Calling the cows home
Ben Click, our recently departed police chief, had it down: If you want to make it as chief in Dallas, just go to all of the neighborhood meetings, nod with astonishment and concern every time somebody tells you the amazing news about his garage being burglarized, and stay far away from any real issues.
Now look at Terrell Bolton. He's been chief of police for a month and a week, and he's already so deep in alligators that some people wonder whether he's going to last. One of his supporters said a little ruefully last week, "It's not a given that he can survive this."
According to people who definitely would know and who talked to me on background, Bolton himself views what's going on inside his department as "war."
War is a tough way to start.
Bolton inherited two nasty problems that Click had managed to hide from public view: a federal suit against the department for racial discrimination, and the fact that entire units of the department had just wandered off the farm and were working for the FBI without any city council authorization.
Bolton took the latter one by the horns and ordered the intelligence unit back to Dallas police headquarters. Just about every day since then, the The Dallas Morning News has run a story or a correction about whether Bolton has made the FBI mad at us.
See, he'd be a lot better off right now if he were at a neighborhood meeting, eating a cookie and telling them, "I know how you feel about that lawn mower, because somebody snuck into my department and jacked my whole intelligence unit."
Some of Bolton's problems are of his own making. He kicked off his tenure by demoting nine people from the assistant chief ranks and promoting 12 others. That caused an immediate outbreak of rancor, envy, and back-stabbing -- all things that cops are really good at -- and deflected focus from the big issues.
But was he supposed to ignore that the intelligence unit had run away from home? How bizarre. How in the world did an entire division of the city police department -- 35 officers and staff costing the city $5 million a year -- simply move to the offices of the FBI without a city council vote or even a public discussion?
Unfortunately, of the two big issues waiting for Bolton when he took office, the FBI thing is the easy one. People high in the department said last week the racial issue is the much bigger, badder, deeper-running problem left behind by Click. This issue, in one form or another, is what's really driving the tensions in DPD.
The U.S. Justice Department is suing Dallas for "disparate discipline" under Click, alleging that black officers were treated much more harshly than white ones. The charges are based on a thick catalog of cases reaching back several years and coming right up into the recent past.
One of the roughest demotions handed out by Bolton as soon as he took office came straight out of the race issue: Bolton, who is African-American, busted Executive Assistant Chief Robert Jackson, who is African-American, back to sergeant.
Bolton has made no public explanation of the demotion. But for more than a year, Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price has been referring to Jackson as "that embarrassment." Price accuses Jackson of having made his own way in the department by staying meek and mild on the disparate discipline issue under Click. When I spoke to him last week, Price was pleased that Jackson had retired and left the department. His precise words were, "Thank God and Greyhound."
Jackson, for his part, didn't return my calls requesting comment.
The other issue Bolton seems to be moving on is almost as old and deep as the racial issue and is tangential to it: the real relationship between the community and the police department. Everybody in police work these days has some kind of buzzword spiel about "community-based policing," and, indeed, under Click, there had even been a kind of Special Division of Community Based-ness.
But ever since the incredible success of the East Dallas Police Storefront in the Little Asia section of Old East Dallas in the early 1980s, there has been a deep division in the department: Some people think the entire department needs to shift fundamentally, change its whole heart and philosophy in order to win over communities the way the East Dallas storefront did. And then there are cops who think that if they have to do that they might as well wear tie-dyed bandannas and wield bongs instead of guns.
Ron Cowart, the former Dallas cop who ran the East Dallas storefront, said last week he sees Bolton as the best hope the department has ever had for true community-based policing -- that is, police work that involves working hand-in-glove with other agencies, including social service agencies, code enforcement, public health, the schools, and so on, in an attempt to attack what Cowart calls "the true root causes of crime."
If Bolton epitomizes this kind of approach, and Cowart and others say he does, then Bolton's arch-nemesis these days, Willard Rollins, is the standard-bearer for the other type, the soldier boys, the icy-blues, the ones who want to kick butt, take names, and leave the social work to the khaki-and-Pendleton salt-and-pepper beardos.
Rollins is the former executive assistant chief who was demoted by Ben Click just before Click left town. Rollins, who presided over all of the department's investigative units, was accused of failing to report a very minor fender-bender traffic accident with a parked car and was busted to captain in charge of the jail on the graveyard shift. Rollins is now suing the city over his demotion, and, through his lawyer, declined to comment for this story.
But talk about an approach that is not warmly disposed toward community control or community influence: Rollins is the one under whose authority whole segments of the department have been officing with the FBI, taking part in things like the FBI Anti-Terrorism Task Force, apparently traveling in Europe under FBI control investigating people like Osama Bin Laden.
Last week when I asked Dallas FBI spokeswoman Marjorie Poche if there was a contract or document or something governing this arrangement -- please, some kind of paper -- she said no. No paper.
"It was a handshake deal between Chief Click and [FBI Special Agent in Charge Danny] Defenbaugh."
In fairness, Poche says Dallas cops weren't just giving the feds their intelligence: We were "sharing intelligence" with the FBI for our mutual benefit.
Whenever the FBI Anti-Terrorism Task Force is mentioned, the FBI people always cite their one big caper, the three so-called Ku Klux Klan members they caught two years ago who supposedly were plotting to blow up a gas plant in Wise County. That was a pathetic case in which an FBI informant who was in trouble for dope conned three gap-toothed geeks into joining a branch of the KKK that he himself may have organized, and then got them to say on tape they agreed to help him blow up a gas plant.
The main evidence was a videotape shot from a hidden camera under the dashboard of the informant's pickup in which the plotters, all straight out of the modular-housing version of Les Miserables, concurred with the informant that blowing up the gas plant just might be something to do. When I saw the tape in court, they all seemed to be sucking on something huge just off camera, which I bet was a joint the size of the Goodyear Blimp, supplied by guess who?
They're in federal prison now, probably getting the best dental care of their lives.
We can't help mentioning, also, that this is the FBI office that has investigated corruption in the Dallas Independent School District for two years now and has come up with janitors fudging on their overtime and roofing contractors cheating on their contracts. Next time we do a handshake deal, maybe we could switch and share intelligence with the roofers.
The issue of the FBI arrangement is entangled in the whole matter of how the department was run under Click, and it especially involves Rollins. His people were the ones running around with the FBI in Europe and over in Wise County policing the shallow end of the gene pool.
Rollins is a complex figure. Many people in the department believe he was the real chief under Click. I talked to Ben Click at his home in Arizona. (He said, "You're not bothering me. My wife was making me help clean the house.") Click insisted the story that Rollins really ran the department while Click was out all day politicking the community was "baloney."
"In the last five years, Will Rollins played a significant role in that department, but no more so than a half-dozen other people," Click said.
All right. That's Click's version. But many of his subordinates believe otherwise, and they say that Rollins' dominance and the deal with the FBI all had to do with channeling control of the department away from any kind of real local community influence.
Unfortunately for Bolton, nobody is talking much about disparate discipline or community-based policing because of the demotions.
Some of the moves seemed especially harsh because of a quirk in civil service rules: When he demoted people out of the chief's office, Bolton had to send them back to the last civil service rank they held before being promoted into management. That's why Jackson went back to sergeant: He was a sergeant before he was made an assistant chief.
There is also a perception in the department that some of the people demoted were getting payback for having testified in support of Rollins in his lawsuit.
The bottom line is that Bolton is struggling with very important issues -- issues that were there waiting for him when he took office. It looks messy. Click's regime looked tidier -- on the surface.
And about that FBI thing: Have any other city employees slipped down to the West End to work with the feds? Haven't seen those garbage men on the block in a while.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Dallas, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.