Who Controls the Cops?

Because of racial gridlock, the answer is nobody

Today's pop quiz: How do you accuse the police department of anti-black racism, when the chief is the city's first black chief and most of his senior staff are minorities?

Veeery carefully.

Last week a coalition of African-American organizations appeared before the city council and put on a powerful, angry and deeply moving presentation of their grievances concerning police shootings and general mistreatment of citizens. The centerpiece was a demand for reform of the Dallas Citizens Police Review Board, which the coalition accurately painted as a joke and a powerless rubber stamp.

Acting review board chairman Tony Garrett says the real issue with the police department is not race but civilian control.
Peter Calvin
Acting review board chairman Tony Garrett says the real issue with the police department is not race but civilian control.

All of their issues pointed straight back at Dallas police Chief Terrell Bolton. But the coalition fell all over itself telling the council and the media that nothing can be blamed on the chief. None of it.

Why? Because Bolton is the city's first black chief. Dallas is a town where first-black is still a bigger deal than civil rights violations on the streets. Being black works a powerful protection for Bolton in the community.

And he gets even better mileage within the police department for being blue. Ever since the eruption of the Sheetrock scandal (undercover cops claiming huge cocaine arrests after fake drugs were planted on innocent dupes), the white Dallas police unions have silenced their artillery against the chief. Why? Probably because he did what any self-respecting police union would want the chief to do when officers are accused of corruption--circled the wagons and stonewalled.

Things just seem to work right for Bolton, somehow. For example, the Sheetrock scandal was a savage abuse of innocent poor and working-class members of an ethnic minority. But the coalition that came before the council last week made no mention of it. At their news conference I asked why, and they said basically they hadn't thought of it. Could that be because all the victims were Latino, not black? Or because the scandal reflects badly on Bolton? Either way, Bolton lucks out.

And things get even better for Bolton when you look at his political situation. One person at City Hall who probably understands police issues better than most, including the review board question, is Mayor Laura Miller. Long before the review board question went public, she was already meeting privately with members of the board and gathering string. She offers a good shot at actually getting something done about the review board and maybe about the police department.

But black leaders still blame Miller for the bribery conviction--later overturned--of former city Councilman Al Lipscomb. His original indictment was based, in part, on investigative stories Miller wrote at the Dallas Observer. So they won't deal with her. In fact, they would rather eat police boot-leather than do anything that could be construed as helping Miller and hurting Bolton.

Lucky Bolton.

And just to tangle the web a bit more, there's Bolton's side of the story: He's not entirely paranoid to think the old white cadre in the police department has been out to get him. They probably have been. He's not paranoid to think the city attorney and other establishment lawyers shafted him when he first took office by telling him he could do things and then pulling the rug. They did. He's not paranoid to think there is a white North Dallas animus against him based mainly on race. There is.

Or put another way: If he's paranoid, he's got a right to be. But how does that help? The problem is that there is ample indication the real issues with the cops may stem directly from Bolton's leadership.

Example: A month ago I wrote a column about Steven Meeks, a man whom police had wrongly arrested for illegal dumping ("Law? What Law?" November 7)--a flagrant case of cops not knowing the law and abusing a law-abiding citizen. After reviewing the facts, the Citizens Police Review Board asked that Deputy Chief Kyle Royster 1. drop the charges against Meeks, 2. provide Meeks with a written apology and 3. see to it that police officers under his command in the southwest police division receive fresh training on the offense of illegal dumping.

Meeks is black. Royster is black. The cops who rousted Meeks were white and Latino.

I reported in my November 7 column that Royster, subsequent to the request from the review board, 1. only allowed the charges to go away after Meeks hired a lawyer, 2. never gave him a written apology and 3. never did the new training.

At the next meeting of the review board, then-acting chairman Tony Garrett provided the board with copies of my story and announced he wanted to take up the issue of the police department's nonresponsiveness. Before Garrett could get far with his point, however, Royster stood up at the side of the room, made for the podium and informed the board he was going to have to cut in.

He told the board that he was not bound by anything the board recommended, nor did he feel compelled to inform the board how he intended to act on its recommendations. He said repeatedly that his position and attitude were reflections of the wishes of the chief of police. Royster, by the way, is strictly a Bolton guy, a front-row scholar at Bolton Country Day.

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