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.

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.

Saucedo-Falls told the investigative panel that she still did not learn any details of the allegations, because on hearing from Martinez there was some kind of an issue, she ordered Martinez to go tell then-police Chief Terrell Bolton about it. And she didn't ask to go along.

"Even though the allegations involved personnel under her command," the fake-drugs report says, "she demonstrated a reluctance to investigate matters as she failed to inquire into the specifics of the allegations and did not accompany Deputy Chief Martinez to brief Chief Bolton."

Sweet. So some day when they come along with that famous investigative question--"What did you know, and when did you know it?"--you can honestly say, "I didn't know anything. Ever. Talk to Chief Martinez."

By removing her from her position--and these are my words and interpretation, not his--Chief Kunkle was saying that any top manager with an excuse that good deserves not to be a top manager anymore.

I think that's a doctrine that could really wreak havoc at City Hall, if it were generally and forcefully applied: All personnel with really good excuses for what took place today please report immediately to the out-placement bureau in human resources.Boy, they'd be linin' up all the way down the hall.

Of the two top cops, Martinez is the more difficult case, because he came to narcotics after the fake-drugs scandal was well under way. In fact, the fake-drugs report reveals something that hasn't gained a lot of attention yet--that the bones of the fake-drugs scandal, the basic behaviors that made it possible, may go back at least as far as the early 1990s under the regime of former Chief William Rathburn, and probably go back even further.

Hart and Levario, the fake-drugs investigators, dug out of the department a heretofore secret report on possible misconduct in the narcotics unit dated June 18, 1992. Amazingly, many of the same sloppy practices dealing with the use and payment of confidential informants--almost a carbon copy of findings in the 2001 fake-drugs scandal--were turned up by investigators in 1992.

And this: Many of the same cops working in narcotics in 1992 were still there during the 2001 scandal.

Martinez tried to do something, sort of. When he learned that one group of confidential informants was involved in all of the fake-drugs cases, he ordered the narcotics officers under his command to stop using them. Here's the problem: They defied him.

He ordered them to stop using the bad snitches. They kept using the bad snitches. He found out they were defying him. Nothing happened.

He has a story about why nothing happened. He told the investigators that by the time he was really absolutely sure they were still using the bad snitches, the particular lieutenant he had ordered not to use them had been promoted to a rank equal to Martinez. So at that point Martinez couldn't tell the guy what to do.

Pretty weak.

And here's the reality that emerges from all of this: There was an entrenched cadre of cops in narcotics, some of whom had developed their own way of doing things over the years. Not everybody in narcotics by any means. Another thing that emerges from the fake-drugs report is that there was another cadre of cops in narcotics who were straight, who went by the book and did what was right. That's a theme in almost all of the problems the department has suffered in the last few years: Somewhere in there, out of the limelight and quietly laboring away, there has always been a core of decent, honest cops with integrity who did what they were supposed to do, even if nobody was watching them.

But you had the loosey-goosey guys, too. And they had friends. And it went up the ladder. Maybe all the way up.

So if you, John Martinez, come in late in the day when the game is already under way, it will take a whole lot of fortitude to blow the whistle. You have to assume you may be the one taking the bullet, not the bad guys, and that's a tough chance to take.

Not an easy thing. You can look at my business, at all the plagiarism and lying scandals that have rocked major newspapers in recent years: There are journalists whose excuses are so good they could be made into major motion pictures.

The "on your watch" rule is a tough one. That roar you hear in the distance is the glory and the terror of a whole new day dawning at the Dallas P.D.

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