Color Code

Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle's honeymoon is about to end, if white, black and Latino officers have anything to say about it

David Kunkle is choosing his words carefully. Not surprising. He's meticulous and thoughtful in everything he does, from the way he gently folds his hands in his lap to the way he stares intently from across his desk, eyes unwavering for nearly half an hour. His quiet intensity is unsettling at first. You don't know whether he's sleeping with his eyes wide open or waiting for the right moment to leap across his perfectly ordered desk and smack you with a baton for asking such a stupid question.

Soon it becomes clear that he is simply a smart man who thinks before he speaks. He's being asked to comment on the Dallas Police Department's history of racial inequity, its current state of racial unrest and the racial algebra that officers and citizens and the media apply to every decision he makes. Picking just the right words is more than standard operating procedure. It's survival.

"Race is important," says the new chief, leaning forward. "There's no question about that. A black chief will have some advantages I don't have. A Hispanic chief will have some advantages I don't have. It's a diverse city. If I could speak Spanish, I would be more successful in my job. And I recognize all that."

The Reverend L. Charles Stovall, head of Unified Organizations for Justice, says he's cautiously optimistic that Chief Kunkle will work toward progressive change in the way DPD views policing in Southern Dallas.
Mark Graham
The Reverend L. Charles Stovall, head of Unified Organizations for Justice, says he's cautiously optimistic that Chief Kunkle will work toward progressive change in the way DPD views policing in Southern Dallas.
George Aranda, head of the Latino Peace Officers Association, criticized Kunkle for banning the neck hold.
Mark Graham
George Aranda, head of the Latino Peace Officers Association, criticized Kunkle for banning the neck hold.

It's time for the "but." It's here where all the groups--white, black, Latino--that monitor the racial impact of his actions will begin to read even more carefully. Because that's what they do. Every day.

"But the job is complex in a lot of ways."

Kunkle then offers his schedule for the previous day. In the office at 7 a.m. E-mails, documents, paperwork. Presented medals of valor at 8:30. Met with county commissioners at 10 to ask for more money for new communications technology. Noon, met with black ministers in South Dallas to discuss their concerns. Interview with Channel 4. Briefed by attorneys on the fake-drug case at 2 p.m. Interview at TXCN at 3:30. At 4:30, met with Glenn White, head of the Dallas Police Association, the influential, largely white officers' group, about their concerns. Met with interim City Manager Mary Suhm at 5:15 concerning the police budget. At 7:15 met with a neighborhood group in Northeast Dallas.

"Bottom line, I manage a $300 million budget; I'm responsible for 3,800 employees [2,900 officers], trying to both motivate police officers and control their behavior. So it's a complex job. It's something that requires skill and experience. It's more than just putting someone in a slot and hoping they'll be successful."

Which is why he wasn't surprised that after the turmoil and racial concerns that followed the tenure of former Chief Terrell Bolton, the city looked at the diverse list of finalists and chose the white guy. Even if everyone else was surprised.

"You know," says Kunkle, on the job for all of two months, "in the chief selection process--and I never voiced this publicly--I felt based on my experience, record, education, that I was by far the best candidate, whether anyone else saw it that way."

Not everyone does. Because every time Kunkle makes a decision, the racially divided triumvirate to whom he answers--officers, politicians, citizens--will always find something to gripe about. Witness what has gone on already in Kunkle's short tenure, a microcosm of the issues and divisions he faces:

··· Eliminating the Lateral Vascular Neck Restraint ("choke hold") as a tool available to police after it contributed to the death of an enraged suspect. This was hailed by black leaders, supported by the black police association, decried by the Latino Peace Officers Association and the Dallas Police Association. Many officers were deeply disheartened, saying Kunkle caved to political pressure. On the news and within police stations, it is presented as though blacks support efforts to defang the police.

··· Demotions and promotions. Kunkle reassigned or demoted many people whom Chief Bolton had triple-promoted (skipping designations such as sergeant and lieutenant). Many white officers praised the move, saying that Bolton had stoked his staff with unqualified minorities. Last week, though, Kunkle promoted 17 people from sergeant to lieutenant, eight of them minority.

··· Disciplining bad cops. Kunkle said he wanted to see the files of those with the most Internal Affairs complaints. Black officers who for years have said the department singles out people of color when meting out discipline were immediately concerned about how many people of color would be on the list. One white officer, not knowing who was on the list, posted on a police Web site, "Once he realizes that the preponderance of screw-ups (major violations of the law and all the way down to minor...as well as simple incompetence because of Affirmative Action quotas) are black officers he will back off."

The simmering tension, exacerbated by decades of acknowledged inequity for DPD's minorities and poor morale caused by Bolton's management style and policies, means that Kunkle must cool the department quickly before it boils.

"His honeymoon period will end in a hurry," says former Chief Ben Click, who left the department in 1999 on very bad terms with the predominantly black Texas Peace Officers Association in Dallas. (Even though Click promoted and hired many minority officers during his tenure, the TPOA accused him of focusing disciplinary action on black officers.) "And how he deals with racial issues there is his biggest challenge. It's the number one issue today, it was 10 years ago, and it was 20 years ago. Ideally a police department will reflect the makeup of the city. That's tough to do at times. You have to balance qualifications, interests, promotions, transfers. But you can't compromise your standards to achieve diversity, because the department and community suffer. It's a major, major issue, it's important, and it's not going to go away."

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