Please, Not a Nut

Oh, it's so scary when they name a new chief

We have a new police chief in Dallas. That's scary for us. If you haven't been in town long, you wonder why. Here's what you have to understand: We've been through a series of high-level local officials who have behaved in very disturbing fashions on television. We were watching. We saw it. Now we can't forget.

We had a police chief who blubbered like a baby then ranted like Mussolini. The cops were chasing him around with subpoenas, and they couldn't catch him. For a while, you felt like peeking up and down the street before you stepped out the front door in the morning.

Before that, we had the school superintendent who was on TV doing what he thought was a humorous on-camera impersonation of a street beggar with a tin cup. We hugged our children tighter after that one.

Incoming Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle
Mark Graham
Incoming Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle

And on an ongoing basis, there's just a whole level of brouhaha from City Hall that most people don't get. The stalemate between the mayor, the city manager and the city council is beyond the comprehension of otherwise intelligent minds. People ask me to explain it all the time, because they know I do this stuff for a living. I always feel as if my response should be a variation on the old nerd joke about official secrets: I could tell you, but then you'd have to kill yourself.

I'm sure the typical Dallasite who's been around any amount of time looks at our recently hired chief, David Kunkle, and thinks, "Later for you." We need to see you on television at least six times in a row not being a nutcase. Then we'll talk.

Chiefs don't get honeymoons here. They don't even get a kiss. When the last chief took office, a certain drumbeat started up against him almost immediately. This is no different. I hear the same kind of drums already tuning up against Kunkle.

With former Chief Terrell Bolton, the early criticism and resistance seemed to have to do with his being the city's first black chief. With Kunkle, it seems to do with his being white. In hindsight, I'm not sure that's what the Bolton drumbeat was really about at first. More likely it was way-insider cop stuff, exploiting race as a pretext, when the real agenda was settling old copper scores.

Probably some of the same with this early Kunkle drumbeat. I am hearing from actual leadership in the minority community that people are glad race was not a big deal in picking this chief.

So maybe the Kunkle stories coming my way are petty, score-settling deals. I can't tell. And by the way, I don't care. I've been burning up the highway between here and Fort Worth and wearing out my ear on the telephone all week tracking down anti-Kunkle stories. Why? Well, if you never noticed, I do happen to be in the story business.

And the truth is that anybody who becomes chief of police in this city is going to have to stand up to this kind of attack. The stories are out there. People are going to try to use them to knock the guy down. It'll be different in heaven. But here, the only question is how bad the stories really turn out to be, and how he handles himself in the face of fire.

The bottom line on all of this stuff so far is that it's nothing. Not from what I've been able to find out. So far, Kunkle doesn't seem to have a mark on him. The only reason even to mention it is to show you what kinds of things people are throwing.

First story: He's anti-Christian. Six years ago when Kunkle was police chief in Arlington, he fired a 13-year highly decorated cop for insubordination because the officer refused to remove a cross-shaped tie tack from his uniform.

When I sorted back through it, it was clear that Kunkle had offered the cop several compromise arrangements that would have allowed him to continue wearing Christian symbols without violating the department's uniform code. He hated firing him. But the police officer, otherwise a sterling cop, believed his religious convictions compelled him to violate the chief's order.

The issue was insubordination. It was kind of a tragic story. But Kunkle comes out right in it.

Second story: Kunkle tolerated and even defended a cop in Arlington who killed three people in six months, one black, one Native American and one Latino. Inference being that the cop was going for one of each.

This is a murkier tale than the lapel pin. Three people in six months is a lot. But I didn't see any evidence that any of the shootings was unjustified. In fact, the contrary: In one case, the officer shot and killed a man after that man had stolen his shotgun and nightstick, beaten the officer with the nightstick, broken his jaw and dislocated his shoulder. How do you argue with that?

In another case, the guy he shot was coming at him with a kitchen knife. I didn't come up with much detail on the third one except that it also involved an assault in which the officer had reason to fear for his life. So the evidence on the table is that Kunkle should have defended his officer because the shootings were justified. And he did.

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