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Blue Man Blues

The case of Donato Garcia shows what happens when cops are poorly commanded.
Mark Graham

Everybody's got his racial jacket on with this police department thing. I'm getting e-mails from white folks, many of whom don't even live in the city, saying the Dallas Police Department is in a mess because it's been taken over by black people.

Then I get the calls and e-mails from black people saying all the big problems now in the department were already there back when the white chiefs were in charge, and nobody wanted to fire them.

Yes, the problems were there before Terrell Bolton became chief. But everybody wanted to fire the white chiefs, too. Police chiefs get only three or four years on the job before everybody wants to fire them. Chiefs are like cheese. They just go bad after a while.

The current chief's predicament is not black, white or brown. It's blue. He has failed to get the department lined up and marching right. That's blue. Cops are blue. The police force is Blue Man Group with guns. A basic lack of leadership and discipline is bad for their blue heads.

You don't want guys like me for cops. You're behind the counter in your liquor store; the bad guy with the ski mask over his face has one arm around your neck and a TEC-9 jammed in your ear; Schutze is outside on the bullhorn: "OK, now I want to hear both sides of this thing, and no interrupting."

People who make good cops are courageous and principled and high-energy, but they also have a little tiny streak of crazy. Bad guys have to see that in their eyes. Life's a dogfight. Bad guy thinks, "This dog's crazier than I am. I think I'll drop the bone."

The problem is that good cops, even the best cops, have to be forcefully led, subjected to stern military-style discipline, or they get themselves into trouble.

It occurred to me last week to check in on the case of a man I wrote about two years ago: Donato Garcia is a 46-year-old legal immigrant from Mexico, a construction worker who was illegally arrested by Dallas police for "failure to ID." Garcia was beaten and maced by several officers in front of his young children.

People cannot be arrested legally in Texas for refusing to provide identification. It's not against the law to refuse to identify yourself to a police officer.

Garcia was sleeping in his car with his kids at the back door of the Hyatt Regency Hotel on Reunion Boulevard downtown, waiting for his wife to get off work as a housekeeper. He speaks little English.

Somehow, in the 25 seconds or so that it took officer Kenneth Pesce to wake up Garcia and get him out of his car, something happened to put Pesce in high combat mode. In court testimony, Pesce described whipping Garcia onto the ground, putting a knee in his back, grabbing a handful of hair, yanking Garcia's head back and macing him in the face several times at point-blank range, while Garcia's 4-year-old daughter cried, "Papa, Papa!" from the car.

Pesce himself is an interesting case. He has written to the Dallas Observer in the past complaining that my descriptions of him didn't mention the positive aspects of his record with the department. Since Pesce went to work for the department in 1976, he has received at least 72 commendations and awards for merit. His record includes examples of real bravery and selflessness, as when he pulled a potential suicide victim in from a ledge.

But his record also includes examples of Pesce flying off the handle: shouting obscenities at civilian employees in the police department, using excessive force in making arrests, refusing to identify himself when asked for his name and badge number. Consistently down the years, Pesce has been suspended, demoted, reprimanded and written up for going off on people. And just as consistently, according to his record, he takes his medicine, gets himself right with the department, does good police work and earns another commendation.

In his initial report of the Garcia incident right after it happened, Pesce said he had reached into Garcia's car to grab the keys (Garcia was saying, "I move, I move," trying to start the car). Pesce said Garcia "slapped my hand away."

At some point after the arrest for failure to ID, a booking sergeant or someone else must have pointed out that people can't be arrested for that. So the charges were amended to become "resisting arrest" and a lesser charge of sleeping in public. And somewhere along the line the slap on the hand became a disabling martial arts assault. In court and under oath, Pesce told a jury in the resisting arrest trial that Garcia had smashed his hand with such force that Pesce's entire arm was temporarily semi-paralyzed.

 

"The strike on the arm, I lost my grip on his hand, on his right arm. It just opened my hand up. It frogged my hand, my forearm real bad. It was hard for me to operate after that. And I grabbed his left arm and used my right arm up under here, and I pulled him out of the truck."

Pesce explained the hair-grabbing, head-yanking, eyeball-macing aspect of the arrest as the only way he was able to protect his groin from vicious assault: "At that point I was able to place my knee into the middle of his back between his shoulder blades. It's a good technique to hold people facedown and kind of control their center of mass. Unfortunately, it doesn't allow me to control their arms. I can still reach and get his left arm, but I couldn't get his right arm...I had seen a pocket, a little pouch on his side that I thought might contain a pocketknife. And that's where his right hand was. And I was exposed from the groin right over that area. So, at that point, I grabbed his head and pulled it up, and I maced him a fourth time."

Of course.

The jury in this case deliberated for 15 minutes--not enough time to make coffee--and ruled unanimously that Garcia was innocent of the charge of resisting arrest. Fifteen minutes. That's how much they believed Pesce.

The jury vote did not necessarily mean they did not believe the Dallas Police Department. In fact, one of the most persuasive witnesses was Lieutenant Mark Hearn of the department's internal affairs division. Garcia's lawyer, William Dippel, pinned Hearn down on the difference between Pesce's original statement and the version he gave the jury. Hearn said of Pesce's different versions, "That would be inconsistent."

The jury believed Lieutenant Hearn.

All the cops in this story are white, by the way. Sorry, let me amend that: They're all blue. They're all living or trying to live under the Blue Man Code (by which I also mean Blue Woman Code). Life is complicated. They are complicated. Situations are complicated. How do you take all of that and get it to line up straight? And then make it march?

Police morale right now does seem to be at some kind of all-time low. But you have to put that in context with the morale of all Dallas city employees, as bad now as anything in recent memory. If the cops were in a good mood, they would stick out. I spoke with officer Ernest Sherman, treasurer of the Dallas Police Patrolman's Union, who predicted very bitterly that the Dallas City Council will decide this fall to slash employee benefits even more in order to preserve twice-a-week trash pickup for the voters. He said out loud what everybody suspects--that the cops, like most city workers in Dallas these days, are basically on strike.

"They're not writing tickets," Sherman said, "and if they're writing tickets, they're not testifying in court. All [city] workers have a real animosity toward the city. It's like, 'What's more important, the health and welfare of the workers or twice-a-week trash pickup?'

"And basically it's twice-a-week trash pickup, and that cuts a huge thing into the workers, if you value trash more than you do your workers.

"You go around City Hall, people are just dragging. Dum-de-dum-de-dum. People in City Hall always live in fear that they're going to get cut. And the next step they come up with, they'll cut health care. Oh, I'm sure that'll make everybody feel good."

Any police chief would have a tough challenge in this situation. In order to get the department right-side-up, he or she would have to find some way to hold the blue people's hands, convince them they are valued employees and then tell them to get the hell out on the street and do the job or face a firing squad. And, on your way out the door, line up and march. Cops respond to that, if it's genuine and if they can take their leader seriously.

And the cops don't get to elect the chief, either. There has to be a point where the chief can say, "Shape up or get out."

That's what's wrong with Bolton. He can't command the force. He can't make them line up and march. He has been on the job four years. That's his shot. That's what chiefs get. It's not a life tenure.

When good cops don't line up and march the right way, then they can go south on us, and then we're all in danger, for all sorts of reasons. Anybody who thinks being white, black or brown will help has another think coming. We all got the blues.

 

The city has never admitted any wrongdoing in the treatment of Donato Garcia, by the way. Garcia sued, and that case is still dragging its way through the courts. I'm glad I didn't get my ass kicked and my face maced in front of my family. I hope my luck holds out.


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