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.

"I've heard complaints from people who are jockeying for power in the department," says Councilman Hicks. "Some of these guys just want to run the department, and they don't want to do their job."

Recent developments and disclosures in the cases of Forsyth and Kirks and former deputy chief Granver Tolliver show Rollins' zeal for disciplining his underlings--the precise characteristic that has made him so unpopular with the troops.

Rollins' real or presumed role in these controversies has made him an object of fear among the ranks. "Willard Rollins is considered one of the most powerful members of the department," says Sergeant Thomas Glover, president of the black police officers union. "A lot of people are going to be afraid to talk about him. I am. I could be retaliated against, and it would be disguised as a transfer."

On a Friday in early March 1995, Dallas Police Chief Ben Click put in a typically long, 11-hour workday--scheduling 10 separate meetings.

Granver Tolliver's lawyer has obtained a copy of that Friday's agenda, which includes a 1:30 p.m. meeting between Click and Willie Taylor, deputy chief over internal affairs. According to Click's calendar, the subject of the discussion was the "Forsyth and Kirks Issue."

It's no surprise that Click would want to talk to Taylor about the case involving the former detectives. Two months earlier, a federal jury had awarded Forsyth and Kirks $1.4 million in their suit against the department and Rollins.

Forsyth and Kirks had alleged that Rollins allowed an illegal wiretap of the undercover detectives' telephones to continue without their knowledge. Ultimately, Rollins' actions helped blow the detectives' cover--potentially placing their lives in danger.

The electronic eavesdropping was part of a scheme encouraged by an influential businessman who believed Forsyth and Kirks should themselves be investigated. According to the lawsuit, Rollins knew the officers' cover had been blown by the eavesdropping, but for several weeks, he didn't move to stop the wiretap--or even tell the detectives about it.

Forsyth, who has since quit the force, says she doesn't believe "any bad blood" existed between her and Rollins at the time. Instead, she thinks Rollins allowed the wiretap to continue because "the right people were involved in making accusations against us."

Whatever the motive, the drug dealers Forsyth and Kirks were investigating discovered through the eavesdropping that the two were actually undercover cops. As a result, the detectives alleged in court, their lives were placed in great jeopardy.

When Forsyth and Kirks learned later that Rollins had known about the illegal wiretap before they did--and neglected to tell them--the detectives complained to The Dallas Morning News. "We never dreamed that our own supervisors were allowing a dope dealer to monitor our activities," Janet Forsyth later wrote in a letter to the department formally lodging her complaint against Rollins.

The newspaper ran a front-page story outlining the two detectives' plight. Afterward, Rollins ordered the detectives to stop talking to the press. They didn't. So, the detectives' lawyer successfully argued, Rollins retaliated against them by demoting them to night patrol in direct violation of their First Amendment rights to free speech.

Even though jurors had come down hard on Rollins, the police department never conducted its own investigation of the Forsyth-Kirks case. Both Vines, who was chief at the time the wiretapping incident occurred, and Rathburn, who left Dallas before the trial, resisted requests by Forsyth and Kirks and their supporters for an internal probe. After her victory in federal court, Forsyth pressed Chief Click, a relative newcomer to the department, to initiate an internal investigation. But when Click met with internal affairs supervisor Taylor on that Friday in March 1995, he declined to do so. Instead, Click announced a few days later that he would conduct his own review of the Forsyth-Kirks case.

Within six months, however, Click had decided--once and for all--to put the matter to rest. "The events took place over four years prior to my arrival in Dallas," Click told the Morning News in August 1995. "Two other administrations have dealt with this. I reviewed all the materials available and found no reason to initiate an investigation. I have seen no indication of corruption or cover-up."

But new testimony in the Tolliver case shows that Click didn't bother to dig very deep--particularly into Rollins' role in the Forsyth-Kirks affair.

In sworn testimony to Tolliver's lawyer, Rollins conceded that Click had only spoken with him informally during his review of the Forsyth-Kirks case. The two men met in Click's office, Rollins testified. There was no tape recorder and no witnesses. Click didn't bother to instruct Rollins about his rights as an officer under an internal investigation, a legal requirement before the interview of a subject in an internal police probe.

In August 1995, when Click had cleared Rollins but city council members such as Hicks and Al Lipscomb had begun complaining about disparate treatment of white and black officers, Rollins told the Morning News: "I just do my job and will continue to do my job the best way I know how."

For this story, Rollins failed to respond to repeated requests for an interview. "He doesn't do a lot of interviews," says police spokesman Ed Spencer. Rollins even turned down a request for a list of friends and associates who might vouch for his reputation.

Other than a stint as a dock worker for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service while he was in college, Rollins has never worked anyplace else as an adult but the Dallas police. A Texas native who was born in Fort Hood and raised in Killeen, Rollins is the divorced father of two teenage boys.

Rollins' reticence perhaps reflects his lack of enthusiasm for another airing of the Forsyth-Kirks case. The allegations made by the highly popular detectives refuse to go away and have become part of department legend. Among the ranks, Rollins is perceived as the chief villain. A cop could hardly violate the force's ethic more than by blowing a detective's cover.

"The Forsyth and Kirks thing has probably been the biggest lightening rod. They were very well liked. They knew a lot of people," says Glenn White, president of the Dallas Police Association, a union with 2,100 members.

Jack Means offers a street-level view of the rap on Rollins. "He was more worried about his image than he was about his officers," he says. "How many tears would he have shed if his officers had gotten hurt? I don't get paid much, but I don't get paid to die. Rollins was never investigated, but he put two officers through the wringer."

Even Rathburn, who now consults on security matters and lives on a ranch in Mineola, Texas, admits he has second-guessed his decision not to investigate Rollins in the Forsyth-Kirks case. When asked if he should have investigated, Rathburn says: "Today that appears to be the situation. The [court] judgment has in effect been a condemnation of his action. Maybe it would have been better if I had done a more thorough investigation."

But neither Rathburn nor any of Rollins' other bosses has any other complaints. "I have no fault with anything he did while I was there," Rathburn says. "He was very responsive to my leadership."

Former Chief Vines is lavish in his praise of Rollins. Vines, who left the department under controversy in 1990 when he was indicted and later acquitted on perjury charges, is most responsible for Rollins' rapid ascent in the department--including his promotion from captain to executive assistant chief, for which he earns about $90,000 a year.

"I'm not sure I would have put him in that position," says Vines' successor Rathburn, who nonetheless kept Rollins in that post. "The Dallas police department on a broad basis has a lot of people who were promoted too rapidly," he adds. "You often do the individual a terrible disservice."

Rollins' promotion in particular, says Rathburn, was a risk. "It was a quantum leap, no matter how talented someone is. There is fallout that results from those decisions in terms of the rest of the department. If he makes one mistake, it can be reinforcing of those opinions. It makes it very difficult for him and the department."

Vines, however, says Rollins represented "the cream that had risen to the top." He's never regretted his decision to promote him, he says.

Indeed, judging by the sheaf of accolades in Rollins' personnel file, a more valuable member of the police force doesn't exist. Rollins made sergeant in just two years. In 1978, his immediate supervisor wrote a gushing evaluation: "Sgt. Rollins gets along well with the men and supervisors on the watch. He has a lot of leadership ability which seems to be a natural talent."

His file also reveals surprisingly few scrapes for a 23-year career. A few times, Rollins misplaced department equipment, but he always had a solid explanation. In 1975, he lost a shotgun when a robber broke the window of his police car while he was transporting a prisoner. In 1983, his house was robbed, and he lost his captain's uniform.

The most serious issue to show up in the file concerns a speeding ticket he issued to a woman in 1977. He had failed to arrest her even though she was wanted for a single misdemeanor. His superiors let it go.

On Chief Click's marathon day of meetings in March 1995, he also scheduled a 90-minute disciplinary hearing for Granver Tolliver.

An African-American deputy chief, Tolliver had been accused of altering an accident report. Cheryl Wattley, Tolliver's lawyer, offers this version of events: Tolliver listened sympathetically when an officer told him about an accident scene in which a uniformed officer, Gene Yee, had supposedly treated one of the drivers rudely. The driver--who turned out to be the brother-in-law of the officer who complained to Tolliver--had an eyewitness who'd back up his account of the accident, which conflicted with Yee's account. The witness persuaded Tolliver that the accident report needed to be revised, and Tolliver had a rookie take down the new information and file a supplemental accident report.

The problem is that a "supplemental" report never showed up in the file. Instead, a whole new accident report appeared. The original report was inexplicably lost--a mystery that to this day remains unsolved.

About 10 months later, Yee, the officer who had been at the accident scene and who, not coincidentally, had previously sued both Rollins and Tolliver for his own transfer, discovered the new accident report in the file. Yee began a campaign to launch a probe against Tolliver, immediately taking his complaint to internal affairs supervisor Taylor and telling news outlets citywide that Tolliver had falsified an accident report--a felony.

"I told Channel 5 News, I said, Marty Griffin, I said if [Tolliver] tells you any lies, anything that you think is lies, just tell him I challenge him to a polygraph, and I'll match my pension against his," Yee bragged to another cop in the communications division. An automatic recording system taped the call.

Yee--by all accounts a disgruntled employee with a beef against Tolliver--rushed to bring Tolliver to judgment. He was helped by Rollins, who testified in a deposition that he didn't think the deputy chief fit his idea of a model employee.

New disclosures from the Tolliver suit show that Rollins then took an unusual step. Instead of waiting for police internal affairs investigators to get Tolliver's side of the story, Rollins jumped the gun and went straight to the Dallas County DA's office--meeting with assistant district attorney Mike Gillett to discuss a possible indictment of the deputy chief.

Tolliver's lawyer Wattley believes the haste to get to the DA's office shows the department's--as well as Rollins'--unfair treatment of Tolliver. The Tolliver case was express-delivered to the DA's office, Wattley notes, while it took six years for Chief Click even to consider investigating Rollins for his role in the Forsyth-Kirks case. And, of course, the chief declined to initiate an internal investigation.

When the district attorney forwarded the Tolliver case to a grand jury, the panel chose not to indict.

Janice Moss, the assistant city attorney handling the department's defense in the Tolliver lawsuit, insists that Rollins took no unusual or unfair steps in the case. He was "just consulting with the district attorney," as police do in any potentially criminal matter, she says. "Tolliver was not treated badly by the department," Moss says.

Gene Yee has since retired from the department and settled his own unrelated claim--in which he named both Rollins and Tolliver as defendants--for $55,000, he says.

Even though Rollins' role wasn't known at the time Tolliver appeared before the grand jury, black officers and politicians had noted the difference in treatment that Rollins received from his superiors in the Forsyth-Kirks matter and the beating Tolliver was taking. "We felt there is a dual standard," says Glover, president of the black officers association.

The internal investigation into Tolliver's conduct continued even after he was no-billed. The deputy chief refused to take a polygraph exam, and that may have stacked the deck against him. Whatever the case, at his disciplinary hearing in March 1995, Tolliver was told he would be demoted to lieutenant. He quit instead.

A year and a half later, Tolliver filed suit, claiming that he and other black officers are disciplined much more harshly than their white counterparts. The claim is still pending in federal court.

"The message they are trying to send me is: We don't want you here representing this police department," Tolliver told the Morning News during the internal investigation.

Tolliver refused an interview for this story.

In his testimony for the Tolliver suit, Rollins said he didn't think the African-American deputy chief had always "done his job the best way." Rollins had directly supervised Tolliver, who served in special operations, and had a number of gripes about his work.

"Both myself and my staff on some occasions had difficulty getting a hold of Chief Tolliver, even though he was equipped with telephones and pagers. He was sometimes nonresponsive. He also did not report to work on time on a pretty regular basis," Rollins said.

Some of Rollins' complaints seem trivial, including a beef involving some custom-made riding boots. Rollins recounted that the boots had been made for another officer, but that Tolliver had somehow ended up with them. He "had to be confronted by a lieutenant before he released those back to the officer concerned," Rollins stated in his deposition, though Tolliver's lawyer later established that Rollins never really knew whether Tolliver had been given the boots by mistake or had misappropriated them.

"Tolliver would do things like go out and try to learn to ride horses," Rollins said in his deposition. "And I personally had conversations with him that I didn't want him to fly helicopters, motorcycles, ride horses, or detonate bombs. I wanted him to be a chief over there and manage the operation." Wattley, Tolliver's attorney, pointed out to Rollins that the deputy chief had been taking the horse-riding lessons with his men as part of their special operations training.

Rollins, however, was not the first high-ranking officer to find fault with Tolliver's work. At the first Dallas Cowboys Super Bowl victory parade in 1993--the one that dissolved into rioting--Tolliver had been in charge of planning. Although Chief Rathburn ultimately bore the blame for the fiasco, Tolliver took a hit for choosing to ride in the parade alongside Troy Aikman when, critics say, he should have been situated up high where he could view the entire operation.

That incident and others could have been what compelled Rollins to hurry to the DA's office in 1995.

Furthermore, Rollins talked to the police internal affairs investigator about Tolliver before the embattled deputy chief had even had a chance to tell his side of the story, according to the investigator's calendar notes. Though Rollins had no formal role in the internal investigation, he also sat in on the interview with Tolliver later that same day.

"The chief of police had asked me to ensure that the questions asked of Chief Tolliver were not demeaning in any way and that his position as the deputy chief of the department was respected," Rollins explained in his deposition. "I was not responsible for supervising the investigation nor any of the aspects of it. That was my sole mission--to make sure that the questions were all above-board and professionally presented."

Unlike Forsyth and Kirks, Tolliver doesn't get a great deal of sympathy from the rank and file.

"The Tolliver people are forgetting to look at what he did," says police association president White. "Unfortunately, it always gets back to because he is black. It's a crutch. It's getting to be a pretty disgusting one."

This past June, in a move that went unnoticed in the media, the city of Dallas authorized two very large checks--$799,045 each--payable to Forsyth, Kirks, and their lawyer Doug Larson.

The courts (all of the city's appeals have failed, and the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear the case) had ordered the city to pay most of that money. But the total settlement also included $125,000 that the courts had ordered Rollins to pay, as well as $125,000 that another supervisor, Richard Hatler, was told to pay.

"I don't know why the city paid Rollins' money," Larson says. "But I'm glad they did."

The payment has raised some eyebrows. A state law bars a municipality from paying more than $100,000 of an individual employee's liability. Although the courts have allowed some exceptions, the rules still exist.

Roy Honeycutt, a member of the City of Dallas Police Review Board, was one of those who objected to the payment of Rollins' court-assessed damages. Honeycutt also tried to persuade his 14 fellow panelists to launch their own investigation into the Forsyth-Kirks debacle. While the board declined, Honeycutt hasn't given up. He now hopes to use a citizen complaint filed by Kirks to trigger a panel investigation of Rollins.

City attorney Sam Lindsay says he believes the city was obligated by its bond insurance and its contractual relationship with its employees to pay the judgment against Rollins.

Rollins had also managed to put city lawyers on the defensive. In May 1995, he filed his own claim against the city, stating that it had been negligent in representing him in the Forsyth-Kirks case. Rollins told the Morning News, "We were outlawyered; when you look at my entire career and my record I get nothing but outstanding evaluations."

Lindsay dismisses Rollins' gripes about his department's lawyering. "I consider the claim to be without merit," he says, adding that it put no pressure on him to pay Rollins' part of the judgment.

Complaints about Rollins have surfaced anew amid rumors that Chief Click might leave Dallas. The executive assistant chief would seem to be a likely candidate to replace him. Rollins is the most seasoned chief below Click and has already applied for the job once--in 1991, when Rathburn, an outsider, was ultimately selected. Rollins' fellow executive assistant chief, Robert Jackson, has three fewer years in the department. Jackson ranks as second-in-command under the current rotation of duties, but has served under Rollins in the past and could do so again under another rotation.

The rumor mills in Dallas and Arizona have been churning overtime with talk that Click, who has been in Dallas for almost five years, would opt to leave for the top job in Phoenix, where he served for 28 years. But Click, who didn't return calls for this story, said through a spokesman that he is not leaving.

But Rollins' proximity to the top--and the possibility that he could vie for the chief's position some time in the future--still strikes many of the troops as some kind of bad joke.

"No way, no how," says former police union president Means, laughing derisively.

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