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.

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.

Later, Kunkle fired him after the officer was discovered carving notches in the grip of his service weapon. Hey, that's dark.

Should Kunkle have been able to see sooner that this guy had a dark streak and was creating his own bad situations that would lead to fatal outcomes? Well, you can always say that. And newspapers should never make mistakes, and every surgery should be a success. But I don't see anything here that sticks to him.

The point is that somebody wants it to stick. And we can't blame all of that malevolence on insider cop politics, because look at the unbelievably crappy greeting Kunkle got from the city's only daily newspaper the day he was named. The first Dallas Morning Newseditorial on his appointment derided him because he was hired from the suburbs: "Choosing a guy who spent one-third of his career in Dallas (however illustriously) and never made it farther than the next county smacks of the same old same old, rather than do-it-different," the editorial said.

After admitting they didn't know anything bad about him, the editorialistos sneered at the 53-year-old Kunkle for not having commanded a bigger salary or a contract, calling him "the bargain rather than the top rate."

Ouch.

I talked to a guy who is very wired to the Dallas police community and knew Kunkle 22 years ago when he was a Dallas police officer. He said the Newscould just as easily have viewed Kunkle as the ideal choice: "He doesn't need a road map to find his way around Dallas, but he's not a recent insider, either."

A city council member said the same thing: "He's the perfect insider slash outsider."

The jab about pay seemed especially low. Very competent people are called to public service all the time by a sense of duty, not pay. The smartest, best people do not always go straight for the money. Obviously the guy wants a challenge, or why would he come here?

And it wouldn't have been all that tough for the Newsto have picked up a phone and done some chats about him before writing. The day after Kunkle was appointed chief in Dallas, Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist O.K. Carter had a fascinating piece in the paper about Kunkle's career in Arlington, all of it very positive and in some detail. Didn't the Newshave a newspaper in Arlington once?

I spoke with Kunkle on the phone toward the end of the week. I was candid about what I'd been up to--chasing down dirt on his career. He was OK with that. If anything, he is coming to the job with eyes wide open.

"I know the history of the Dallas Police Department going back to 1972," he said. "I think I understand it very well. I know the sins of the department as well as the successes. Certainly I have nobody to blame if it's an untenable situation."

But he says he would not be leaving his post as an assistant city manager in Arlington if he were not confident he can succeed in Dallas. "I keep telling people if I thought I was going to be flogged every day and then fired, I wouldn't have accepted the job."

He ticks off the keys to making success happen: "Leadership, better management practices, the right temperament and judgment, openness, responsiveness to all members of the community including the underclass and people who historically have not gotten representation, trying to make the department more efficient and effective at the same time you protect the interests of the officers.

"All of that can make things better."

Sure. Sounds right. But we have to see you on TV six times not being a nut. And we all understand that the rubber hasn't met the road yet. Not too long after he gets here, he has to do open-heart surgery on the command staff. More like liposuction. I'm already getting little bags of burning dog doo delivered to me with his name on them, and he hasn't even scrubbed yet. What kind of howls will we hear when he picks up a scalpel? And how will he react?

I had a crazy neighbor once. I figured out over the years that you had to let him talk at least 60 full seconds before you could tell if he'd taken his meds. I think Kunkle's at 47 seconds and sounding great.

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