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 Observerwhen 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.

My friend said Bolton hoped I would tell him why the Observerkeeps 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 Observerhas 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."

The political outfall from the fake-drug scandal for Hill was clear: He needed to make sure all seized drugs were tested in order to show he wasn't allowing any more fake evidence. Silva and other DHBA members with whom I spoke, as well as Benavides, said it was clearly understood in the meetings with Hill that allowing people to waive their test results might backfire on Hill politically: It could look as if he were setting up a way to railroad more innocent people. In spite of that, Hill has agreed in principle to a waiver, according to Benavides.

People I talked to on both sides said the policy for handling these waivers is still a work in progress, with a close eye on how to avoid abuses by the district attorney's staff or by bad defense lawyers. (I called Hill himself for comment but did not hear back.)

The point the DHBA people make is that Hill is doing what they ask, even though it could come back to bite him politically. For that reason, the Hispanic lawyers I spoke with all argued that Hill has shown courage and integrity.

Contrast: The DHBA never heard back at all from Bolton. Not a word. Not a memo. Not a phone call. Michelle Wong Krause, a member of DHBA who was involved in the process, said of Bolton's failure to respond to DHBA's letter: "I am so mad. I really think that should be made public. I am just appalled that he would not give us the time of day. We're not just some fly-by-night organization. We have been around 20 years representing the Hispanic lawyers."

She personally made a follow-up call to see why they had not heard back on the letter, but not even that drew a response. "Nothing. Not a single response. Not a call. Not even an underling saying, 'Sorry, we're under investigation, so we can't say anything.' He completely blew us off, and I think that was so irresponsible of him. To me that's so arrogant. It's like he just didn't care."

I called Bolton's administrative staff and spoke with his administrative assistant and a desk sergeant who opens the mail, even faxed them a copy of the DHBA letter, trying to get them to tell me if the chief ever saw the letter. Later I asked Janice Houston, Bolton's $95,000-a-year public relations person, about the letter. She said Bolton didn't think he remembered seeing the letter but couldn't be sure.

The net effect of Korosec's Bolton story was devastating: Other law enforcement officials, lawyers and office-holders who have dealt with him painted him as a pariah, a liar, a bullshit artist and a horrible administrator who has surrounded himself with dumbasses.

Clearly in response to the piece, Bolton put together something called a "Police Academy for the Media," during which I guess the chief was going to wow all of the 40 or so media people who attended with his stellar personality. Instead he made outrageous comments about how he wants to torture and abuse arrested persons who have not been convicted of a crime. There was no off-the-record agreement for any of this. But when Houston figured out that her boss had said something embarrassing, she tried to argue it would be unfair for the press to report his remarks, because they had been his guests.

Sheesh.

He is the city's first black chief. He is hardly the city's first black public official. In the past 20 years, Dallas has seen African-American city managers, a mayor, many council members, a county commissioner and countless other civic and business leaders--maybe not enough, but a lot. And as we should expect, those African-American leaders have broken on the same percentage lines as white and Latino leaders between brilliant, so-so and no-good. Whoever hands that stuff out, they don't do it on the basis of skin tone.

But Bolton has wrapped himself in skin tone. He behaves as if he were the first black man ever to hold an important position in this town, and he has repeatedly suggested that any effort to oppose him is racial. He threatens racial unrest in the city over every personal slight, even the city manager's failed attempt to save the city $95,000 by eliminating Houston's job and moving her to another post.

I wanted to see that one. I wanted to see the sound trucks rolling through African-American neighborhoods: "The city manager's proposed cutback will reduce Janice Houston's annual compensation from $95,000 a year to less than $60,000. Take to the streets now!" I mean, exactly how far down can you grind the civil rights movement in order to pour it into your own pocket?

Prediction: When he does finally get out of town--and it is going to happen--he will threaten racial unrest if the contract with Mayflower Movers fails to include bubble wrap for his crystal.

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