Ready to blow

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

Either somebody finds a way to turn down the heat at Dallas police headquarters, or the family feud between the new chief and the old one goes nuclear.

And won't that be a pretty sight? Just as Dallas gets ready to do its fashion-model runway walk in the 2012 Olympics selection process, police headquarters blows up in a really nasty, very racial administrative scandal. It's every nightmare the city's image-obsessed business leadership has ever had, all rolled into one.

It could happen. That deal recently in which everyone in the police department kissed and made up over a controversial plan to put more than 100 office cops back on the street? Those were strictly Mafia kisses. If you got one, ask Santa for some Kevlar pajamas.

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

There are two things driving the tension. One, having to do with The Dallas Morning News, is pretty obvious and public: Reporter Todd Bensman has been hammering the new police chief, Terrell Bolton, with some tough reporting, which Bolton and his supporters view as malicious and which they think is being churned by Bolton's antagonists within the department.

But another, potentially more serious, cause of unrest hasn't been reported yet: There is now the distinct possibility the civil rights mess inside the department -- up until now strictly a lawsuit matter involving claims of job discrimination -- could escalate and produce criminal investigations of former chief Ben Click and/or some of his former assistant chiefs.

Two very knowledgeable sources told me that Bolton has made it plain to Click and some of Click's ex-assistants that a criminal investigation is not out of the question. One source said that Click approached Bolton through an intermediary seeking assurances there would be no criminal probe, and that Bolton shot him down.

Bolton would not agree to an on-the-record interview with me on this subject. Click told me on the phone last week that he is not aware of any criminal investigation. He declined to talk about it beyond that.

Through the department's official spokesman, Sgt. Hollis Edwards, I was told there is no criminal investigation of Click or any of his former subordinates.

But I do know this: the word "criminal" is very much in play at police headquarters, and it's a lot of what's amping up the bitterness.

Cpl. Lee Bush is suing the Dallas Police Department, alleging his civil rights were violated by a racially distorted system of discipline. The U.S. Justice Department has joined Bush in his suit and also has upped the ante by charging that the department is guilty of racial bias generally.

Click and former City Manager John Ware always said these civil rights "disparate discipline" charges were trumped-up junk. In particular, Click assured the city council there was nothing to them. Not long after the feds said they thought there was, in fact, plenty of substance behind the charges, Click retired.

Last September, when departmental veteran Bolton took office as the city's first black police chief, he clearly suggested that he thinks there may be merit to the charges and that, furthermore, if you were in on it, you can kiss your badge good-bye.

According to the people I talked to, if the civil rights stuff does extend to some kind of criminal investigation, it will have to do with whether Click or any of his subordinates committed perjury in the lawsuit depositions, not with any charge that any of them has committed an actual criminal civil rights offense.

A well-informed source told me that a mid-level police official went to Bolton soon after Bolton took office and told him that he had engaged in deliberate discrimination because he had been told to do so.

"He said, 'I was just following orders,'" the source said, adding that Bolton seems to believe the person's claim. A charge of perjury, then, might be based on a sworn deposition in which Click or an assistant may have testified that he never ordered anyone to discriminate.

But even if such a thing exists, according to people I talked to, it's going to be weak stuff -- all very subjective, unwitnessed, extremely tough to prove. It could also be false.

"I think the chances of anyone finding a realistically prosecutable charge are nonexistent," said an attorney familiar with the situation who spoke on the condition that he not be identified. This was a lawyer, by the way, who sues the city regularly, far from being on their side.

What's significant is that anyone would even consider going after Click and the others criminally. Click is kind of an icon. Whatever else he did or didn't do as chief -- and some people say he didn't do squat -- he nevertheless devoted a whole lot of time to the rubber-chicken circuit, going around town to Rotary lunches and bridge dedications getting people to like him. And he is a likable guy.

The mere possibility that Bolton might OK a criminal probe of Click or his assistants is an index of just how jugular things have gotten in the last week or so. Of course, the situation at police headquarters has been moving toward jugular since Bolton took office. Right off the bat he demoted, forced into retirement, or lateraled out 14 of Click's top assistants. So they're all mad.

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.

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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