Special Reports

A visionary cop, an ex-gang leader and school counselors want to save Las Vegas Trail

Abdul Chappell is a 43-year-old black man, a convicted felon and former gang leader on the city’s west side. He spent stints totaling 21 years behind bars.

Lt. Kirk Driver is a half-dozen years older, a white cop who joined the Fort Worth Police Department out of the military. He spent 25 years patrolling the city’s east side.

Yet today, these two men of radically dissimilar backgrounds and experiences are conjoined by their parallel undertakings on Las Vegas Trail. Using different methods, the objective is the same: provide avenues to lift residents of Las Vegas Trail from the generational poverty, drug addiction, violence, broken families and shortcomings in education and job training that persist.

“Mostly people are just trying to survive,” Chappell said. “I believe there are more people addicted and feeling shut out. People want what every American wants, but they don’t see a path to it.”

According to statistics compiled by Fort Worth police for the Star-Telegram, the Las Vegas Trail area, just a sliver of the 76116 ZIP code, registered some of the highest number of arrests for drug possession, prostitution and crimes against children in Fort Worth.

Some 1,400 children attend the side-by-side Western Hills Primary (pre-K through first grade) and Elementary (second grade through fifth grade) schools. Fort Worth school district statistics show more than 83 percent of the students are categorized as “economically disadvantaged.”

Raised amid violence, drugs, crime and too often parental indifference, the children of Las Vegas Trail fall into a high-risk category for abuse and neglect — a pattern that threatens a continuation of the cycle for another generation.

While hope for a better life on “The Trail” can be hard to find, there are those who work to keep the flame burning, like Chappell and Driver; like former drug addict Tasandra Simpson and former prostitute Amanda Guisto; like Western Hills Elementary School counselor Kristen Bruno and the police officers tasked with keeping the peace morning, noon and night.

The cop

Imposing in size, but naturally affable, Driver carries in his wallet a folded sheet of paper. He unfolds it to reveal a document with a title that reads: “Sir Robert Peel’s Principles of Law Enforcement, 1829.”

Peel founded the first professional police force in Britain, and Driver finds many of his principles intriguing because they seem at odds with modern-day policing in America. Driver notes one in particular as the “big one.” It reads: “The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.”

Driver explained: “When I came on, it was how many tickets did you write and how many arrests did you make today? But the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime, not tickets and arrests — the absence of crime.”

On Las Vegas Trail, crime is ever-present and police cruisers are a constant reminder of it. Arrests are high. Those realities clashed with Peel’s principals and forced Driver to re-evaluate his own beliefs. He pondered what might result if police also served as a liaison between residents and social service agencies, essentially delivering social services to the doorstep of those most in need.

Driver developed the “Leveraging Project,” and easily sold the concept to his superiors. They chose Las Vegas Trail as his charter community.

Phase One is nearing launch. It involves dispatching foot soldiers door-to-door, offering participation in a survey to any resident willing to listen.

“Do you or your family have health insurance? In the past year have you had a medical need that required insurance or that you weren’t able to cover because you didn’t have insurance? If that’s the case, we get them plugged into JPS Connections,” Driver said. “Does any of your family have an MHMR-related issue? Any of your family members living with you have a substance abuse question? Are they being addressed? Has any of your family gone hungry for more than a week? That’s Tarrant Area Food Bank, they’re on board.”

Agencies throughout Fort Worth have eagerly hopped aboard Driver’s program.

“Right now, all of those services require you, the individual, to, first of all, know that you need it, and then know how to go get it,” Driver said. “Can we, if we work together, stabilize a community with an application of the crime prevention tools in my toolbox, and can we stabilize those families with a tailored application of social education and economic services for them? And can we help them get jobs and job training? If we can do that, then I think that will lower crime.”

The former gang member

Chappell knows incarceration. Prison is where he began his self-reinvention, writing nine books, two of which are available on Amazon.

Since his 2014 release, Chappell has become a fixture for good on Las Vegas Trail, lending residents a hand, an ear, a shoulder, or trying to figure out what the heck is going on — like after a wild spate of shootings a couple Sundays ago.

Despite his lengthy time away, Chappell remains a respected figure on the west side. The founder of the Fort Worth chapter of the Los Angeles-based Crips gang in the 1980s, these days he has traded his blue bandana and baggie jeans for eyeglasses and khakis as the head of the Fort Worth branch of Urban Specialists, an organization started in Dallas by the Rev. Omar Jahwar and former Dallas gang member Antong Lucky, which strives to find sustainable solutions to so many dire, and seemingly overlooked, problems in depressed communities.

“Where we came from, if you made it to 17 years old that was something,” said Chappell, who coined “Murda Worth” back in the early 1990s when Fort Worth gang shootings routinely topped the 10 o’clock news. “It’s a hell of a thing to be raised in a war zone, and that’s basically what you have here. This is a desolate island. There’s nothing out here. Nobody pays attention unless it’s some kind of politically correct thing and everybody’s running and jumping in front of everything. But when the cameras are gone, so is the help and it’s back to us.

“That’s why we’re out here saying we have to look at ourselves. This is obligatory to us.”

Urban Specialists leases office space in a strip center on Camp Bowie Boulevard around the corner from Las Vegas Trail. Just down the road, Chappell is eying a 7,400-square-foot property to refurbish into a multipurpose community center, an asset the neighborhood lacks and sorely needs. He envisions offering kids and teenagers after-school recreation, plus a slew of empowerment programs geared toward adults, including a planned vocational trade school.

“There must be new approaches to the issues of poverty, disenfranchisement and lack of resources,” Chappell said. “We don’t want handouts. We need investors, partnerships. The people need to be trained in new technology, vocational trades where they can be taught to be self-sufficient. The people closest to the problem are closest to the solution.”

Chappell has teamed with Arlington attorney and minister Lonnie Woods, who specializes in firming up infrastructure for start-up businesses and nonprofits. Woods said he plans to solicit church ministries and government officials for contributions for the community center project. The building lease alone is $7,400 a month.

“Something like that would be great out there,” said Fort Worth police officer Sergio Martinez, who patrols the streets east of Las Vegas Trail. “The area really has nothing to do. Kids are going to get bored and when you have too much time on your hands, it leads to something negative.”

Arrests in 76116 ZIP code

The 76116 ZIP code includes the Las Vegas Trail neighborhood. Click on the shaded areas for more details.

Chappell spends a lot of time at the Serrano Ranch apartments on Calmont Avenue. The apartment complex allows Chappell to utilize its clubhouse. He’s organized after-school activities, such as a twice-a-week art class taught by west-side native Chelsea Collins, complete with sandwiches, drinks and healthy snacks.

The art room doubles as a coat closet where residents can pick through racks of clothing.

He’s also organized a small army of activists, mostly people who grew up on Las Vegas Trail or the west side and now have their own children growing up there. People like Tasandra Simpson, 39, who has three boys ages 6 to 20 and a 5-month-old granddaughter. She spent 13 years of her life chasing her next high. Now she empowers girls and young women to work hard in school and teaches them how to avoid opportunistic men who prey on the vulnerable and naive.

Chappell has organized support groups, such as one every Thursday led by Amanda Guisto, 37, who grew up on Las Vegas Trail and entered a life of prostitution at age 11.

“We have a lot of work to do, but I’m excited about it,” Chappell said. “I think the west side is going to be somewhat of a beacon.”

The school counselors

Kristen Bruno is finishing her third year as a counselor at Western Hills Elementary School, where more than 83 percent of the 800-plus students are categorized as “economically disadvantaged.”

Teachers have a difficult job in their own right, but it’s the counselors who spend one-on-one time with students and become privy to the students’ home life, how they’re treated, if they’re parents are active in their lives, if they ate, if they slept.

So much of what Bruno sees and hears from the 70 or so students she estimates she visits with daily makes her cringe or cry. But it also cements that she is where she is supposed to be.

“ ... When we get them we have to provide safety, provide love, provide food, provide clean water, sometimes even a shower,” Bruno said. “I can’t tell you how many uniforms we give out. Our kids come without clothes. You’re dealing with their basic needs, and then convincing them we’re helping you because we love you, which is true, and so now let’s talk about trying to learn something so you can improve your life, so you can get out of this poverty cycle.”

Counselor Becky Grimland is finishing her 17th year at the school and has watched Las Vegas Trail slip into chronic poverty. Most disturbing is the parental indifference she witnesses. Many of the parents of current students also grew up on Las Vegas Trail with little parental guidance.

“I had one little girl say the police stopped us and my mom and dad jumped out of the car,” Grimland said. “I said, ‘What happened to you?’ She says, ‘Well, I sat in the car.’ I said, ‘Did they come back?’ And she said ‘No,’ and I said, ‘Well, what happened?’ She said, ‘The police took me to my grandmother’s.’

“Some of the parents have warrants out so they don’t want to get caught. It’s amazing to me how our children don’t realize how unusual some of these situations are. Some of these kids handle it amazingly well.”

A display of college banners and posters hangs on the walls at the elementary school. They tout trade schools and virtually anything else to help students start thinking beyond their present boundaries and realities.

Mostly, counselors try to build self-worth and self-confidence in children whose body language can be often cautious, reserved, withdrawn, slumped or exhausted from lack of nutrition and sleep.

“Somebody has to invest in these kids,” Bruno said. “... We’re not here to judge. We’re here to provide good for our children, and hope that our children can further provide for our community. That is the goal.”

Jeff Caplan: 817-390-7705, @Jeff_Caplan

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