By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Highland Park police chief Darrell L. Fant is the first to admit that morale on his 65-man force isn't what it could be. "There's been a lot of misinformation and a lot of misunderstandings, and it's led to a lot of unhappy employees," says the 46-year-old chief, sitting in the conference room of Highland Park Police headquarters.
Last month, the officers' "unhappiness" resulted in a 30-18 no-confidence vote against their burly, sandy-haired chief, who has something of a Barney Fife, aw-shucks manner. But if Chief Fant feels threatened, he isn't showing it. Instead, he sounds like a guy who has just entered a 12-step program, admitting his problems and promising to change by making himself more accessible. "Opening a line of communication is the start of recovery," he says, sounding as if he and his men are in the throes of the healing process.
But many in the rank and file see their problem with the chief as needing more intervention than that. Tensions on the force have certainly been simmering for a while. Officers complain of unfair pay: The median salary is about $52,000, above average as police pay goes, but Highland Park's finest double as firefighters and triple as emergency medical technicians, and they must be certified in all three specialties. Officers moan about having to spend the bulk of their shifts hanging around a cramped dormitory in the 75-year-old City Hall/fire-ambulance-police station, a building that for all its beauty and charm smells like the musty old teardown it should be.
But officers' loudest complaint about Chief Fant is that he has lost touch with the cop on the beat. Many claim that he is too zealous about investigating them and too lax about enforcing the law against the rich residents of Highland Park. And when officers go public with their concerns, they see a chief too ready to retaliate against them.
Their most recent gripe stems from a July 9 incident at the Beverly Drive home of Jim Mason, a former Highland Park school trustee. Some officers, who asked that they not be identified, believe Mason was friends with the chief and was afforded special treatment when his son threw a fraternity rush party that included underage drinkers.
This being the Park Cities, Mason called the chief that day to apprise him that there would be drinking. Chief Fant says he gave Mason a stern warning that "in light of several recent events," the HP police were "left with enforcing the letter of the law" on underage drinking, and he subsequently produced a tape of the conversation to back up his story. Mason told The Dallas Morning News that Fant told him that if anyone complained about the party or underage drinking, the police would investigate, and that if minors in possession were found, they would be arrested.
Fant claims he told the watch commander, Lt. Sammy Hancock, that the party should be monitored.
But somehow, by the time the orders got down to the officer on duty, Bruce Casseaux, they had changed. Casseaux told several news organizations that his orders were to stay away from the party until 10:00 p.m.
At that time, Casseaux would later tell media and investigators, he went by the party, and shortly thereafter found minors in the alley with beer cans in hand. Correspondence between Casseaux and his immediate supervisor, Sgt. John Lee, indicates that, "given our limitations on it [the party]," Casseaux should simply order the party shut down. Casseaux did so, arresting no one, although he noted that some of the partygoers were "significantly" drunk.
Contacted by the Observer, Casseaux declined comment, citing a pending internal affairs investigation into the matter.
When Fant got back to town the next week (he had been in Virginia at a conference on underage drinking), he began an investigation. In late July, Fant forwarded his findings to the Highland Park city manager, as well as to the Texas Department of Public Safety. "Anytime a high-ranking officer is accused of wrongdoing, you need somebody from outside to investigate," Fant says. Late last month, the DPS cleared Fant of any wrongdoing.
Unfortunately, DPS did not conduct its own investigation and did not re-interview officers; instead, it simply reviewed Fant's factual findings and recommendations. Fant also launched two internal affairs investigations -- one of Bruce Casseaux.
Several HP officers say that Casseaux is being investigated, in part, for complaining to the media in violation of a standing police general order. Fant denies that Casseaux is being investigated for "exercising his First Amendment privileges." Both of the internal affairs investigations have been completed, and although the findings have not yet been made public, Fant says his conclusions that orders were violated by "at least two" officers have been sustained.
The chief does acknowledge, however, that the underlying incident led to unhappiness among the ranks, as well as to the "perception" that he protects wealthy Highland Park residents. "The appearance that some influential person was given a pass was enough to create a rallying point with the troops," says Fant. Shortly after the incident, a number of officers approached the Dallas Police Association about conducting the confidence vote on the chief. The DPA agreed, and the vote of no confidence passed overwhelmingly in mid-August, but Chief Fant is still Chief Fant.