The Lethal Geography of Downtown Dallas

WIB front July 8, 2016 0

The scene of the Dallas shootings rendered in Google Street View. Photo via Google Ambush on Dallas police is a worst-case scenario by ROBERT BECKHUSEN...
The scene of the Dallas shootings rendered in Google Street View. Photo via Google

Ambush on Dallas police is a worst-case scenario


This article was originally published on the morning of June 8.

The shooting of 14 people during a protest march, 12 of them police officers, is without question a terrorist-style assault on the police force of one of America’s largest cities.

Five Dallas cops, including a Dallas Area Rapid Transit officer, died from a gunman who declared he acted alone and wanted to kill police officers, white people and white police officers, Dallas Police Chief David Brown said. The ambush follows shootings of black men by police officers in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis.

Police said one male gunman, Micah X. Johnson, died inside a downtown community college building after cops sent in a robot, which blew up an attached explosive device. A female suspect who allegedly fired at officers was arrested overnight.

Dallas Police said at least two gunmen had fired at them from a “triangulated … elevated position.”

There is mixed information about key details. For one, it’s not clear if there were one or two shooters — or more — or if any shooter was actually on elevated ground. Two men arrested while driving away from downtown were uninvolved in the shootings, as was a man photographed while carrying a rifle during the march.

However, if the gunman or gunmen acted as snipers, they would have exploited a particular vulnerability of downtown Dallas’ urban geography.

More than 50 years ago, ex-Marine and Marxist gunman Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated Pres. John F. Kennedy from a sniper’s perch — now Dallas’ most famous tourist attraction — at Dealey Plaza blocks from where Thursday’s gunmen unleashed his rampage.

This isn’t to force a comparison, but to stress that a sniper — if he was perched— would have been at an extreme advantage over anyone in the street. Dallas, like many so-called “Sunbelt cities,” has an urban area that is both built up and yet is relatively less dense than many other downtowns.

It’s also to note an aspect of America’s modern security culture that has resolutely failed. We can build subtle barriers against car bombs and stop terrorists from boarding airplanes, but we’ve done little to prevent people with high-powered rifles from striking down their fellow citizens.

Here is a digitally-altered photo from Google Earth showing the location of the attack:

The parking garage at center-left, which services the Bank of America tower and El Centro College, flanks the intersection where Dallas Police officers died. Dealey Plaza is in the far upper left corner. Photo via Google Earth

I have some familiarity with downtown Dallas as a native to the city. In actuality, this is a place designed for cars … and that means large parking garages, wide avenues for cars to travel through and plentiful surface lots.

It also means a sniper has plenty of places to enter and hide, while those on the ground have little cover. Multiple eyewitnesses indicated that shooting came from the tall, red parking garage at center-left.

Several officers were shot on Lamar Street, which runs from bottom-left to top-right in this image. In videos uploaded in the hours after the shooting, a gunman on the street was visible shooting an officer, at close range, who took cover behind a pillar below the eight-story white El Centro College building opposite the red parking garage.

We should be cautious. An urban battle is a terrifying and confusing experience. Intense gunfire in a built-up environment can disorient those in the streets as the sound reverberates. The source of the shooting — or how many shooters there were — are questions now subject to a police investigation, conflicting eyewitness accounts and grainy videos.

But there’s no doubt the ambush on July 7 is a traumatic event for the city and the victims’ families.

Snipers have a strong historical memory in Dallas — most of all among the police. Buildings loom here menacingly.

During a press conference overnight, Chief Brown spoke about Dallas Police officers and “seeing the courage, the professionalism, and just the grit to stay on scene in an area looking for suspects knowing that we are vulnerable — we don’t know where they are.”

“And our downtown is very large with a lot of high buildings.”

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