The news lately on DART, our regional mass transit agency, is that the city’s elected officials are having major credibility problems with the things DART staff tells them about rail construction projects worth billions of dollars. When I hear about those problems at the big-deal end, a part of me always wants to tell the elected officials, “Welcome to the club,” a warm greeting from us little people who have had to deal with DART on our own scale for years.
On the grand scale, the Dallas City Council has been learning that DART changes its story and leaves out important facts when it talks about things like a subway for downtown, a new trolley line or a major new rail route through the suburbs.
On the small scale where I live, DART does exactly the same thing when one of its own cops busts a news gatherer illegally and then lies about it repeatedly to her own superiors.
When you think about it, if you feel OK about lying on the little stuff, you probably won’t sweat telling a few stretchers on the big stuff, will you?
The little-stuff incident I’m thinking about — no small thing to the guy involved — was the arrest last February by DART police of freelance photographer and locally famous neighborhood activist Avi Adelman, now at the center of a federal civil rights lawsuit.
And please, for the sake of argument, if you know Adelman’s history and have strong feelings about him as a person, let’s put those to one side and talk instead about one issue only — honesty at DART. I happen to admire most of what Adelman does, both as a paparazzo and as an activist. Maybe he gets on your nerves. That’s not today’s topic.
Instead the topic is this: What is the culture of honesty or lack thereof at DART, a vast agency with a nearly billion-dollar annual budget and police jurisdiction in 13 cities? When DART tells the big dogs something about a billion-dollar construction project or when it tells us little dogs something about the arrest of a photographer, how much trust should we invest in what DART says?
Adelman was downtown one night last February documenting the K2 synthetic marijuana epidemic. He came upon three DART police officers and two Dallas Fire and Rescue paramedics dealing with a semi-conscious person who appeared to be suffering an overdose. Adelman started shooting pictures.
Adelman was arrested by Stephanie Branch, a veteran DART police officer, and he spent a day in jail. When KERA reporter Bill Zeeble asked DART why Adelman had been arrested, the response came from Morgan Lyons, DART’s assistant vice president for communications and community engagement.
Emails introduced as evidence in Adelman’s civil rights lawsuit suggest Lyons first asked other people at DART what had happened and then repeated what he had been told to Zeeble. That came out as this statement by Lyons:
“We have reviewed the exchange between him (Adelman), Dallas Fire Rescue and DART Police and believe the officers acted properly. Dallas Fire Rescue asked him to move. He refused.
“Paramedics asked us to ask him to move several times. He failed to comply, and that’s why he was arrested. Photography is allowed in our public spaces, but we also expect people to comply with the instructions of a police officer. This is especially true when paramedics tell us the actions of a photographer affect their ability to provide care.”
Now, in the fullness of time, we know that almost none of what Lyons told Zeeble was true. And what was not true was not merely mistaken but proceeded from a string of deliberate lies told to DART’s own investigators by Branch.
The Dallas Fire and Rescue people at the scene never asked DART police to do anything about Adelman or complained about him in any way. In fact they knew who Adelman was, understood what he was doing by shooting pictures, agreed he had a right to be there and do what he was doing and also agreed among themselves to stay out of Branch’s arrest of Adelman so it would be “on her,” meaning Branch.
It’s a key point. DART policy and, supposedly, its training, pointedly acknowledge the constitutional right of photographers to shoot pictures in DART’s “public spaces,” meaning just about anywhere but inside its offices. DART doesn’t have any choice about that.
For these purposes, DART’s public spaces belong to the public, not DART. The right of the public to observe, record and publish accounts and images of events in its own public space is guaranteed by the constitution, not by DART.
Branch probably had a wrong understanding of the law. From her remarks recorded on body microphones, Branch appears to have believed that medical privacy laws serve as a curb or limit on news gathering at medical emergency scenes. They do not. It’s a mistake that crops up among city of Dallas police officers, too, as the result of poor training.
But DART had a problem. DART had to tell Zeeble and a host of other local media why its officer had put Adelman in jail for a day. The honest answer was, “Our officer made a mistake based on a wrong understanding of the law.”
But you have seen above the answer Lyons handed out. He said Adelman was arrested because he was interfering with medical treatment.
Lyons was relying on what he had been told by DART police, and he was responding to inquiries before DART had been able to carry out its own detailed investigation of the incident. As soon as DART’s police chief, James D. Spiller, saw the investigative report, charges against Adelman were dismissed. Spiller was candid with Adelman about the fact that his officer, Branch, had been dishonest in her description of the incident to her own superiors.
But, wow. Way dishonest. When she answered investigator’s questions, Branch doubled down on the narrative in which Adelman kept interfering with the paramedics and the paramedics begged Branch to do something about him.
In real life, the transcript of Branch’s body mic reveals that the paramedics and some of the DART cops knew who Adelman was by reputation and seemed to be basking a bit in the limelight of his attention. At one point one of them jokes, “I’ll take all the publicity I can get right now.”
When Branch is heard shouting at Adelman in the background, eventually ordering him to the ground, one DART cops exclaims to a paramedic, “Oh, my God.”
The paramedic says, “He was just taking pictures, right?”
The cop says, “Yeah, that’s why I don’t know why she’s giving him a hard time.”
“Why is she going crazy?” the paramedic asks.
“I don’t know,” the cop says. “That’s going to be on her. He can take all the pictures he wants. That’s why I’m not getting involved in that, I know.”
Branch and Adelman are shouting in the background, Branch insisting Adelman cannot legally take pictures, Adelman insisting he can.
“I don’t know why she … ” the DART officer says to the paramedic, trailing off. “There was no need for that.”
“Yeah, I don’t know where that idea came from but it’s … because there is freedom of the press.”
The officer says, “The thing about it is, I would’ve just let him take his pictures, and … I mean it wasn’t worth all of that.”
Let me maybe clear something up. My argument here isn’t exactly with the DART police department. They had one cop who had a wrong idea about the law and screwed up big-time. Short of shooting somebody, a bad arrest is one of the worst mistakes a cop can make.
She did confer on the radio with a superior during the arrest who confirmed her decision to arrest Adelman, so that makes at least two people who were wrong. But the superior was not at the scene and had to rely on Branch’s version of events.
The DART internal investigation was thorough and fair. After Chief Spiller saw the report with the transcript of what was said at the scene, the charges against Adelman went away.
What bothers me about DART’s statements and posture isn’t so much at that end of the operation. Adelman tells me he never received a word of apology.
I asked Lyons what Branch’s punishment was for some 23 untrue statements (Adelman’s count) in her responses to investigators. He said tersely that no punishment has been determined.
I asked him if he ever walked back his original statement on Adelman after the truth came out.
His one-word email reply: “Yes.”
My email follow-up: “Any details, where or when, what said?”
His answer, “Nope. Don't recall.”
The word that comes to mind is “churlish.”
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Before Adelman’s lawyers filed their civil rights suit, they asked DART to make a settlement offer. The answer came back by telephone that there would be no offer, not even a letter. The phone call was the response, and the response was a kiss off.
Some of that may just be lawyer language — how they talk to each other. I don’t really pretend to know what’s right or proper there, especially. May the best lawyer win, I guess.
My point is very narrow. Try for one moment to forget whatever bias you may have about Avi Adelman, the media, the paparazzi or people who pass out from K2. The bottom line is that DART, as an organization, told a very big very public untruth about why Adelman was arrested. As far as I can tell, that hasn’t bothered the people at the top of DART one single bit.
So let me ask you something. When those same people get caught telling untruths about big things like subway lines and trolleys, do we really have a right to be surprised?