Does Dallas really have the worst crime rate of any big city in the nation? And we didn't know that? And what is the chief, nuts?
There are whole layers of history here that have never been shared with the public. First of all, Dallas police Chief Terrell Bolton is John Wiley Price's chief of police. In 1998, County Commissioner Price, the city's most influential black leader, and an attorney friend of his developed the entire case against former Chief Ben Click for so-called "disparate discipline"--the notion that Click's department handed out much tougher discipline to minority officers than to whites.
The Dallas Observer published a thorough story on it by Miriam Rozen showing that the case, while not lock-cinch, was persuasive. The Justice Department came to town and announced a big investigation.
The outcome of all that was a deal brokered by Price. Click was out. Bolton was in. End of story. End of investigation. And tragically for the department, end of discipline reform.
No one has suffered more brutally from Bolton's misrule than minorities in this city. The entire "Sheetrock" or fake-drugs scandal, in which his department sent to prison people on whom fake drugs had been planted, fell on the backs of Mexican immigrants. More than 80 percent of the victims of violent crime in this city are people of color.
And the cops do seem to be out of control. For the past year, some of the most committed and sincere leaders in the African-American community, led by the Reverend L. Charles Stovall, have been agitating on the issue of police shootings of minorities. I have huge respect for Stovall and have spoken to him a number of times about this. Each time, he tells me that the criticism of the police department must not and cannot be allowed to touch the chief.
Price, whom I have known for 25 years and with whom I used to speak regularly, won't return my calls. I want to ask: John, why in the name of political pride and personal power have you turned your back on minority and poor citizens of this city? Is it really so important for you personally to keep your guy? You know the street. You know that cops out of control take it out on poor people before they take it out on anybody else, and one of the grotesque vagaries of life is that this includes black and Latino cops right in there with the white cops. You see, after five years, that your guy cannot control the department.
You don't care?
The other part of Price's deal was with The Dallas Morning News. I have to say right away that a regime change has taken place at the News since this happened, and I don't believe the new group at the News would agree to the slimy arrangement the old regime made with Price. But the old regime agreed to yank its best reporters off the chief's back if Price would stop burning stacks of newspapers out in front of the newspaper building.
Everybody in the business knows it. The reporters have yakked. I don't know if the deal was explicit or unspoken, but it happened for reasons that are almost hilarious.
John Wiley Price is brilliant at manipulating the fears of a certain breed of old white people in this city. Imagine them sitting up there in the Belo penthouse in their white suits, shaking and pouring sweat and telling each other, "We mustn't stir them up, or the colored people might lose control of themselves!" It's like a 1950s black-and-white television ad for Colonel Sanders chicken.
Bolton has taken his instruction from Price. Repeatedly, whenever his leadership has been challenged, Bolton has suggested there will be racial unrest in the streets if he loses his job. I don't think so. I don't remember any big riots in history where people took to the streets to save the police chief's job. "We won't ever go away/Until the chief gets double contributions to his 401(k)!" Doesn't resonate somehow. I guess you could do a riot like that, but I think you'd have to pay the rioters Actors Guild scale.
The saga of the Morning News and the crime-rate story is at least as dispiriting as the Bolton/John Wiley Price tale. Two years ago a guy in the local security business, Calie Stephens, did some research on the FBI uniform crime reports and found to his astonishment that Dallas had the very worst overall crime rate of any city in the country with more than a million people--three times worse than New York. But he had never seen this fact in the newspaper or on television.
You could fault us at the Observer for not doing the story, but we're a weekly magazine. We just don't do "tickler file" stories on regular government reports: Normally, that's the province of the daily. Anybody who has ever worked the police beat at a daily newspaper knows you do a story every year when the FBI crime stats come out.
"I knew Dallas crime was high," Stephens told me, "but I had never actually looked at it or analyzed it. But about two years ago when I actually did that, I saw that Dallas had the highest per capita crime rate, and my jaw dropped. I had no idea Dallas had the highest crime. I thought it was New York City."
Stephens, an engineer, looked at Morning News coverage of the FBI reports and found that, incredibly enough, the paper was reporting crime in whole numbers but not as a per capita rate. Obviously when you only provide whole numbers, New York, which is eight times bigger than Dallas, comes out with more crime. But the only meaningful measurement or comparison is how much crime there is per citizen. That's what tells you how safe or unsafe it is to be there.
I believe there's a subtext here. Price, as he did again last week in a letter to the editor of the News, always insists that any negative story about crime in Dallas is an attack on Bolton and a breach of Price's deal for Bolton to be chief. I believe the News deliberately misreported the FBI crime numbers over the years in order to keep Price from doing things that would frighten the Colonel Sanders types.
But Stephens lobbied individual reporters, basically shaming them for not telling the truth. And there are great people at the News who have always wanted to do it the right way. Stephens says last January a News reporter, whose name he can't remember, left him a voice message proudly telling him to look in the paper. "We took your advice," Stephens says the reporter told him.
I have a photocopy of that story on my desk. It's by Robert Tharp and Tanya Eiserer--two good hands. And indeed, down in the body of the story, it says, "The city also ranked highest for the rate of all crimes tracked together by the FBI..."
But the headline is: "VIOLENT CRIME DOWN, BUT DALLAS HIGH ON FBI LIST."
Pop quiz: What does that mean? What list? Is the whole department on the most wanted list? Or the mailing list?
The headline on the next page is: "DALLAS CRIME RATE DECREASES."
Let's say you actually wanted people to get the point. We have a sneaky insider trick in the newspaper business called "saying what you mean." For example, a headline like, "DALLAS CRIME RATE WORST IN NATION."
The Morning News finally did that last week, but what a desultory tale lay behind it. This story originally broke in the Morning News under a small headline, "Dallas No. 1 in crime," in the letters to the editor column on July 14. The editorial page, to its credit, had agreed to run a letter from Calie Stephens talking about the rate, accompanied by a list of major cities showing Dallas at the top.
Someone in the new regime noticed that the newspaper's news side had never really done this story--not in a way anyone would ever understand. So the job of playing catch-up with the letters column was assigned to a metro desk intern. I don't mean any disrespect to the intern, who did a good job. But if a news editor thinks a story is urgent, he or she doesn't give it to an intern.
The intern fiddled around with it for two weeks. I heard about the story, because the intern was calling city council members. We got on it. We got our story ready in two days. Last Tuesday--the day we were going to press with a cover story on the crime rate--I got word that the intern was calling city council members in a breathless panic, telling them he had to get the story done by that evening.
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I suspect the News was tipped by a Deep Throat that we were about to beat them on the story. I suspect the Deep Throat was female and had some job like city council member or mayor or something like that. We get tips. They get tips. Fortunes of war.
So we came out the next day with the story on our cover, and the News hit the streets with it on Page One. And the next day John Wiley Price fired off a letter accusing the News of racism and suggesting that the chief will not agree to any kind of accountability reform.
That's how we all arrived at this moment. Next week I have more details to share with you on just exactly what a bad moment this is. (Baaad.)
Meanwhile I'm still trying to come up with ideas for chants for the riot. I truly want to help. "No one gives our chief the boot!/He needs a golden parachute!" Just not the stuff of which Ken Burns documentaries are made, is it? Work in progress.