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Cops and Monsters

In his new role as a member of the Dallas Citizens Police Review Board, former city Councilman Al Lipscomb is a champion of better benefits for cops. Mayor Miller, meanwhile, supports cutbacks.
Mark Graham

Screenplay: Toiling for years deep in his political laboratory, Dr. Lipscombstein's dream has been to bring his revenge to life. An experiment with an ethics complaint against Mayor Laura Miller was a dismal failure. But now, with lightning crackling above his mountain lair, former city Councilman Al Lipscomb finally sees an eyelid flutter.

FADE IN.

INTERIOR: THE LABORATORY

DR. LIPSCOMBSTEIN IS wringing his hands in exultation.

LIPSCOMBSTEIN:

It's alive! It's alive! At long last my sweet revenge on Laura Miller is alive!

And what an exciting movie this is going to be for us! I am definitely going to pack up my folding chair and a box of popcorn and go down to City Hall to be in the audience.

Lipscomb, who was appointed to the Dallas Citizens Police Review Board last August, has finally found the formula. By pushing the board to criticize a key Miller position on disability pay for injured cops, Lipscomb is about to force the mayor and the rest of the council to declare themselves on an issue they'd love to duck.

CLOSE-UP.

LIPSCOMBSTEIN leans forward, whispers gently to CREATURE:

Go down the mountain to City Hall. Look for a skinny white girl with a smart mouth. She wants to be your girlfriend.

Before we recite all the backstory on why former Councilman Lipscomb might want to see the mayor carried off by a scary monster, most of which I think you know, it's important to state that Lipscomb is on the side of right and honor in this matter, at least according to most of the people I talk to.

It was the Dallas Observer that first told the story of how a $900,000 budget cut backed by the mayor was working a hardship on cops shot, car-wrecked and otherwise badly hurt in the performance of their duties ("In Harm's Way," by Thomas Korosec, December 25). More recently and in one of her more extremely tone-deaf moments, the mayor was on TV speaking in snooty tones about how cops shot in drug raids aren't that different from sanitation workers hurt on trucks.

The point was, she said, the city is strapped and must cut the cops back to the same disability pay benefits it extends to the sanitation workers and other city employees. That translates to 13 weeks' full pay off the job with an injury, as opposed to what it used to be--52 weeks.

It's worth noting that the city is, indeed, financially hammered. And hammered is hammered. Something has to be cut. Something good and worthwhile has to be cut. Just cutting stuff we don't care about anyway, that's not hammered. Hammered is cutting what hurts. The mayor, to her credit, is willing to step up and do what has to be done.

But. Even extreme financial need doesn't let us off the hook on certain fundamental moral obligations. If you can't afford to slap a badge on somebody and ask him to go take that bullet for you in the neighbor's darkened house, then don't do it. Don't ask. Walk in the house and check it out for burglars yourself. But if you do ask someone else to go in harm's way for you, do you not owe a special debt when that person is harmed?

That's basically what Lipscomb said to me when I talked to him about this last week. He had introduced a measure before the citizens police review panel calling on the city council to reject cutbacks on pay for injured cops and "...to assure the men and women of the police department and their families that the people of Dallas will not abandon them when they most need our support."

On the phone Lipscomb drew a moral distinction between injuries that can happen to sanitation workers and injuries suffered by cops: "People say to me, 'Well, what about the garbage workers?' But those are accidents."

The difference, he said, is that the public wants the sanitation workers to be shielded from danger whenever possible. But we ask the police to go straight at danger.

"We are placing people in harm's way," he said, "and expecting them to protect us."

This basic line of reasoning--an important fundamental difference between cops and other workers--appears to have won Lipscomb the support of an overwhelming majority of his fellow review board members. Last week when he tried to introduce his resolution, a non-binding expression of the board's sentiment, the assistant city attorney who advises the board jumped all over Lipscomb with technical objections about the proper posting of agenda items.

She told the body it could not even discuss Lipscomb's resolution at last week's meeting. But a majority was so eager to get to it that they voted to hold a specially called meeting on March 23 to take it up.

 

Anne Carlson, appointee of conservative city council member Mitchell Rasansky, is in the deal. She told me she hopes the members of the review board will show up en masse to press the city council on the issue: "I'd like to have us all on the board go down to a city council meeting and say this is where we stand, and this is important, and tell us what we can do to help."

OVER SHOULDER.

DR. LIPSCOMBSTEIN watches CREATURE lumber off toward City Hall.

LIPSCOMBSTEIN:

Boogie, baby.

We do need to do the backstory on this. Lipscomb, after all, has a major ax to grind against the mayor. In January 2000, Lipscomb was convicted of bribery and sentenced to 41 months' home confinement over money he took from Yellow Cab of Dallas. The federal prosecution of Lipscomb was based in large part on facts dug up by Miller when she was an investigative reporter for this newspaper.

Lipscomb's conviction was subsequently overturned by the federal appeals court in New Orleans. Some people in this town like to describe the Lipscomb outcome as based on a technicality, but it seemed pretty broad and emphatic to me. The New Orleans court, usually quite conservative, said Lipscomb might never have been convicted in the first place if Judge Joe Kendall had not improperly shipped the trial out to Amarillo on a change of venue that nobody had asked for. Amarillo, after all, is the same basic jury pool that gave us Tulia.

We have seen lots of evidence since then that Lipscomb has not and probably will never forgive Miller for her role in his travails. Last October, after six months of investigation and 20 hours of absurd hearings straight out of Gilbert and Sullivan, the city's ethics commission rejected a complaint from Lipscomb's wife, Lovie, that the mayor had made an unethical use of a city-owned podium.

Later Lipscomb loaned his name and gravitas to the comic-opera recall campaign against Mayor Miller over her alleged role in the firing of former police Chief Terrell Bolton--an embarrassing farce and a stain forever on the names of the clergymen behind it. The point is that Lipscomb has been in the lab for a long time now, twirling dials, watching the beakers bubble and brew, trying to bring his vengeance to life.

It's also a fact that Lipscomb has a long history of support for the police on pay issues. Dallas Police Association Vice President Eddie Crawford told me he has always considered Lipscomb a staunch supporter of the police on pay issues, in spite of differences the department may have had with Lipscomb over the years in his role as a community activist and council member. Lipscomb has been closely associated with businessman Pete Schenkel, a longtime supporter of the police who has expressed dismay over the supplemental disability pay issue.

It's hard to tell exactly where the mayor is headed on this issue. She was out of town when I called for comment last week. But in her public statements so far, she has expressed concerns that many reasonable people would find legitimate. For one thing, city studies have shown that employees who know they can get full disability pay for 52 weeks tend to come back to work on week 53. That includes cops.

With the city in dire financial straits, Miller certainly can make a cogent case that every effort must be made to tighten the ship. At least theoretically that should include tightening up even on cops injured in the line of duty.

But here we come to the moral underpinning. Can you be theoretical about it? Is this an issue that's reducible to logic? Or is it a fact that cops and firemen who get hurt by going in harm's way are a special case? Maybe if they say they need 52 weeks, they get 52 weeks. Maybe we can't ask them to do what they do and then start nickel-and-diming them.

Miller has been hard-case about it so far, but this is also one of those instances where the system at City Hall quickly stops working. Under our weak mayor, weak city council, weak city manager system, Miller has no power to do anything. City Manager Ted Benavides--who came up with these cuts in the first place--is already showing signs of waffle. Two weeks ago he asked the city attorney for an opinion on whether a special case could be made for cops and firemen who suffer certain types of high-profile injuries.

If Lipscomb succeeds in putting the question squarely before the council in a very public way, the council is going to waffle all over the place. It would be politically and psychologically impossible for them to do otherwise.

 

Unless Miller finds a way out as well, Lipscomb will have isolated her. It will be the mayor out there all alone, with no one backing her up, saying mean, stingy things about injured cops.

OVER LIPSCOMBSTEIN'S SHOULDER as he watches the villagers put torches to the new Mayoral Mansion in Preston Hollow.

LIPSCOMBSTEIN:

Holy smokes, they're torchin' the mayor. I need to get down there with some marshmallows. Call me a Yellow Cab!


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