Black, white, and blue

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

More than two decades have passed since Justice Department lawyers came down from Washington to stop racially biased hiring practices at the Dallas Police Department. Only five months ago, Terrell Bolton became the first African-American police chief in the city's history. But if the federal lawyers proceed, Dallas cops will once again be in the news as bigots.

"It's embarrassing, and this is not the first time they've been to town." says Edward Cloutman III, a civil rights lawyer who has worked with federal lawyers before on discrimination claims.

"I thought it was a creative way of getting their attention," Detective Lee Bush says of a letter in which he refers to a "klan" of superior officers.
Mark Graham
"I thought it was a creative way of getting their attention," Detective Lee Bush says of a letter in which he refers to a "klan" of superior officers.
"I usually didn't know the officer's race" when it came to discipline, says former Chief Ben Click.
AP/Wide World Photo
"I usually didn't know the officer's race" when it came to discipline, says former Chief Ben Click.

When Roosevelt Holiday went before U.S. District Judge Sidney Fitzwater, the black officer learned what high obstacles plaintiffs in individual employment-discrimination cases face. Holiday's lawyer identified 21 instances in which white officers had committed offenses she claimed were equal to Holiday's alleged sleeping and untruthfulness. But the judge ruled that only two of those examples met the rigorous legal standards for comparisons in discrimination cases -- standards that require the examples to be similar in almost all aspects. Both instances involved a white officer of Holiday's rank who had allegedly violated departmental rules in front of a subordinate and then lied about it to internal affairs. Those officers were suspended, not fired.

The Justice Department could face less rigorous standards if it presses a broader discrimination claim. The federal government, Cloutman says, most likely would pursue a "pattern and practice" case of employment discrimination. Named after the language in the federal statute upon which such lawsuits are based, a pattern-and-practice case would not require the department to find a matching white officer for every black cop who they allege has been disciplined more harshly. Instead, Cloutman says, "The Justice Department will have to establish strongly through statistical analysis that race is the best predictor of whether an officer will be disciplined harshly." Then federal lawyers would have to establish that the trend was not mere chance but the result of a historic pattern of discrimination.

Justice's litigation in the '70s against the Dallas Police Department might help make the case. Federal lawyers came to the city twice to negotiate plans to stop the department from discriminating in its hiring.

Cloutman says that he would expect the Justice lawyers eventually to identify specific cases in which black officers were fired and white officers were suspended for comparable misdeeds. But the numbers are the key, Cloutman says, and the premise is straightforward: Everything else being equal, black and white officers should be disciplined roughly in proportion to their numbers on the force. In a department like Dallas', in which approximately 21 percent of the officers are African-American, that means you would expect black officers to receive about 21 percent of the firings, suspensions, reprimands, and other disciplinary actions, but that's not the case. The question facing the Justice Department is, Why not?

Using a computer to sort and count two decades of records obtained from the police department, the Observer found a stark contrast between the way badly behaved white and black officers were disciplined. Some examples:

·· ·Between 1990 and November 1999, internal affairs investigators substantiated 2,689 allegations of misconduct ranging from insubordination to felonies. (Some officers had multiple allegations, and some single incidents involved several infractions.) Thirty-eight percent of those cases involved black officers; 47 percent were against whites. Keep in mind, only 16 percent of the department's sworn officers were black in 1991, while 75 percent of the force was then white. Today, 21 percent of the officers are black and 64 percent are white. (Hispanics were targeted in 12 percent of the sustained allegations and accounted for 7 percent of the department's sworn officers in 1991 and 13 percent now.)

··· White officers had better odds of getting the charges against them dropped. Of the 4,350 allegations that were dismissed for various reasons since 1990, 60 percent of those had targeted white officers but only 26 percent named blacks.

··· If allegations were sustained, however, black officers faced a greater likelihood of getting punished more severely than their white counterparts. Of the 1,373 allegations since 1990 that resulted in punishments harsher than written reprimands (everything from a temporary demotion to a five-month suspension to termination), 46 percent of those were meted out to black officers, 42 percent to white officers. The upshot: In a police department with less than one-third black officers, close to half of the allegations that resulted in discipline harsher than a written reprimand were against African-American cops. (Hispanics accounted for 10 percent of the allegations that resulted in such discipline.)

For the TPOA officers, the statistics are plenty illustrative. "Just look at the numbers," says Sgt. Thomas Glover, president of TPOA. But Cloutman says that ultimately Justice will need to refine the figures even further.

"As a rule of thumb," Cloutman says, "those statistics, an almost 200 percent disproportion, represent a starting place." The Justice Department will have to run further computer analysis to rule out other variables, making certain, for instance, that sex, education, or length of service are not stronger predictors of who is likely to be disciplined. (Such analyses could not be performed with the information provided to the Observer.)

Yet there are those -- former Chief Click among them -- who firmly believe that race does not entirely explain why black officers are more likely to be disciplined.

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