Officer Wacko

Dallas police are getting the highest raises of any city employees because that's what Laura Miller promised. So she's the one they're mad at. Explain this to me.
Peter Calvin

Last week I wrote a column saying that some of the more extreme claims made by police representatives during the recent debate over police pay didn't ring true. It's hard to believe they're starving to death on the average $60,000 a year we're paying them when so many of them are driving 'Vettes. Here is a sample of the response I received from Dallas police officers:

"It is people just like you, ignorant people, that make me not even want to put my badge on and go to work. Once again some stupid ass media person twists the truth and the facts to make his story show only a slanted one sided half. Hey nice research dumbass, take a trip over to D.H.A, the projects, where people pay 30 and 40 dollars a month for an apartment because they can't afford to pay full rent. Drive around that parking lot stupid ass, check out some of the same cars. No way, that couldn't be, those people can't afford new cars either. Right? But I know that trip won't happen, that would require you to go somewhere unsafe. I can already tell you don't have the balls to put a vest on and do the job of a police officer. You would rather hide behind your little desk and create slanted facts. You are nothing but a coward piece of shit, not worth putting my life on the line for. Slanted bullshit just like this makes [me] have to fight every day to get in that squad car. Every day."

I'm glad he still gets in the squad car. Every day. I do depend on him, and so does my family. He does have more courage than I. I respect him for it.

But that officer and every other police officer in Dallas need to sit down, calm down, take a deep breath and come to grips with an unpleasant reality: In this nominally very pro-police city, public regard for the police is probably at its lowest ebb in the past 25 years. Certainly the political influence of the police has never been weaker.

The causes are many: 1) serious mistakes by police union leaders in the recent pay dispute; 2) the uncivil behavior of uniformed officers in the city council chamber during debate on the budget; 3) the threat of political retaliation against officeholders who failed to deliver a big enough pay hike for cops and firemen, even though they are getting more money than other city employees; 4) the targeting of Dallas businesses for an economic boycott because executives of those businesses had opposed the police pay referendum.

On the day police officers jammed the city council chamber, catcalled the mayor, interrupted the meeting and behaved in ways that would have caused any other citizens to be evicted, the city council was so angry that it was within a hair-trigger of putting off their pay raise for six months. Even their usual supporters on the council were shocked and infuriated by the behavior of the sworn officers.

Pat Cotton, a political consultant who has run and advised campaigns for some of the city's strongest police supporters, told me she thinks their recent behavior has even lowered the value of their political endorsements.

"I have gone after their endorsements for my candidate every time I've had a candidate," she said. "Clearly the police and firefighters' organizations were respected by the voters.

"But at this time, especially after the scene they created at the city council, I think their effect has been diminished. And I think their intransigence about delaying their raise for two weeks or a month has negatively affected the attitude of people."

Cotton had the courage to talk to me on the record about the police, I think because she genuinely cares about them and is distressed to see them drifting so far out to sea. Other political experts would talk to me only on a not-for-attribution basis. But there was surprising unanimity on a number of points, the main one being this:

The time for the cops to wake up, smell the coffee and start acting like grown-ups was when they lost the May 4 referendum for a 17 percent police and fire pay hike by a margin of 73 percent to 27 percent. That was not an ambiguous message. That was the city stepping to the curb, cupping its hands and shouting at the police: "WRONG WAY!"

Nobody expects cops to be terribly political, at least not in this part of the country. It's generally not their nature. But the police should expect their own elected political leaders to be politically astute for them.

They are not. The campaign put on by the Dallas Police Association for the pay hike referendum was a mess, an embarrassment and a huge waste of money. And then to make it worse, the DPA completely misread the outcome and seriously misrepresented voter sentiment to its members.  

The people opposed to the 17 percent pay hike did sophisticated testing and polling before they stuck a toe in the water. Their results showed that it was a serious mistake to say anything negative about the Dallas police to Dallas voters. In the weeks before the May referendum, Dallas police still enjoyed a shining image.

The opponents therefore ran an extremely pro-police campaign. Their literature showed handsome cops doing good deeds. The message was: "We love our police. We do need to pay them more. This idea, the instant 17 percent pay hike, will break the bank. But if you voters will help us defeat this, we opponents of the proposition will see to it that the police get a raise the city can afford."

The DPA ran an almost entirely negative campaign of paranoia--attacks on the mayor, attacks on the business community, an implied attack on the voters themselves. It was almost as if the people running the campaign had a strange need for the city to be their persecutrix.

Three weeks before the vote, the opponents did polling that showed that the DPA was ahead with voters by 2 to 1. According to final campaign spending reports, the DPA outspent the opponents by almost half--$190,000 to $130,000. On May 4, the DPA lost by worse than 2 to 1. To start from that kind of advantage, outspend your opponents and still get horse-whipped that badly is a sign that somebody is real, real bad at politics.

And it cost money. The opponents raised their money in 75 separate contributions averaging $1,700. The DPA raised all of its money in only 17 contributions averaging more than $11,000 each. The DPA itself contributed $137,000, or 73 percent of the total. Only 4 percent of the DPA campaign money came from outside the law enforcement unions.

Even in the face of such a stunning defeat, the correct reading of that defeat was not that the public was anti-police. The smart read was that the public was still so gung-ho pro-police that the opponents of the referendum could only get their point across by praising the police first.

Instead, the leadership of the DPA led its members on a campaign of vengeance, reprisal, threats--behavior in the council chamber that I have heard several people describe as "brown shirt." The message the DPA gave its own members was that the public was against them--a corrosive untruth. The public was never against the police. DPA leadership just ran a terrible campaign, which they have been trying desperately to cover ever since.

DPA leadership accused the mayor of welshing on a campaign pledge to get them their 17 percent raise. During the mayoral campaign I tried to get Glenn White, president of the DPA, to tell me Laura Miller had made such a pledge, because I wanted to write a column saying Miller was trading a promise of a pay hike for the DPA endorsement. White told me the subject of a pay hike had never even come up in the DPA's discussions with Miller. Then after she was elected, he began calling her a deadbeat because she wouldn't honor what he said was his deal with her on the pay hike.

The other candidate, Tom Dunning, who lost, said on the campaign trail he was against even the 15 percent pay hike over three years that Miller promised to get the police instead of their 17 percent lump sum. She did get the 15 percent for them. So she did do what she had promised: She got them a raise they would never have gotten had she not been elected.

White is a stolid, determined man who has devoted long years of his life to the welfare of his fellow officers. But he has got some kind of serious vision problem. I asked him if he thought the scene in the council chamber had tarnished the public image of the police in Dallas.

He said: "I think it showed a tremendous amount of frustration. I think people who were sitting at that council were shocked at the number of people who showed up. Close to 600 people came down there and brought their feelings down there. It's something that hasn't been done in years."

It is not possible to misread things any worse than that. Yes, it was something "that hasn't been done in years." Something really bad. Something really inept.

White is right about one thing. I can smell it in the angry e-mails. The police in this city are full of anger and frustration. But the cause of their dilemma is bad leadership, bad mistakes and their own bad behavior in front of the council.  

If I had to bet, I would guess the average citizen in Dallas wants nothing more than to get right with the cops again. This is a fundamentally pro-police city. But for that to happen now, the cops have got to get right with themselves.

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