Color Code

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

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."

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 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."

There are those who say he's well on his way to proving he can deal with myriad pressures the job produces. And every officer and community leader interviewed during the past month by the Dallas Observer says they know Chief Kunkle has the city's best interests at heart. But they look at the major issues he must quickly address to restore morale--hiring, promotion, transfers and discipline--and realize each one has a major racial component. Which makes them wonder if there is any way to appease enough officers no matter what he does. Add to that the fact that both white and black officers are suing the department for discrimination, there are six police associations vying for his ear and many say they're already sick of hearing the chief discuss how he handled similar problems in Arlington, and it's a recipe for unrest. To quell it, he must somehow placate the police associations and community activists who are quick to apply pressure.

"The bad news is that the chief is Little Red Riding Hood and the department is the Big Bad Wolf," says Malik Aziz, head of the TPOA and promoted last week to lieutenant. "The good news is that we can peacefully coexist...but he will certainly have little room for error."

It's a glorious scene, every skin color under the rainbow dressed in blue. At one table, two black and two white cops sit, eating their meals. At another, two female Hispanic police officers share a light lunch. At another, one black and three white officers dine--two of the officers are patrol, two are bike cops. During the next two hours, a diverse mix of officers parades through the front door. DPD recruiters should come here and shoot video to show to all those who say Dallas cops just can't get along.

They would do so if it wasn't lunchtime in late August at Hooters in the West End. Because that would suggest the only thing that truly binds all police officers is an affinity for wings and push-up bras.

Which would be unfair. Talk to officers long enough, and you realize that, on the surface, their concerns are the same regardless of race, color, creed. They want good pay, good benefits, opportunity for advancement, pride in their workplace, a fair shake. The divisions come when you ask them why they're denied these things. Inevitably, their answers center on race.

More specifically, white officers believe the greatest hindrance to their advancement is caused by unqualified officers of color being given preferential treatment in the name of diversity, not just under Bolton but for the past decade or more. Many black and Hispanic officers believe that any roadblocks to better jobs or pay within DPD are caused by systemic cronyism or outright racism. When you talk to enough officers, you wonder if anyone anywhere in DPD has the job they want or is paid enough.

To understand why these issues are so important to officers--and can be so divisive--it's important to understand the police culture and the recent racial history of DPD.

Promotions and transfers are the lifeblood of an officer. (In DPD, they go from being a patrol officer to senior corporal to sergeant to lieutenant to deputy or assistant chief.) To qualify for many of the desired jobs, such as detective work, officers must at least make senior corporal. Also, if officers want command-level jobs, they must first serve in the "middle management" positions, otherwise they must be double- or triple-promoted. This was done under Terrell Bolton as well as under former Chief Mack Vines, but it always breeds resentment within the ranks.

The current system for promotion was born in a time of tremendous racial unrest, in Dallas and within the department. In the late '80s, a series of tragic shootings--officers killing young black men and young black men killing officers--led a drumbeat for change within the department, primarily from outspoken minority leaders. Then-Chief Billy Prince, in the wake of the killing of three officers in one month in early 1988, charged the media and activists with complicity in their deaths by "the atmosphere that's been created by negative criticism." The incidents spurred lawsuits against the city and DPD and the creation in 1988 of the Civilian Police Review Board, which was bitterly opposed by the Dallas Police Association, then representing 95 percent of all police officers.  

Prince resigned suddenly that year, and the city council looked closely at recommendations on how to fix the racial unrest. Some policies they enacted were symbolic--changing the targets on the shooting range from black to green, for example. But the largest step, besides hiring outsider Vines to run the department, was to pass an affirmative action plan that would force DPD to better reflect the racial diversity of the city it policed.

To this day, officers say, this decision has undermined the morale of white officers who believe they're not treated equally--which has led to reverse discrimination suits--and cast doubt on black or Hispanic officers who receive plum transfers and promotions, regardless of their qualifications.

From a 20-year white officer, a senior corporal who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation: "I understand there's been racial problems in the police department in years past. But you need to suck it up and not discriminate against white officers. He's got to have the balls and smarts to show that the person he promoted might be as white as a ghost, but he can handle the job and he's the most qualified person available. He'll have to get the courts and the local community to accept that fact."

From a 20-years-plus black officer: "Any time a person of color goes to a specialized job--robbery, homicide, child abuse, family violence, the academy--we get a barrage of reverse discrimination grievances from white officers filed saying you've transferred someone who is unqualified," says Sergeant Thomas Glover, who teaches diversity to new recruits. "Even if a unit is majority white, if a minority is selected, they'll say, 'Oh, someone unqualified was selected.' So, under Chief Bolton and under Chief Click, command-level officers made decisions on appointments and transfers to achieve the diversity they had to make. Now, Chief Kunkle comes in and the first thing I hear him address is the transfer policy. That tells me he's listening to the wrong people, because that's been a sore spot for Anglo officers.

"Chief Kunkle has to be very careful he doesn't fall into those traps that are set by certain people who could not care less about making the department a place of diversity," he says. "So I think his greatest duty is to not offset that effort. Because he will upset people. They may call for his resignation simply because he does things to diversify the police department."

Kunkle knows how important transfers and promotions are to officers. He knows some of the promotion lists from which he's working are three years old. (Many officers wanted him to get rid of the last list and institute a new round of testing. They allege that part of the testing was unfairly skewed toward minorities.) He knows that many white officers disparage those lists because they're based on two kinds of tests, a written exam and more subjective interviewing by independent assessment centers--derisively called "the racial equalization board" by white officers who believe the centers give minorities better scores to make up for their supposedly poorer written scores. He knows that white officers feel this way even though Thomas Glover has three times scored very highly on the written portion of the lieutenant test--scoring 15th out of 150 in 1996 and fourth overall three years ago--and each time had his score dropped by "the racial equalization board" to a level where he missed being promoted. He knows facts that don't fit the stereotypes of any racial group get dismissed.

"I'm very well aware of the history of race in this department. And I'm aware of the history going back over 32 years, and I know how these frustrations have developed," Kunkle says. "But it's complicated. A lot of what we're talking about are zero-sum games. You know, 'I get it, you don't,' and vice versa. 'I'll never accept the fact that you're more deserving than I am, so if you get it [promotion, transfer, etc.], it's due to inequity or lack of fairness.' And then they inject the issue of race.

"The good news is we have talented people of every race and gender in all ranks. When I named my deputy chiefs, there were another 10 [minority or female] lieutenants who could have made it. So I think we're well-positioned to have people to promote of all races and genders."  

There is ample reason to believe that Kunkle should continue to increase diversity in DPD. Although the command staff is still very diverse (seven whites, seven blacks, six Hispanics, one Asian), the rest of the department is only about one-third minority. This in a majority-minority city. This after more than a decade of intense pressure to diversify.

Kunkle's past suggests he can succeed in diversifying the ranks without sacrificing qualifications. The problem is that the very thing that makes one believe he can do so, his experience and record in Arlington as police chief, is a legacy to which officers of all colors turn a deaf ear.

Not long after David Kunkle arrived as chief in Arlington in 1985, he raised the standards for hiring, requiring more college hours from applicants. At the same time, he increased recruiting and promoting of minorities, leading to a better-qualified, more diverse department.

No one disputes this. Certainly not the white officers who filed an EEOC complaint against Kunkle for reverse discrimination. Not the current Arlington chief, Theron Bowman, the black man who followed Kunkle and credits him with making his advancement possible.

Kunkle achieved much of the diversity by putting tremendous emphasis on recruiting qualified minority officers. There were no quotas, and no exceptions were made to get more people of color in the force. That doesn't mean he wasn't creative. For example, when he needed a sergeant's slot to open up so that Bowman could make that rank--crucial if he were to get the middle management experience necessary for higher positions--he persuaded an officer near retirement to leave early, opening up the needed slot. Any time he saw opportunities to put qualified minorities in place, he worked doggedly within the rules to do so.

All of which is good. Except officers are already saying they don't want to hear it. They liken it to the boss who comes to Company You from a smaller competitor and tells you every day how they did it at Company Them.

"Members of this police department will turn off to him if he consistently uses Arlington as his standard," says one sergeant. "You cannot consistently say that 'In Arlington we did this, in Arlington we did that.' You have to say, 'Research around the country has shown this. I've talked to officers in Dallas, and they say this. I've looked at this program in L.A. and this program in New York and this program in Chicago. Arlington cannot be the standard. People are already upset about that."

Glover, friends with the Arlington police chief and an Arlington resident for 24 years, agrees. "Arlington has no significant minority community. You don't have areas like Fair Park and Dixon Circle. The department is one-sixth the size. The comparison doesn't work."

They understand that Kunkle started as a Dallas cop. They understand that some of the ideas he used in Arlington worked. They just have little faith they'll work in a department as big as Dallas. So when Chief Kunkle mentions to the various police associations that it was easier to address the concerns of the one large police union in Arlington, they don't hear that as someone suggesting that agreement among the police associations makes them more effective, which is what Kunkle meant. They hear it as the small-town chief longing for a simpler time at a smaller department when he had troops making requests to him on bended knee.

The more complex reality is that the challenges Kunkle faces are similar to Arlington, only magnified many times.

"I would argue that police work is the same everywhere as far as being the chief of police is concerned," says Alejandro del Carmen, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at UT-Arlington who has worked with Kunkle. "It's just the size of the department makes it very tough. Every department faces these racial issues we're talking about. But in Dallas, you've had a lot of very public battles, and that affects morale. But his time in Arlington shouldn't be discounted just because it's smaller."

It all starts with how he deals with the unions, as officers who wouldn't otherwise speak publicly on racial issues will complain bitterly to their organization's president. Glenn White has been vice president or president of the DPA since the late '80s. He's the man the media go to when they want the DPA's position--which, fairly or not, is seen as the white officer's stance. (White didn't return repeated calls for this story.)  

The Latino Peace Officers Association sided with the DPA's criticism of the chief's ban on neck holds. Despite some minority groups that championed the move, LPOA President George Aranda said it took away an effective tool for officers. And the LPOA is hopeful the chief will address some issues specific to their group, such as eliminating or revising the academic phone tests that determine whether an officer is bilingual.

"You call the college, and the professor gives you the exam over the phone," explains Richard Perez, vice president of the LPOA. "You have to speak to them in Spanish. But it's a very formal, very proper type of Spanish. And most of our kids speak Spanish, but not very proper. They can do the job, though, and communicate with people on the street. They still provide the service--the average guy can't do that--and even in somewhat broken Spanish they're understood and they help out other officers. But they're not getting paid for it." (Officers can make as much as $100 a month extra if certified as bilingual.)

"But overall, having experienced the chiefs prior to him, he comes across as honest and sincere and hardworking. We were lucky to get him. And we think he'll be responsive to our needs."

If officers think Kunkle is through using Arlington as a measuring stick, though, they'd better get over it. Because he shows no signs of ignoring his successful history there just to calm the critics. For example, he says the next round of testing for promotions won't be until next year, and he hasn't decided how best to balance the written and interview portions. Even though he says "the assessment center will be re-evaluated," he doesn't sound like a man who's going to do away with that method altogether. He mentions instead that in Arlington, there was no written exam for lieutenant, only subjective testing. He says by that point, officers had already demonstrated their basic knowledge of police work, so he values problem-solving exercises as ways to judge the best applicant.

Which would of course lead to more charges of racial equalization with every officer of color promoted. "What I've tried to do in Arlington," he says, "was take every advantage to try to diversify the work force. And it's what I'll do here."

Chief Click warns that even if Kunkle's intentions square with the associations' requests, he'd best tell it to them in a manner they'll hear. Even if it means leaving Arlington out of it.

"If internal employee groups don't like what you say, they're at the city council or out in the community complaining. They're out stirring the pot. And it becomes very personal. The worst thing you can call someone is a racist. And they will call you that if the numbers or your actions aren't just what they want."

This doesn't seem like the nexis for Southern Dallas racial politics, as some activists would suggest. Nor does it seem like the black devil's lair, as some white officers would surely claim. It is what it is: the small, cluttered church office at Camp Wisdom United Methodist Church in South Oak Cliff, the office of the Reverend L. Charles Stovall.

Stovall opens up two cans of Diet Sprite and begins orating, quietly and calmly, about why it is that so many white officers see him as the enemy, why that's wrong, why he won't stop trying to bring about changes at DPD.

He says his broad coalition of black activists, the Unified Organizations for Justice, came together because of concerns surrounding cases since 1999 of in-custody deaths and suspect fatalities that disproportionately involved blacks or Hispanics and were committed disproportionately by white officers--15 such deaths during the past two-plus years alone, Stovall says, were simply too many. That these problems coincided with the tenure of a black police chief didn't matter, he said. They had to be addressed, and even though members of the black community privately derided the organization for putting heat on Chief Bolton, he says it was the right thing to do.

As was the first major decision Kunkle made regarding deadly force--banning the LVNR, or neck hold. (He did so after the death of a 300-plus-pound Hispanic suspect who was placed in the LVNR while resisting arrest.) Stovall was quoted in The Dallas Morning News as saying, "This is something that needed to be done, and we are rejoicing." This didn't set well with cops of all colors, but the posts by white cops on the Web site (a closed site where many current and retired officers post reactions to police news) were particularly vicious.  

"Kunkle and the Rev. Racist Stovall deserve each other," wrote one. "I can't wait to see South Dallas burn," wrote another.

Asked why a seemingly race-neutral subject such as police tactics can become so racially charged, Stovall picks up the list of in-custody and shooting deaths on his desk and begins reading the disciplinary outcome of these cases after they went to a grand jury.

"Deaths in custody. Ruled suicide, ruled suicide, ruled suicide. Ruled an accident. No-billed. No-billed. No-billed. No-billed. No-billed. No-billed. Ruled an accident. No-billed. Ruled a suicide. No-billed.

"And then the fatalities. No-billed, no-billed, no-billed." He turns the page. "No-billed, no-billed, no-billed, no-billed, no-billed." Turn. "No-billed, no-billed, no-billed." Turn. "No-billed, no-billed, no-billed, no-billed, no-billed." Turn. "No-billed, no-billed, no-billed, no-billed." Turn. "No-billed, has not been scheduled, has not been scheduled."

He puts the list on his desk. "The reason this is about race is because it's the young black and Hispanic men who are dying. It's right there in front of us. We're very clear. We're not supporting the activities of criminals. Arrest them, hold them, take them to jail, try them and if convicted, send them to prison. But you're not there to determine if their lives are valuable."

Stovall and others contend this has everything to do with the way police approach their jobs in South Dallas vs. North Dallas. Officers who work at the police academy say recruits learn early on that it is cushier to work the beats in the "country club" (north central Dallas) than those in the "war zone" (Southern Dallas).

"There are bad cops out there, sure," says a white senior corporal. "But the day-to-day job of a police officer is to take people to jail who don't want to go. Sometimes that gets violent, and violence isn't pretty. There will be controversy when that happens."

This squares with some officers' view that they are not part of a community service organization, as most modern departments see themselves, but are instead part of a "paramilitary organization," as some white officers describe it.

That Kunkle met at all with Stovall upsets officers who believe any decision that mirrors the desires of community activists is anti-cop. Any happiness from Stovall is seen as defeat.

Which is nonsense, according to Kunkle. "In police-community relations, I don't think it has to be police on this side, community on this side. When I talk to people in some African-American communities, they want to have good relationships with the police more so than some communities that are not as beset by violent crime and drugs. So there is an environment where officers have to use the correct tactics and interact well with the community so they can get the benefit of the doubt when something goes wrong. It's not a case of one side wins, one side loses."

Stovall says he believes Kunkle wants DPD to be a department that is sensitive to their concerns, one that works to build trust with Southern Dallas. "I'm cautiously optimistic," he says. "You have to have a chief that listens to the needs of the community. We haven't always had that. And I don't see why everyone doesn't want that."

The travails of Deputy Chief Zackary Belton are indicative of the race-scoring game played by DPD officers. Belton was promoted to deputy chief by Terrell Bolton at the same time he demoted several other deputy chiefs (which ended up costing the city more than $5 million in lawsuit settlements). Belton, who is black, was placed over the Crimes Against Persons Division, one of the plum assignments on the police force.

But Belton's promotion was widely derided by white cops as an example of Bolton's cronyism. They say his 17 recorded traffic accidents while on duty, eight of which were ruled preventable, should alone prove he was unfit for command.

To the surprise of many white officers, Belton was not one of those demoted by Chief Kunkle last month, though Belton was moved to a less prestigious post, heading up the Communications/Detention Services Section.

Black officers, however, say that regardless of Kunkle's take on Belton's ability, it was best he not be demoted. "Zackary Belton was great in terms of promoting diversity, but he was given a reduction in prestige," Glover says. "I can guarantee you, had he been demoted, there would have been a tremendous uproar from black officers and leaders in the black community. Tremendous."

Kunkle says he can't worry about trying to figure out who was promoted fairly and who wasn't. ("You can never answer that question," he says.) He says all he can do is try to create processes that are valid and fair.

Kunkle is already making changes he hopes will have a positive effect on departmental race relations. He has put a white officer in charge of a "black" substation, Southeast, and a black officer in charge in a "white" substation, Northwest. Like Chief Click before him, he has assigned a black officer to oversee Internal Affairs in part to address complaints about disparate discipline among black officers. Complaints that don't, at this point, seem close to going away.  

The issue of disparate discipline in DPD, in which black officers are disciplined more harshly and in greater proportion than white officers, was written about in depth by Dallas Observer writer Miriam Rozen in February 2000. Rozen showed that far more complaints were brought against black officers, and the punishments meted out were more severe than against white officers.

"Exactly," says one white sergeant. "You're paying the price for lowering the standards 10 years ago. And it so happens that a lot of bad black cops got in when you did that. And they end up with disciplinary actions taken against them. Not a surprise."

Chief Kunkle says he's keenly aware that he'll be judged on how his department disciplines troops--and this, more than any other issue, drove a wedge between the TPOA and Chief Click. "It created long-term hostility," Kunkle says, "and I don't think it was an issue the organization could ever get beyond with him."

Glover, who was head of the TPOA for 10 years before stepping down in January, agrees. "Click lasted six years because we were fooled," he says. "Then we said hold on. We make up 18 percent of the department, but we get over 50 percent of the discipline? So my point is, Chief Kunkle will get the respect, the same leeway, initially. But if he does not build on it, then we will do the same thing we did to Chief Click. We're going to try our best to get the community roused, alert city officials, get all those forces aligned against him."

Glover says the TPOA is very concerned about stories they're hearing about a new wave of disparate discipline, and it's something the organization is monitoring keenly.

Kunkle says he respects the TPOA and all police organizations, but adds that they are beholden only to their constituency, while he is accountable to the entire city.

"I've got one of the most accountable jobs around," he says. "I know I'm judged every day. When I took this job, I decided I would do the right things for the right reasons. That's all I can do."

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