Black, white, and blue

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

The notion that black cops get rougher discipline has kicked around Dallas for almost a decade.

In 1992, a year before Ben Click arrived from Phoenix, then Executive Assistant Chief Robert Jackson, at the time the department's highest-ranking black officer, told The Dallas Morning News: "People may feel in their minds that they are being fair. But if you look at the numbers, there is some partiality...The administration, like someone going to AA, needs to admit there's a problem."

A black chief of police like Terrell Bolton is not necessarily a solution to the problem of disparate discipline, black officers say.
A black chief of police like Terrell Bolton is not necessarily a solution to the problem of disparate discipline, black officers say.

At the time, Jackson offered no figures or examples to support his contention. Nor did Jackson or any other executive officer take on the issue as his or her personal responsibility. (Jackson, who has left the department, could not be reached for comment.)

"The chief [Click] spoke about fairness," recalls Manuel Vasquez, who was a co-executive assistant chief with Jackson, "but there was never any specific officer assigned to monitor the problem." When asked why, given the prospect of federal intervention now, the department leaders didn't take more action, Vasquez seems mystified. "I cannot answer that even myself. As leaders, how do you address it?"

For his part, former Chief Click believes he did what he could. "The best thing you are going to do is set a tone," says Click, who is now retired and lives in Phoenix.

The city's longest-serving police chief in nearly 40 years, Click presided over a nearly 10 percent increase in minority hires and adamantly denies that he allowed racism to flourish under his watch. Asked in a September 1998 deposition for the Holiday case whether he had ever disciplined somebody because of race, Click responded: "First of all, I've never done that, and I'm not going to tolerate anybody that does that."

In a telephone interview from Phoenix, Click questioned whether the sorts of numbers facing Dallas are unique.

"There is a lot of history to this," Click says. "In almost every area of our society, we find these people over-represented like this." The former chief referred to a recent case in Decatur, Illinois, in which a federal judge upheld the expulsion of six black high-school students who brawled with other students in the stands at a football game. Their expulsion prompted protests led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. A national study of 10 school districts released in the wake of the Decatur case found that "zero tolerance" disciplinary policies at public schools have led to black students being expelled or suspended at a rate that is disproportionate to their numbers.

"This kind of reflects our whole society," Click says.

While Click's generally pessimistic acceptance of racial disparities might raise skepticism about his suitability for the job of tackling such problems in his own department, Click swears that he never let race enter into his decisions on discipline.

"I usually didn't know the officer's race," says Click, who had the last word on disciplinary actions during his tenure. Shortly after taking office in 1993, Click says, he purposely assigned a black man, Assistant Chief Willie Taylor, to oversee the internal affairs department. When TPOA officials came to Click anyway and complained about alleged discrimination, the former chief says, he told them he had an open-door policy. Any officer could tell him about supervisors who sent black officers to internal affairs for investigation and allowed white officers to escape with little or no punishment for similar offenses

"If you show me a supervisor who does that, I'll fire him," Click says he told the TPOA officers.

Experience is the real issue behind the disparity in the numbers, Click says. By hiring more blacks, particularly young officers, the department attracted a new, less-disciplined crowd. "Young officers have not had as much exposure to the rules," he argues.

The statistics don't suggest racial disparities in discipline increased during Click's reign, as TPOA leaders contend. But they show little support for his theory that only as the number of young blacks entering the department increased did African-Americans start receiving discipline in disproportionate numbers. Black cops were disciplined at an equally disproportionate rate from 1990 to 1995 (before Click started hiring more minority recruits) as they were in the latter part of the decade.

More than Click, TPOA leaders say, it's the structure of the disciplinary system at the police department that allows racism to stay alive. Specifically, the department has no written requirements for when a supervisor (typically, a sergeant) must send a subordinate to internal affairs for documented discipline -- the kind that stays in their permanent records and harms their chances for promotion. In the case of a cop taking a catnap, for example, a Dallas police sergeant could drive by, yell "wake up," and be done with it. Or, he could set up the snoozer for an internal affairs investigation. There are now 279 white and 61 African-American sergeants at the department.

Despite the broader issues at stake, Click remains a sore spot for black officers -- perhaps because he came into the department with the promise of improving race relations, generally received credit for doing so, but nonetheless failed to deal directly with the disparities in discipline.

TPOA's Glover remembers tracking down Click in the parking lot of the downtown headquarters building to ask him to focus on the problem. "I waited for him at his car because I couldn't get an appointment," Glover says.

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