t the answer,” Parker said. “But some of these other big changes and efforts I do think will supplement the important work that the Fort Worth Police Department is doing to really create a safe environment.”
The city changed its zoning ordinance to prevent new, large venues from popping up and give council members a method to prevent noncompliant bar owners from opening up new businesses.
Meanwhile, the city convened a steering committee that is working to establish several new programs as early as next year aimed at improving coordination and communication between officers, residents and business owners.
Perhaps the most complex task is establishing a public improvement district, which would capture additional tax revenue to reinvest in the area. The district would then likely pay for an ambassador program, which has found success in Fort Worth’s downtown.
A majority of business owners in the area must support the public improvement district before it can move forward. Moody Younger, a co-managing partner at the firm that owns Crockett Row in West 7th, recently agreed to champion creating the district, Costa said.
The steering committee will also lead the search for a consultant to study the “safety and vitality” of the city’s four entertainment districts before making recommendations for improvements. The steering committee will interview two firms for the task — the Responsible Hospitality Institute and Safe Night LLC — in December.
When are crimes typically committed in West 7th
Improving safety through environmental design of an area has been effective elsewhere, Drawve said. Cities can reduce the risk of crime through both beautification and making it harder to commit crimes with increased lighting, more police and shorter bar operating hours.
“At some point, you have to change the normative behavior that’s allowed in that area, change what’s going on, get more people involved,” Drawve said. “It’s just not only the police responsibility, but the community at large to make change.”
In Little Rock, Arkansas, city officials leveraged authority over bar’s liquor licenses to mandate earlier closing times, more security, exterior lights and video surveillance. So far, Parker is confident that a majority of business owners will comply with city leaders’ requests voluntarily.
The West 7th Bar and Restaurant Association supports Parker’s plans, said Chas Taipale, president of the association. There are some bar owners in West 7th who have declined to work on planning with the city, he said.
“We’re not afraid to pay, but there’s some people that don’t want to pay,” Taipale said. “So we’re having meetings, we’re going to try to show them, ‘Hey, here’s the value in this.’”
Parker is focused on working with the businesses that are engaged, she said. The city plans to offer a voluntary training program for bar staff and increased code inspections of bars during peak hours to monitor capacity.
“Their ROI is obvious,” Parker said. If you’re keeping people safe, people have a fun time there and you’re cooperating, you’re going to have a full bar. If you’re not, that reputation is going to get out there and I hope that we can avoid that happening.”
The city is hoping to strike a balance, Parker said, between maintaining the fun atmosphere of West 7th and the safety of patrons. She hopes to strike that balance with targeted policies. Meanwhile, Cunningham is also focused on balancing enforcement in West 7th, he said. For him, it’s a question of making enough arrests to keep people safe while keeping enough officers on the street to respond to any violent conflicts.
There were no violent incidents tonight, and the mood on the streets is happy. If anyone is out looking for a fight, they don’t start one. The area will slow down after Sunday’s football games, Cunningham said but ramp back up by Thursday when the bars offer college drink deals.
“Then we’re right back at the weekend,” Cunningham said.
At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here. Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter.