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.

When board member Anne Carlson, a North Dallas conservative, asked Royster why he'd ignored the board's strong recommendations, he cut her off: "You can strongly recommend, ma'am, but I take orders from the chief of police."

Garrett jumped in: "Let me interrupt at that point and say everything this board does is a recommendation, but it's also a reflection of the community. It [the board] is a pretty good sampling of the community, and I would think that would lend a little bit of weight to the recommendation. I don't think asking for an apology for an admitted error that has taken place is unreasonable..."

But Royster cut Garrett off and told him he wasn't bound by anything the board said.

Garrett told Royster: "What we are getting right now and have the last couple of years [from the police department] is like dropping a penny down a wishing well. We don't even hear the splash, let alone get our wish."

Royster said: "That comes from higher than me, sir."

At the end of that meeting Garrett persuaded the rest of the board to appoint a three-person subcommittee to request a meeting with Chief Bolton. At the top of the subcommittee's agenda was a request that the department, as policy, provide the board with written responses to its recommendations, stating how it intends to respond and why.

Bolton subsequently declined to meet with the subcommittee. A spokesperson for Bolton confirmed to me that Bolton had instructed the subcommittee to meet with the midlevel police officials who already sit on the board as ex officio members. Garrett and other board members with whom I spoke took the response as a rebuke from Bolton.

Many of the people who serve on the board think their time is wasted and the board is a joke. Board member Eladio Martinez, who is Councilwoman Elba Garcia's appointee, said, "The citizens on the police board don't have any respect from the police officers. They don't respect the police board, because they know it's just a dummy board. We don't have any power to do anything to them, so why should they fear us or anything like that?"

Milton Loeb, appointed by Lois Finkelman, said: "I hear that the police don't think much of us. We're just kind of a nuisance." Loeb said many of the board's worst problems have to do with the basic weakness of its structure, but he pointed also in the general direction of Bolton.

"There probably is some problem with police leadership in addition to structure," he said. "When we make requests for improvements, we often never hear back even with an answer of yes or no."

That's not structure. That's attitude. That's, "We won't even dignify your existence with a response." But it's police attitude, not racial attitude.

Garrett is an interesting character in all this. A North Dallas conservative Republican, first appointed by Paul Fielding, now the appointee of James Fantroy, Garrett comes at police issues from a basically conservative/libertarian position. For him, the problem is not race but civilian control.

"The police department is a creature of city government," he said. "It is an extension of the city's police powers granted under the home-rule charter, and if the council can't run its own police department, then nobody's in charge."

All of that brings us back to Square One, also known as King's X. I don't believe that the complaints taken before the council last week were drummed up or exaggerated. There were mothers down there screaming about dead sons. The council clearly was taken aback.

But everybody's paralyzed by racial gridlock. I don't know whether he has convinced himself, but Chief Bolton has convinced everybody else in black leadership that the No. 1 civil rights issue in Dallas right now is his job.

The mayor may get the basic issues here better than most at City Hall, but black people don't trust her.

The one black leader who does see through some of the race-card business surrounding Bolton and the police department is Lipscomb. At the coalition's news conference last week, Lipscomb broke ranks with everyone else and said this was not a time to dance around basic issues. He said specifically that the chief needed to back off his refusal to meet with the review board.

Life is really complex, isn't it? The two people who have the combined insight and clout to resolve most of the city's urgent police issues are Lipscomb and Miller. And they will get together on it soon, right after we start seeing a lot of winged pork overhead.

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