Ready to blow

What's that scary ticking noise inside Dallas police headquarters?

Then he launched a massive reconfiguring of the department to take almost 120 sworn officers out of other jobs and put them in the so-called "call-answering base" -- that is, patrol, where they can go after 911 calls. And they're mad too.

Bolton's reasoning is direct and managerial. For one thing, he's from patrol. He's keenly aware that the department's response time on calls has suffered recently. His personal conviction is that the department grew in the wrong directions under Click, because Click didn't make the tough decisions, mainly by failing to say no to people. Bolton views it as sort of like a car dealership where salespeople keep getting promoted off the lot into market analysis, customer relations, planning, and all of a sudden, hey! Who's selling the cars? So he's pulling people out from behind desks and putting them back behind the wheel.

His principal motivation seems to be a desire to return to the core services of the department. But when he announced all of these moves, Bolton also said in various public forums that the changes would save the department a ton of money, which brings us to the second big thorn in his saddle these days -- the Morning News.

Former Dallas police Chief Ben Click and his successor Terrell Bolton in happier days
AP/Wide World Photo
Former Dallas police Chief Ben Click and his successor Terrell Bolton in happier days

Todd Bensman of the News has written a series of hard-hitting stories pointing up flaws in Bolton's plans, including the important fact that many senior officers thought the system Bolton wanted to use to decide who had to go back out on the street was unfair.

Bolton thinks Bensman is the one who's unfair. People familiar with Bolton's views have told me the chief thinks the News' editorial page supports him. He thinks the News' regular police-beat guy, Dave Michaels, is OK. It's just Bensman. People in the chief's office think Bensman is being egged on by the officers Bolton has forced out or demoted.

This gets into sort of an esoteric area: When is a news story a hatchet job and when is it a specimen of superb woodsmanship? And, of course, I speak as one who believes a new ax should be oiled, given a cute name, and kept under one's pillow.

But some of Bensman's stuff on Bolton does seem to be out there on the edge. One piece in particular seemed to imply Bolton had been deliberately deceptive because he promised to save taxpayers more than $7 million a year. Bensman arrayed some facts and quotes to show that Bolton was only moving people around, not cutting jobs to reduce the overall payroll.

A fair point, but also kind of semantic. Bolton's people argue that they found $7 million worth of wasted payroll and put it to good use. Isn't that saving $7 million? If you found out the $7 million was being spent on hot-air-balloon rides and you put a stop to it, wouldn't the taxpayers be happy? So Bolton's folks have a fair point too.

What really stung in Bensman's story was the tone. What might have been a financial analysis piece came across instead as a liar-liar-pants-on-fire piece. At the bottom of the story, for example, Bensman quoted an academic who seemed to be saying Bolton was damaging his own credibility by failing to be precise.

Bensman quoted former Provo, Utah, police chief Swen Nielsen, who teaches police-chief management courses for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, as saying: "You not only have to be truthful, but you must be accurate."

I called Nielsen, and the only problem with Bensman's use of his quote is that Nielsen clearly had no idea the quote would be presented as an implied comment on Bolton.

"I have no idea what Chief Bolton said," Nielsen told me. "I don't know the chief. He may be the greatest chief in the world. I'm not in a position to comment on the chief's veracity, and if my quote was used to that end, then I feel bad for him."

The question from Bensman, Nielsen said, was something to the effect of, "Should police chiefs lie?" Nielsen's answer was no.

Now, the great story would have been if Nielsen had said yes.

Gilbert Bailon, vice president and executive editor of the Morning News, said Bensman doesn't cover the police beat regularly and doesn't even know Bolton's detractors well enough to carry water for them. And he said the quote at the bottom of the story, which I had interpreted as a comment on Bolton, was, in his reading, "a broad statement...not specific to Bolton."

The real story about the police department is that Bolton is determined to stick it out. He has a clear vision of where he thinks the department needs to go, and he's ready to dig in, dodge the bullets, and shoot back if that's what it takes. He believes he has the backing of the city council, the mayor, the city manager, and the business community.

But when he says shoot back, he means shoot.

In Dallas, the business community in particular has a taste mainly for painless public-relations fixes, the pretty face out front. If the top really blows on the police department, we'll see how much gut anybody has for staying the course.

We may find out real soon.

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