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Disposable Cops

We don't want to be a city that puts up high-profile memorials for cops killed in action and then chisels on benefits for the ones who survive.
Peter Calvin

Talk about a really bad scene. Senior Corporal Ron Iscaro has been called to the podium to address the members of the Dallas Citizens Police Review Board. They are debating a resolution on pay for police officers and firemen injured in the line of duty. He's been up there 10 minutes, and he's starting to shake. He can't stand up that long.

Behind Iscaro a line of other disabled officers wait, one in a wheelchair, some ramrod-straight. All of them took bullets, were hit in traffic, were injured somehow while putting themselves in harm's way. They came here just to watch, not to speak. It was the committee that called them forward.

But when Iscaro starts to tell how he got injured, an assistant city attorney jumps in and objects that Iscaro's appearance violates technical provisions of the Open Meetings Act. He should be allowed to give his name only, nothing about how he got shot, the lawyer says.

I can tell you how he got shot. It was an August night in West Dallas 21 years ago, and he was a rookie filling in for another cop's partner. They were flagged down by a girl screaming that a young woman had been taken hostage.

The woman was tied to a chair, a man circling her with a shotgun, demanding sex. The gunman--a three-time loser for murder, aggravated assault on a police officer and aggravated sexual assault--had pumped himself full of phencyclidine (PCP).

"He saw me trying to duck under his car from about nine feet away," Iscaro told me when I called him after the review board meeting. "He shot me as I shot him."

So it's probably safe to assume this animal was going to rip the girl apart for sex, then kill her or leave her so messed up she would wish she were dead. Iscaro took a bullet in the brain to stop that from happening.

Now, after two decades of fighting to keep his badge, officer Iscaro is standing in front of me and half a dozen other reporters and camera crew trying to keep from falling on the floor while a city attorney argues minutiae to keep him from talking on camera about his life. The attorney says the board can't deviate from its printed agenda by allowing someone from the audience to speak.

The mayor and city council passed a cost-cutting budget this year that included a major whack of benefits for police officers and firemen injured in the line of duty. The Citizens Police Review Board, which normally hears complaints against the cops, is holding an unusual special meeting to consider a resolution condemning the pay cut for injured cops and firemen.

So far this issue has worked the way most things do under the Dallas weak-weak-weak system (weak mayor, weak council, weak manager): Everybody can duck it. The city council's greatest ambition is to avoid having to vote on it. Just how it's supposed to be: The mechanism is working like a Soviet knock-off of a Swiss watch.

The city manager has been saying he has asked the city attorney for a legal opinion on whether he can create special exceptions to the rules for injured cops and firemen. The city attorney ain't saying nothing to nobody. I sure didn't get my calls returned. And I can tell you why.

The answer is going to be no. And everybody knows it's no. You can't have special we're-sorry-for-you rules about pay for public servants.

There is one fix, and one fix only. The mayor can simply say, "We made a mistake." The council can agree to take it up. They can vote to tell the city manager to put it back the way it was--52 weeks' full compensation for disabled employees, not 13. The manager goes back to the old policy and looks for his $900,000 savings elsewhere.

The new reduced benefit plan would have slipped right on through had it not been for Al Lipscomb. The former councilman is now a member of the Citizens Police Review Board, normally a little-known body grinding away in the bowels of City Hall with scant power and little effect. But two weeks ago Lipscomb brought the board a resolution urging the city council to take this issue up again.

Iscaro, like several of the other officers invited to address the review board, has been able to continue working for the department by finding so-called light-duty jobs that don't require full physical strength. After two decades of physical therapy and difficult training, he still walks and moves awkwardly.

When he started to tell his story, board chairman Carl Raines, the mayor's appointee, interrupted him and said, "We can't get into that."  

But board member Anne Carlson, who is Councilman Mitchell Rasansky's appointee, interrupted Raines. "Wait a minute," she said angrily. "Why can we not get into that?"

Lipscomb, appointed by James Fantroy, scolded Raines at one point: "You must think we're trying to give kudos to the Taliban. Good God almighty!"

Eventually the officers were allowed to give their names only, almost as if they were on trial. Then they meekly filed, wheeled and limped out of the room.

Review board member Pam Gerber, appointed by Veletta Forsythe-Lill, said when they were gone: "I just need to note for the record that I'm embarrassed. I feel like I've let them down by not being able to acknowledge their successes."

But let me make something clear here: Except for the chairman, who insists he was only protecting the board by following the assistant city attorney's advice, almost all of the rest of them wanted to honor these officers. And they eventually did pass a strong resolution calling on the city council to reverse itself on the compensation issue.

Lipscomb basically just took the reins from Raines. The city attorney was still trying to hoodoo the board into some kind of closed "executive session" so she could kick out the public and the media. Lipscomb said they didn't need no stinking executive session.

"This is common sense," he said.

I believe it may have been Lipscomb who called for the vote, instead of Raines, the chair. General Henry M. Robert, author of the famous "Rules of Order," may have twitched in his grave, but I bet he also grinned. Everyone present voted for the resolution except Carl Ginsberg, the appointee of Mayor Pro Tem John Loza.

When I spoke with Iscaro, I asked him if he was shocked and outraged by his treatment at the meeting. In a polite way, he let me know my question was naïve. In fact, while I listened for more than an hour in utter disbelief, he told me the incredible 21-year saga of his career since getting shot. Several years ago he was ordered never again to appear in uniform. He and a group of other injured officers had to file suit to stop the city from pushing them into early retirement.

The slap-down from the city attorney was par for the course for them. That's a reality we all should hate. I went back and read the press coverage of Iscaro's lawsuit. I was surprised to find that the chief who had tried to push Iscaro out was Ben Click, whom I had always thought of as a champion of the rank and file.

Not so, I'm told. Someone close to this issue told me I needed to call William Rathburn, the Dallas chief in the early '90s, who now runs an international security firm from a ranch in Mineola, Texas. Rathburn was the kind of chief who went to the hospital, took the injured officer's hand and vowed with tears in his eyes that the officer would always have a job in the department. And meant it.

Rathburn told me he had been following the compensation issue. "To unilaterally make a change like that just shows utter contempt for the employees," he said. "It is something that should not have been done. Anybody ought to be able to recognize, given the nature of the police job and the frequency of injury on the job and the severity of the injuries, that you certainly have to provide full pay longer than 13 weeks."

This was the second time in as many months I had been referred to Rathburn. I called him the first time because I'd been told he was the only police executive who could explain what really went wrong in the city's fake-drugs scandal.

I asked him this time if he is a candidate for chief of police in Dallas. He said no. I asked him if he would want to be chief of police in Dallas again. He said yes. But he said he'd been told that there would be no point in his applying. He wouldn't tell me anything else.

Let me ask you something: Do you remember the city manager or the mayor or anybody telling us that certain candidates are being told not to bother applying? I know why some people might be afraid of Rathburn. Same reason the cops trusted him: He has integrity. City Hall is going to come up with some form of scientifically altered chicken, slap epaulets on it and tell us it's a police chief.

Can the city council ignore the review board's resolution calling for a re-examination of pay for disabled city workers? Sure. The council has ignorance of steel.  

Guess who can't ignore it. You and I.

This issue is morally distinct from the police-pay controversy. It's different. We don't want to be a city that erects memorials to cops who've been killed but won't take care of the ones still struggling to live.

I wish you had been there when those officers finally left the room. You would feel exactly the way I do. This is outrageous. Lipscomb is right. You would think we were trying to give kudos to the Taliban.


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