A Tale of Two Pities

Hill felt sorry, Bolton felt nothing over fake drugs

Three weeks ago I get a call from an old friend who also happens to be a friend of the police chief. He reminds me that I wrote positive things about Terrell Bolton in 1999 when he was made chief of police in Dallas, and he says Bolton wants a lunch.

I say sure. Of course. Lunch, always. He's the chief, I'm a reporter. Why wouldn't I go?

But I wonder why he wants to. Bolton just got done refusing to talk to the Dallas Observer when Thomas Korosec was working on a comprehensive story about him ("Dallas' Chief Problem," January 16). This, in spite of the fact that Bolton received more positive ink from the Observer than from any other news outlet in Dallas, at least in his first couple of years as chief.

Attorney Al Silva credits Bill Hill with courage and integrity in his response to Latino lawyers' concerns.
Mark Graham
Attorney Al Silva credits Bill Hill with courage and integrity in his response to Latino lawyers' concerns.

My friend said Bolton hoped I would tell him why the Observer keeps doing stories about him. Because I did not want to put my friend in dutch, I thought I needed to warn him what I would say at such a luncheon. I told him the big reason we do stories on Bolton is because Bolton is what we in journalism call "The Chief of Police."

I also told my friend if you assigned a team of Harvard professors to come up with the Observer's political slant, they would all end up walking off the job. Our slant is to sell newspapers--well, give them away, actually--by putting good stories in the paper that people will read. Our favorite way to do that is by stirring up stuff.

I told my friend all of that, and guess what? No lunch, apparently. Now I can't even get my friend back on the phone. I put a call in to Bolton through his P.R. lady. She said he was out of town. But all of this brings us to what I think is a much larger point--that Bolton is a man who really does not understand how things work.

The single worst abuse of civil rights in the recent history of the city was the fake-drugs scandal a year and a half ago, still under investigation by the FBI. The Dallas Police Department and the Dallas County district attorney were sending Spanish-speaking Mexican immigrants to prison on wholly fabricated drug charges.

These defendants, mechanics many of them, came up from Mexico with nothing in their pockets and started businesses and put their kids in school and bought houses. They are the modern version of the Puritan Pilgrims, but our police department and district attorney treated them as if they were not fully human.

The Observer has given both Bolton and Dallas County District Attorney Bill Hill some pretty good lambastings over the fake-drug issue. The lambasting of Hill--the part I did, anyway--was based on a belief that Hill had been completely obdurate and callous. As it turns out, there were some things going on behind the scenes--processes I could not see and nobody chose to tell me about--indicating that Hill wanted to do the right thing, once he saw what was going on.

In February 2002, the Dallas Hispanic Bar Association wrote both to Chief Bolton and to Hill telling them it felt it was "in the unique position of understanding the issue of the legal community, the law enforcement community and the Hispanic community at large" and offering its support.

Hill got the message, which was, "We are a bunch of substantial Hispanic citizens who are very disturbed by the fake-drug scandal and want to talk to you." Hill assigned a Hispanic staff member, Assistant District Attorney Dan Benavides, to contact the group and arrange a series of meetings with Hill. Those meetings took place and are still taking place, according to Benavides and several members of the Dallas Hispanic Bar Association with whom I spoke.

The DHBA told Hill and Benavides that the fake-drug scandal was having an unintended but serious impact on hundreds of first-time and minor defendants. The fake-drug scandal happened because the district attorney prosecuted people without testing the drugs. The cops were turning over fake drugs in order to make their cases.

The subsequent political outcry was for all seized drugs to be tested. But the county's budget for drug testing is limited. Instead of taking days for test results to come back from the lab, now it takes as long as several months. The legal process, meanwhile, is stopped: Under new rules adopted after the scandal erupted, all drugs must be tested; defendants cannot even plead guilty until the results get back; and according to both Benavides and the DHBA, people who would have been able to plead or at least bond out of jail in a few hours or a day before the scandal are now languishing in jail for months.

DHBA member Al Silva, a civil lawyer and a former assistant district attorney in California, said: "The reality is that for folks that are in the pokey, who know that what they had was cocaine, who know it's going to be tested positive, and yet who could plead guilty today and get out of jail, it is a curse to have to wait for that test to come back."

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