Bolton's blues

Dallas' new police Chief Terrell Bolton walks through a minefield as he tries to reshape the department. His strategy? Wear combat boots.

Randy and Sandy Magg's retirement party was not supposed to be controversial. The husband and wife, both police officers, had logged a combined 50 years of public service, and to honor them, their bosses at the Dallas Police Department planned a party for the first week in April.

At the department's pistol range in southwest Dallas, about 40 people guzzled punch and munched cake. The Maggs received plaques. Randy's colleagues pooled their money and bought the avid golfer a driver. Sandy was given a gift coupon.

Then police Chief Terrell Bolton arrived.

Only a week earlier, Bolton vacillated when a reporter pressed him about whether he would support efforts by police unions to lobby City Hall for raises. (Pay for Dallas officers starts at $28,575 -- 20 to 40 percent lower than what's offered in surrounding suburbs.) Declining to say whether he had recommended to the city manager that his officers get raises, Bolton told a Dallas Morning News reporter, "It involves a bigger picture. You still have to pick up trash in the city. You still have to do code enforcement. And as police chief and as a manager in this city, you have to support the city manager in helping him carry out those mandates." After taking flak for what some saw as a wishy-washy comment, the chief tried to redeem himself at the Maggs' party.

To Bolton, appearing at a retirement party for two of his officers would seem as natural and expected as stuffing his gun into his holster. "He wouldn't have missed it for the world," says Sgt. Herbert Ashford, whom the chief recently transferred to an administrative post in personnel. Bolton, Ashford recalls, mentioned at the party something about supporting a pay raise, but that was not the purpose of his visit.

Yet even something as simple as showing up at a retirement party can provide ammunition for Bolton's many detractors, who closely watch the new chief's every move and quickly pounce when they see him make what they believe -- fairly or not -- is a misstep.

"He crashes the party, and then he gives a 15-minute lecture about how he is behind the pay raise," grumbles Roy Honeycutt, an outspoken member of the Citizens Police Review Board, a panel of civilians who oversee the cops.

Dallas' first African-American police chief, Bolton took office with the enthusiastic support of the majority of the city council and City Manager Ted Benavides, but still it seems he cannot avoid strife, thanks in part to an ambitious agenda to clean house and reinvigorate the department. In his first seven months on the job, he has executed those plans swiftly and with little attention to the political side effects, making him a lightning rod for critics inside and outside the department.

"He came into a difficult situation because of expectations, and he went after it like a bull in a china shop," says Peter Lesser, a criminal defense lawyer who has represented and opposed cops and served on the Citizens Police Review Board.

"He has sent a very clear message. He's in charge," says Glenn White, president of the Dallas Police Association, the city's largest officer union, representing 2,500 of the department's 2,800 officers. "People just can't figure out why he's doing what he's doing."

Change always exacts a cost, and Bolton took over a job held by Ben Click, a well-liked chief who led the department during relatively stable times. "Anytime you succeed someone who is a legend, you are going to run into some criticism," says city council member John Loza, a Bolton supporter who chairs the council's public safety committee. "He succeeded a very popular police chief."

And any new chief who shook things up as Bolton did would hear complaints.

On a Saturday in late October, one month after he started, Bolton recast his command staff by demoting four assistant chiefs and two deputies, five of whom have subsequently sued the city, claiming that their civil service rights were violated. In February, Bolton ordered 120 of the department's 550 detectives back on patrol.

Donna Blumer, the lone city council member to criticize Bolton publicly these days, suspects Bolton's age -- he's 41 -- factors into the furor he creates. "My grade for him is mixed," she says. "He has created public relations problems for the department. Demoting all the chiefs -- that was a little heavy-handed. As a result, we have lawsuits. I think that was a direct result of his youth."

Bolton argues that his early management moves, rather than the rash acts of a newcomer, are a rational response to a top-heavy police bureaucracy. When he came into office, Bolton notes, the number of patrol officers answering calls for help had declined in most of the previous five years. In 1999, some 1,026 officers out of 2,800 in the department were responding directly to calls as part of their jobs -- 27 percent less than in 1995. The others handled administrative chores or investigations.

"We kept losing people from the front line," Bolton says. "The problem was that we just kept going down, down, down, and crime started going up. Response time started going up. That's what we were trying to address."

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