Black, white, and blue

Dallas' African-American cops say they are being unfairly disciplined by a racist department. The numbers suggest they're right.

For Roosevelt Holiday, the "bat cave" reference was just a night-shift cop's feeble attempt at humor. A 43-year-old Dallas police officer, Holiday used jokes to soothe the jumpy nerves of new recruits he once trained to patrol predominantly minority neighborhoods in southern Dallas. Often the trainees were white. Holiday is black.

"They had never been around black people before," the 17-year department veteran recalls of some of his charges. "Just being in a roomful of them made them uncomfortable.

"I'm Batman, and you're Robin," Holiday, a squarely built man, would tell the trainees in hope of joshing them into confidence.

Michael Hogue
Black police officers don't get "the benefit of the doubt" when it comes to discipline, says Senior Cpl. Roosevelt Holiday, who sued the department and received $76,000.
Mark Graham
Black police officers don't get "the benefit of the doubt" when it comes to discipline, says Senior Cpl. Roosevelt Holiday, who sued the department and received $76,000.

In that same vein, Holiday frequently would steer the rookie cops to his "bat cave," a desolate parking spot behind a graffiti-covered abandoned grocery store off Kiest Boulevard. There, Holiday says, the trainees could finish paperwork while getting a feel for their beat.

"I liked to take the recruits back there to expose them to what's in the neighborhood," Holiday says.

But in 1995, when Holiday directed Stacey Wychopen to the bat cave, the young white recruit didn't get the joke. Neither did former Dallas Police Chief Ben Click.

Days after Holiday completed a three-week training session with Wychopen and gave her a poor evaluation, she filed a complaint against the veteran officer. Wychopen claimed that Holiday had slept while on duty in his "bat cave." The department's internal affairs unit initiated an investigation.

Holiday, a senior corporal, initially denied he ever slept on the job, but conceded in his second interview with the department's internal affairs officers that he took allergy medicine that sometimes made him drowsy.

He had reason, however, to be optimistic about the outcome of the review. His record was clean. With 13 years at the department at that point, he had earned 30 commendations and an award for saving a colleague's life. (Holiday had stanched the flow of blood from another officer's life-threatening neck wound.) Since 1992, Holiday had trained almost three dozen recruits with no complaints. In contrast, in her short time at the police department his accuser had so annoyed another trainer that he refused to take Wychopen out in the field.

Besides, everyone knows cops sometimes take catnaps without dire consequences. Chief Click had that same year issued only a written reprimand to a white officer discovered sleeping in his patrol car. The fatigued cop had parked at the end of a dead-end road hidden in trees, lain back in his seat, and stuck a pillow behind his head -- a clear indication of premeditated snoozing.

But somehow Click -- and Holiday's lawyer and black police association leaders later argued the reasons had everything to do with the color of the officer's skin -- regarded Holiday's snoozing worthy of more severe punishment. In November 1995, Click disregarded the advice of two supervisors who advised Click that, at most, he should suspend Holiday. Instead, Click fired Holiday for sleeping on the job and for failing to own up to the mistake. Click, who denies that he ever meted out discipline on the basis of race, says he canned Holiday because he had set a bad example in front of an impressionable trainee. Six months after his firing, however, Holiday appealed to Assistant City Manager Levi Davis and won back his job. He then filed a lawsuit against the city, demanding back pay. Last June, the city paid Holiday $76,000 in a negotiated settlement.

But complaints about disproportionately harsh discipline for African-American cops do not stop with Holiday. Leaders of the Dallas chapter of the Texas Peace Officers Association, which represents most of the 603 blacks among the 2,859 officers on the force, have long and futilely complained to city officials that the Dallas department punishes African-American officers more severely and more frequently than it does their white counterparts. In particular, the black leaders hold Click responsible.

"Click always played well with the white establishment, but we didn't buy it," says Donya Witherspoon, a lawyer who represents Holiday.

If Click and other Dallas officials give the TPOA's claims short shrift, the federal government is paying attention. In August, the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division informed city attorneys that it would investigate allegations that the police department is racially biased in how it disciplines officers. The Justice Department asked the city for 10 years of police disciplinary and personnel records.

Although the federal lawyers aren't talking about their investigation, the Dallas Observer obtained some of the same information sought by the Justice Department. Using a computer to sort through years of records, the Observer found that the numbers suggest that what the TPOA has long contended is true.

If the Justice Department pursues a case against the city -- and civil rights lawyers familiar with the law and the data say the chances are good that it will -- Holiday's victory will represent a beginning. The federal lawyers could ultimately seek a court ruling that would compensate hundreds of black officers who suffered discrimination and require the police department to create new rules to eliminate the problem. The city also could be placed under the watch of a court-appointed monitor who would oversee the department's discipline practices.

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