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Royal Police

Thabiti Olatunji, organizer of a Love Field-area crime watch group, is hopeful that Dallas police will improve his area. Let's hope he's right.
Tom Jenkins

Everybody wants the new Dallas police chief to fix everything. Obviously. Sure. When he's done with that, I wish he'd come over to my house and fix my computer.

The problem is fix what? Fix it how? That's where we get into trouble. Some of these problems are older than my dog, and I have a pretty old dog.

Last week I attended the funeral of a frequent source and friend of mine, Leonard Mitchell, who was for many years the head custodian at Elisha M. Pease Elementary School. He was only 41 years old and died of heart trouble.

More than 300 people filled The Lord's Missionary Baptist Church on Bexar Street across from the Turner Courts projects where Mitchell grew up. Ministers and members of several churches, relatives, friends and acquaintances waited in line at microphones to speak or sing moving testimonials to this wise, honest gentleman.

An especially moving element of the service was a shouted eulogy in which the minister chronicled Leonard Mitchell's successes, from a childhood in the projects to home ownership in Pleasant Grove, finally to a new house in suburban Duncanville. He was a fine husband and father, a solid member of his church and community.

I got to know Mitchell four years ago when I wrote a column about a run-in he and his wife had with Dallas police officers over a minor auto accident ("Hell Is a Nuisance," October 26, 2000). A police officer got mad at him, used the n-word on him and then arrested him for failing to properly identify himself.

"Failure to ID" is an illegal charge in Dallas, but the police have done it for ages, especially in cases where they don't have a legitimate charge on which to make an arrest. Mitchell spent two nights in jail and the next several years battling vainly to get the police department to admit it had wronged him. We continued to meet and talk on the phone long after I had finished writing about his case.

One of the things Mitchell straightened me out about was the ill-fated career of Terrell Bolton, the city's first African-American police chief. Mitchell and I were eating barbecue somewhere in Southern Dallas one day, talking about it.

I told him I did not understand why Bolton stubbornly refused to admit that any of his officers practiced racial profiling or used "throw-down charges" like failure to ID, which historically have been used against minorities.

He said, "Well, Brother Jim, I guess you forgot the cop who used the n-word on me and shoved me in a patrol car for failure to ID was a black man."

Oh, yeah. I had forgotten that.

He thought Bolton's problems were not black or white but blue. Bolton was triple-promoted from the ranks. He still had rank-and-file vision. He saw the police department as a blue army unto itself, separated from and above city government and "civilians." I never talked on the telephone or ate barbecue with Professor Mitchell and didn't go home smarter.

So another night last week I'm sitting in a crime watch meeting in the Love Field area, and things are going well. More than 100 people have jammed a room in the K.B. Polk Recreation Center to listen to a presentation by five members of the police department--two deputy chiefs, two patrol officers and an undercover narcotics supervisor.

The cops obviously know this mainly middle-class African-American neighborhood well, understand its problems and sort of speak its language. There's a lot of smiling and scattered applause as each officer gets up to make a presentation. The homeowners in this room, plagued by drug dealers, prostitutes and thugs, see these police officers as their protectors.

But then, like the onset of a sudden toothache, I hear the speech that is always made at these deals. One of the deputy chiefs, trying to tell people how to reach the police department, goes off on a tangent about how they mustn't call their city council members to complain about the police.

"That will only slow things down," he says.

Aha. So a guy in a uniform is standing up here telling American citizens they are going to be penalized for petitioning their elected representatives. I've heard this speech a dozen times at meetings like this. It's sort of an assumption of Dallas police culture: Citizens must not call city council members to complain about police matters, because council members do not matter to police.

The attitude is reinforced by the fact that so many people in Dallas leadership skipped school the day democracy was explained. The Dallas Morning News editorial page is always inveighing against the city council for interfering in police matters, sort of the way the American colonists tried to micromanage King George's tax policies, I guess.

 

In a recent News editorial written as a letter to our new police chief, David Kunkle, the News editorialistos said: "We're not going to tell you how to do your job--and we urge the mayor and City Council to show the same restraint."

Then, of course, they went on for several paragraphs telling him how to do his job. One of their ideas was for him to have a plan.

Only newspaper people would consider that a helpful suggestion. Then, after you have a plan, get a ball point pen. I don't want to get too insider about my own profession, but these are principles some people in my business struggle with. A huge one is have a car. I was not two desks away in a newsroom in Detroit when I overheard a recently hired colleague from Australia exclaim to the city editor with genuine outrage: "You expect me to go out and purchase a bloody automobile?"

A more important point: If the city council and the mayor must not tell the police chief how to do his job, who shall? The Great Police Chief in the Sky? And please don't tell me it's the city manager.

We know that psalm too well. "Oh, I wouldn't want to make such an important decision without clear guidance from the council," the manager shall say. And the council shall respond: "Oh, we don't want to pre-empt the city manager's prerogatives." Then they shall all bend their knees, flap their elbows and sing "Bawk-bawk-bawk!"

The structural problems in city government reflect the cultural problem: We don't know who should be in charge. And that enables the police culture that says nobody should be in charge of us, because we're in charge of ourselves.

Unfortunately, that does not work. In their "Dallas at the Tipping Point" special section last April, the Morning News made hay out of an anecdote, probably apocryphal, that the cops keep repeating about a council member who asked the Northwest Operations Division to "investigate an old toilet in an alley." It's a smart-aleck story about how dumb council members are and how smart the cops are.

I took some time last week to run down a different type of anecdote--one I heard about an apartment manager in Oak Cliff who kept calling 911 to report gang activity near his building. The police got testy with him for calling so much. Finally the gang members came to him and said, "The cops told us you're the one who's been calling them on us. If you do it again, we'll kill you."

The apartment manager called his council member, Dr. Elba Garcia, and said, "I don't know who else I can turn to."

Dr. Garcia confirmed the story to me. She said she made some calls to well-placed police officials to report the situation. I'm sure those were calls certain cops didn't want to see made.

The good news, maybe, is that the new police chief sounds pretty smart about his stuff. I talked to him last week. He went right to the issue while I was still trying to spit it out.

Kunkle obviously knows why people call their council members--a principle beyond the grasp of the editorial writers. "They don't go to council members until they feel that they haven't had the proper response through 911 or the 311 system," he said.

Yeah. One of the people who spoke up from the back of the room at the crime watch meeting said he'd complained to everybody he could think of, but the drug house on his block was still operating "like the Costco of crack," as he put it.

But Kunkle gets that. He knows people make those calls in desperation. He said the police command structure still has to prioritize its resources. He said he didn't want a situation where "every council member's blue-form request all of a sudden takes precedence over everything else. That creates frustration among officers. That doesn't seem to be logical."

He said the police department must be responsive to the council, but common-sense decisions must be made about when and how.

Kunkle has been going to a heck of a lot more crime watch meetings than I have. He said the unmistakable impression is that "our service system is not working very well here."

Council members hear the same complaints and must act on them, he said. "They have to. They're not doing their job if they're not doing the work for their constituents.

"We're not working in a vacuum. We need to be challenged by the city manager and the city council."

 

Thabiti Olatunji, who organized the North Park/Love Field/Elm Thicket Crime Watch meeting I attended, was cheered by what the police had to say that evening. "I think within the next year, we'll see a major improvement," he said.

I want him to be right. And when things do get right in Dallas, I will always think of Leonard Mitchell as having been a worthy soldier in the cause.


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