Good cop, bad cop

How does the Dallas police's "Teflon Chief" Willard Rollins skate past scrapes that could wreck other officer's careers?

Only one photograph of Willard Rollins exists in his personnel file at the Dallas Police Department. This crude mug shot, taken 23 years ago, captures Rollins--now third-in-command on the Dallas force--as a fresh recruit. The image is flawed: Bright lighting casts a sharp glare on Rollins' face, and a name placard conceals his chin. But the photo still manages to leave an indelible impression of a handsome, confident man. His bearing is erect. His shoulders are broad. His eyes are fixed straight ahead. In every way, the young Rollins resembles what Hollywood would cast as the good cop.

Throughout his meteoric career with the Dallas police, Rollins, now 46 and an executive assistant chief, has struck many people--particularly his bosses--as the picture-perfect policeman his recruit photo suggests.

"He has a command appearance about him," says Mack Vines, the former Dallas police chief who left eight years ago amidst controversy and now trains law-enforcement officials at a community college in St. Petersburg, Florida. "He is extremely bright, well educated, articulate, knowledgeable. He puts in a very good appearance. He is alert and has the uncanny ability to handle all types of situations."

Indeed, a year after the recruit photo was snapped, Rollins won honors as Dallas police Rookie of the Year. In the two decades since, superiors have showered him with praise and promotions--just rewards, it seemed, for a stand-up guy who has gone several years at a time without even taking a sick day. In 1988, Vines catapulted Rollins, then a 36-year-old captain, to the rank of chief, a position he retained under Vines' successors, including current Dallas Police Chief Ben Click.

Rollins has also won admirers among civilians. At speaking engagements, he leaves crowds with a feeling of assurance. "When he makes a presentation, he is thorough, knowledgeable, and strategic," says City Councilman Don Hicks. "I feel comfortable."

But while superiors and city officials talk about how impressive Rollins is, his image among the rank and file couldn't pose a sharper contrast. The troops despise him. So much so, that many patrol officers refer to Rollins as either "Willard the Rat," a comment about his loyalties to fellow officers, or "The Teflon Chief," a statement about his ability to escape from scrapes that could wreck the careers of lesser cops.

"Among the officers on the street, he is not regarded very high," says Jack Means, former president of the Dallas Patrolmen's Union.

Many in the department believe Rollins is loyal only to Rollins, concedes former Dallas Police Chief William Rathburn. "I never saw any indication of that myself," he says. "But I knew that was the perception."

The animosity toward Rollins has its origins in some of the department's murkiest, most controversial episodes of internal discipline, including the complex case involving former undercover narcotics detectives Janet Forsyth and Richard Kirks. The two detectives sued the city, and in early 1995 won a $1.4 million jury verdict--which included an order that Rollins personally pay $125,000 in damages. The pair had claimed that Rollins transferred them to night patrol when they complained to the media about his participation in an illegal wiretap scheme.

Though the Forsyth-Kirks case goes all the way back to 1988, the controversy generated by Rollins' role in it refuses to die--and even today, a member of the city's police review board is trying to find a way to force a full investigation.

More recently, complaints against Rollins have taken on a racial tint because of his disputed role in the high-profile demotion of Granver Tolliver, an African-American deputy chief who subsequently quit the force and has now sued for discrimination. Rollins may be a wonder boy to his bosses, but among minority officers he's perceived as a symbol of inequities in the way the department disciplines white and black officers.

When questions were raised about Tolliver's conduct, the deputy chief got slammed, his supporters say. But when a federal jury raised questions about Rollins' role in the Forsyth-Kirks case, the white executive assistant chief walked away unscathed. No formal investigation was ever conducted, and Rollins didn't even end up having to pay his $125,000 in damages.

"I'm not going to say he's guilty [of anything]," says detective Gil Cerda, who serves as president of the Latino Peace Officers Association, about Rollins. "But there should be an investigation for his sake--to get him clear."

Former detective Kirks, who is white, says, "There seems to be a great discrepancy between the way a white supervisor and a black supervisor are treated."

The list of former cops who've alleged that Rollins has transferred, demoted, or denied them a job unfairly grows each year. Since 1989, at least five former officers have sued the city and named Rollins as a defendant. In two of those cases, including the Forsyth-Kirks matter, the city has paid out cash settlements. One former cop collected after he alleged that Rollins blocked him from getting rehired when a skiing accident left him in a wheelchair. Rollins denied playing a significant role in keeping the job out of reach, but the officer eventually was awarded a desk job as well as back pay.

As an executive assistant chief, Rollins oversees a wide variety of personnel matters. Supporters say his position naturally makes him a target for such claims.

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