The fake-drugs scandal, in which the Dallas Police Department and the Dallas County District Attorney's Office used faked-up narcotics evidence to make cases on innocent Mexican immigrants, is scary because it illustrates a total disregard for the law. But maybe it seems far away from the average citizen, way over in that foreign part of town where they have that bizarre drug subculture.
It's bad, you know, but it's a little like violent thermal events on the sun. How much time do we really have to pay attention to this stuff?
Allow me to offer this two-bit caution: Disregard for the law is disregard for the law, and if it can work against defendants in big cocaine cases, it can work against you, too, when you go to put out the trash.
Case in point: Steven Meeks.
Meeks is a longtime Dallas resident, a professional artist who has served on public boards and committees, a big volunteer in programs for kids. He owns some properties around his home in Oak Cliff, near Herndon Park in the Illinois, Marsalis area--a cool, very picturesque little corner of Oak Cliff. The neighborhood suffers all the typical urban dilemmas but is buoyed up by a dedicated core of solid citizens determined to make it work. Meeks is one.
So in January 2001, Meeks gets into some kind of jackpot with code compliance over one of his properties. They say he's not rehabbing it fast enough, and if he doesn't speed up the process, the city will tear it down. I live in a very old house; I understand. There are days, if the city threatened to knock down my house, I would grab a folding chair and some popcorn and sit across the street and cheer. Sell damn tickets to watch.
But Meeks gets to work. The main thing he has to do is tear off a roof and put a new one on to weather the house in. He hires some teen-age kids to help, rents a U-Haul and arranges for an estimate from the city's "Cost-Plus" program for hauling off all the roofing rubble.
They call it Cost-Plus now; I have the impression it has had different names or maybe no name in the past, but this is a city service that has been around forever and I have to believe is known to the vast majority of property owners in the city of Dallas. You pay the sanitation trucks to come out and haul off your stuff on a day not regularly scheduled for pickups on your street.
Meeks has to get his U-Haul back the next morning. It's dusk on a nippy January night. At 6:45 p.m., Officers Adolfo Vega and Mark McLachlan, assigned to the police department's Southwest Division, pull up to the curb to investigate a complaint of illegal dumping.
This much is not in dispute: Near the site where Meeks and his helpers were emptying rubble onto a parkway from their trailer, right in front of the house the rubble came from, was a city sign that said "No Dumping."
But Meeks was not dumping.
I spoke to code compliance. They told me Meeks had to place his construction debris right where he put it. It would have been illegal for him to put it anywhere but in front of the property it came from. They also said depositing trash on the parkway and then arranging for it to be hauled is not dumping. Dumping is when you toss the stuff and run.
Also not in dispute: All four of the police officers who eventually devoted several hours that night to the big roofing caper have said from the beginning that they had never heard of Cost-Plus or any similar kind of program and didn't believe it existed. How, we wonder, can Dallas police officers not know of a program this old or this widely used?
Could it have anything to do with the fact that 76.6 percent of Dallas police officers don't live in Dallas, according to numbers from the city's Human Resources Department? I tried for several days to reach all the police personnel involved in this matter. The only one I succeeded in talking to, because he happened to be standing by the phone one day when I tried again, said he does not live in Dallas and had no idea where the others reside.
Meeks told me: "I think one of the officers told us to get down out of the truck and put our hands on the car, so we complied with that."
All right. I don't know that I believe a homeowner accused of illegal dumping in cushier realms, say Preston Hollow, is going to wind up taking the position on the hood of the police car right off the bat, but Meeks was OK even with that.
"I explained to him the situation. I had already called Cost-Plus."
In lengthy documents from an internal affairs investigation that ensued, the police officers concede that they didn't know about the program, didn't believe Meeks and refused to make a call to find out if he was telling the truth.
"They refused to call 311 to find out if that program even existed," Meeks said. "They accused me of illegally dumping. They refused to call the [code compliance] sector, even though I had the cell phone number for the supervisor over that district. They refused to let me walk up to my house to get the paperwork."
Also not in dispute: Somewhere along in here Meeks got irritated.
"One of the officers asked me a question, and just as a natural occurrence, you know, you turn to respond to someone, and from having my hands on the hood of the car and turning to respond, my hands came off the hood of the car. So that happened I know at least twice, maybe three times.
"The second or third time, he [the police officer] got perturbed. 'I told you to put your hands on that car!' So he came over and handcuffed me."
Eventually, Meeks wound up under arrest, sitting in the backseat of a squad car for hours while the two arresting officers had a big cluster-cluck with some sergeants who came out as backup. Our tax dollars at work.
When it was all said and done, the gendarmes had to un-arrest Meeks, remove his shackles and send him home, of course, because he hadn't done anything for which he could conceivably be taken to jail. But they wrote him a ticket anyway for littering.
Meeks complained to the police department's internal affairs division. They did one of their typical year-long doctoral dissertations on it (many more tax dollars at work) in which they ultimately whitewashed the cops. And the police continued to press the littering charge, even though they knew eight ways to Sunday by now that Meeks did not litter.
Finally all of this got to the Dallas Citizens Police Review Board (DCPRB), where even the members who are normally pretty pro-cop said basically, hey, give this guy a break and drop this stupid charge.
DCPRB member Anne Carlson told me the board also wanted Deputy Chief Kyle W. Royster, chief of Southwest, to give Meeks a written apology. "I think we told [him] we wanted a letter of apology. It was bad from the very beginning."
Meeks says Royster never gave him a letter but did pull him aside after his appearance before the DCPRB and say verbally he was sorry about everything. The board also got Royster to agree that he would make sure all police officers in his division were familiar with the Cost-Plus program.
Yeah, that would be important.
I tried to call Royster for a week. He never called back. Finally when I sent him a fax, a lieutenant from Southwest called and left me a message saying Royster had just left to go to a conference and would be unable to talk for several days. Apparently it was a conference in a place where they don't have telephones. Hope he survives re-entry.
But here's the point. For months, in spite of their promise to the DCPRB, they never dropped the charge. Meeks had to hire a lawyer, and finally the charge went away.
See: This is not different from the fake-drug cases. They get a charge on you, they keep it, fake or not. Screw you. Screw the Dallas Citizens Police Review Board. Who cares about the law?
The one officer I was able to speak with was Sergeant Stephen Bishopp. He told me that to this day, in spite of Chief Royster's promise to the DCPRB, neither he nor anybody else he knew at Southwest had ever heard of Cost-Plus.
"Just talking about that Cost-Plus, even people who live in the city that work for us had never heard of that. I mean, I don't know, is it like from the store, this Cost-Plus, or is it a program called cost-plus?"
From the store. Funny guy. I said it was a program offered by the city's sanitation department.
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He said: "I don't know who puts up the signs in the city, but dumping a large load of shingles or whatever he was dumping right in front of a sign that says 'No Dumping,' I mean, program or no program, that still seems wrong to me. But like I said, I don't live in the city."
Hey, good job on the training program, Royster. How about, before you try to explain Cost-Plus, you do a little session for the officers at Southwest on "The Rule of Law." You know about that one, right?
Something as bad as the fake-drugs scandal is never an isolated anomaly. We've got big problems, deep in the culture of the department. The fake-drugs scandal is just the public eruption.