On Your Watch

Those are scary words for Dallas' top cops

This is such a cover-your-ass world. Everybody has an excuse. Nothin' ain't nobody's fault, never. The only antidote to c.y.a. is the phrase c.y.a. artists fear most--"on your watch." As in, "It doesn't matter how many layers of deniability you wrap around your big rear end. If it happened on your watch, you're takin' the hit."

That was exactly the principle behind two high-profile demotions in the Dallas Police Department last week. You may not have paid a whole lot of attention.

This all had to do with the city's fake-drugs scandal of 2001, in which police and prosecutors were found sending innocent people to prison on counterfeit drug evidence. Assistant police Chief Dora Saucedo-Falls, who was the department's highest-ranking Hispanic, had responsibility for narcotics as well as other divisions during the time of the fake-drugs scandal. Chief David Kunkle demoted her last week to lieutenant and moved her to communications.

Police Chief David Kunkle demoted two top cops, not for what they did but for what they failed to do.
Mark Graham
Police Chief David Kunkle demoted two top cops, not for what they did but for what they failed to do.

Deputy Chief John Martinez, who reported to Saucedo-Falls, had immediate responsibility for narcotics. Martinez came to that post after the fake-drugs scandal was already under way. He retired last week rather than accept a demotion.

I tried to reach Saucedo-Falls and Martinez last week but was not successful.

Neither Saucedo-Falls nor Martinez was accused by the chief of having done anything deliberate to cause the fake-drugs scandal. It was entirely a matter of what they didn't do to prevent or stop it.

Kunkle says knocking people down for what they did not do, rather than for what they did, is a hard call: "I struggled with what to do. It certainly was not an easy decision."

He says he is aware you could look at the roles of these two top officers in a slightly different way and come to a very different conclusion:

"Both with Chief Falls and Chief Martinez, you can tell the story in a way that their role was minimal. You can tell the story of their failure to see the warning signs and take action quicker in a way that you could hold them not accountable for what happened.

"But the other side of that is that we now have four officers indicted. I think it was 20-plus people who were innocent who were arrested and charged with selling and possessing drugs. And ultimately you had a failure of management supervision."

The eye-opening part of this saga is in the fake-drugs report published last October by the independent investigative panel chartered by the city council to examine why the fake-drugs scandal happened. Kunkle says it was his reading and re-reading of the report that convinced him something had to change.

I went back to the fake-drugs report myself to see what Kunkle was looking at. The authors, lawyers Terence J. Hart and Lena Levario, had conducted a lengthy investigation not aimed at assigning criminal blame: That was the portfolio of a separate investigation set up by District Attorney Bill Hill, which is still under way and still producing indictments.

Hart and Levario were exploring the questions: How did this happen? What do the people in charge of narcotics say when you ask them why innocent people were sent to prison on their watch, based on drug evidence that turned out to be pool-cue chalk instead of cocaine?

The most telltale response for me was from Saucedo-Falls. Saucedo-Falls told the investigative panel that she first learned of the scandal in her area of responsibility a full two months after the first laboratory evidence came back showing that police had been making cases based on counterfeit evidence.

That's not the bad part.

And remember what this case was about. Someone was manufacturing fake cocaine, bundling it up in plastic to look like drugs and then planting it on innocent people. The arrests were made using a gang of confidential informants or snitches who were so untrustworthy to begin with that detectives had been ordered on several occasions to stop using them--orders that were ignored.

Narcotics detectives were paying these informants hundreds of thousands of dollars in snitch money--sums barely accounted for on scraps of paper in a junk-pile accounting system.

More to the point: Honest, hardworking heads of Mexican immigrant families were uprooted from their lives and sent to prison for crimes they had not committed. It's hard to imagine a more brutal injustice than that.

I can still see the face of little Yesenia Mejia, then 12, when I talked to her about the time her father had been in prison ("Mr. No Apology," October 31, 2002). Jesus Mejia, 42, a self-employed carburetor mechanic, was arrested in May 2001 and sent to prison on fake drug evidence.

I spoke to the whole family at a lawyer's office after Mejia was released. Yesenia told me she didn't want to visit her father while he was in prison, and I asked why. Her face crumpled, and tears sprang from her eyes.

"I didn't want to see my dad like that," she said.

Let's not lose sight of that part.

So we get to late November 2001, when Saucedo-Falls had to know about the scandal, because Martinez had requested an investigation by the police department's Internal Affairs Unit--a request that had to go through Saucedo-Falls, presumably leaving some kind of paper trail, a dated document or documents with Saucedo-Falls' signature or initials on them.

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