When Willard Rollins talks about the incident between his automobile and a red Lexus on July 31 in a neighborhood north of downtown Dallas, the executive assistant police chief is brief but emphatic.
"Just for the record," he says, "no fenders were bent."
A few hours before Rollins talked with the Dallas Observer, a Dallas county grand jury decided that he should not face criminal charges for leaving the scene of an alleged minor traffic accident.
But the 25-year department veteran has not seen the end of that Lexus' bumper yet. Not by a long shot.
Rollins now faces an internal affairs investigation into whether he violated department guidelines when he and passenger Denise Kile, a public relations specialist, left the scene of the incident without giving his name to the driver of the other car, Gaelle Anginot, who had requested it.
An angry, suspicious crowd of rank-and-file officers and their elected union representatives are prepared to watch the investigation closely. Their outrage raises the specter of the assistant deputy chief finally getting payback: unfairly harsh discipline for a relatively minor scrape. Many officers believe that is just what Rollins, as head of the integrity unit for the force, has dished out for a decade.
"People just don't like the guy," says Sgt. Jim Chandler, a department spokesman. "Otherwise, this would be a little old fender bender."
Department officials said lab results showed that paint removed from the chief's right front bumper matched material taken from the woman's car. But Anginot, who did not respond to messages left on her home answering machine for this story, signed an affidavit for the grand jury stating that she did not wish to prosecute Rollins.
But many police officers and other observers in town are not so ready to forgive and forget. Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, Dallas Police Association President Glenn White, Dallas Police Patrolmen's Union President Richard Wilson, and the president of the African-American police officers organization, Thomas Glover, have all publicly pressed the District Attorney's Office and the department's internal affairs unit to investigate the Rollins incident.
A handsome man with a square chin, broad shoulders, and a commanding voice, Rollins has offered only the minimum of public responses to his predicament. He has spoken to The Dallas Morning News briefly -- as he did with the Observer -- and made one appearance on a WFAA-Channel 8 television newscast.
He told a Channel 8 reporter that he heard the driver of the other car and her friends using profanities and that, since he did not believe an accident had occurred, he left the scene. But, Rollins said, the events and allegations have made him "a lot more empathetic."
Empathy has never been a term that his fellow police officers have applied to Rollins.
Their gleeful reaction to the chief's predicament reflects a deep-seated resentment that has festered among the police ranks for years about Rollins.
"He's egotistical, sarcastic, and self-centered," one former police officer who worked with the chief says, only half joking. "Other than that, I don't have an opinion of him."
The sentiments against the 46-year-old leader have been building since a decade ago, when former police Chief Mack Vines, who didn't enjoy a tremendous amount of goodwill among the ranks either, catapulted Rollins from captain to executive assistant chief. Since then, Rollins has earned nicknames among patrolmen as "Willard the Rat," a comment about his loyalties to fellow officers, and "The Teflon Chief," ("Good cop, bad cop," December 12) a statement about his ability to escape from scrapes that could wreck the careers of other officers.
"It's taken a little bump and run to get everyone to understand the kind of arrogance we were always talking about," says one officer who worked with Rollins.
The animosity toward Rollins has its origins in some of the department's murkiest, most controversial episodes of internal discipline, including a complex case that dates to the late '80s involving former undercover narcotics detectives Janet Forsyth and Richard Kirk.
The two detectives accused Rollins of committing one of the most unpardonable sins a policeman can: exposing fellow cops' identities to targets in an undercover operation. Rollins, the detectives claimed, had a role in an illegal wiretap scheme that gave the detectives' targets access to their telephone conversations. When the two detectives complained to the media about Rollins' role in the botched episode, they claimed, the assistant chief transferred them to night patrol. The claims of Forsyth and Kirk played well with other officers and with a jury. The two detectives sued the city and in early 1995 won a $1.4 million verdict, which included an order that Rollins personally pay $125,000 in damages, a sum the city eventually paid.
More recently, Rollins was named again in the litigation when Granver Tolliver, an African-American former deputy chief, sued the city on grounds of alleged discrimination after he was demoted in rank. Tolliver alleged in his suit, which is still pending in federal court, that Rollins prodded the district attorney to attempt to secure an indictment against the deputy on charges related to the altering of documents in a traffic-incident report. He did so, Tolliver alleged, before the black policeman had a chance to tell his side of the story.
Glover, president of the Texas Peace Officers Association, an organization that represents around 400 black peace officers, believes that Rollins, who is Anglo, has already benefited from the unfair and racially disparate disciplinary practices of Dallas police force.
"In my opinion," says Glover, "the incident has already been handled differently than other offenses."
Glover cites specifically the fact four days passed before Rollins was placed on leave after the incident. Since then, Glover believes, Rollins was not warned not to talk about the event, as the guidelines require when an internal investigation is about to begin. Hence, Rollins got to tell his side of the story in his interview on Channel 8. The day after the incident, Rollins had traveled to San Francisco on city business. But, Glover notes, when the questions arose about his conduct, he wasn't ordered to return. In contrast, Glover says, black officers who have been questioned about their conduct have had to cut vacations short to show up and defend themselves.
Departing police Chief Ben Click is not going to respond to the specific questions raised about the Rollins investigation, says department spokesman Chandler. "The chief is distancing himself because he will have to render a decision on this case," Chandler says.
Chandler contends that the department has not treated Rollins differently than it has black officers facing discipline. He says Rollins could not have been put on leave until the criminal investigation was completed. Rollins would not be warned to refrain from talking about the incident, Chandler says, until the internal affairs investigation formally commenced. That couldn't happen until the grand jury issued its decision. Chandler also believes Glover has mixed up the facts about black officers and disrupted vacations. The police spokesman says that in a recent case when conduct questions were raised about a black officer who was on vacation, the officer came in to learn about the probe on his own volition.
Glover doesn't believe that the animosity toward Rollins breaks down entirely on racial lines. He thinks rank-and-file officers of all colors are elated that Rollins finally looks like he has real trouble. "People were clapping when they heard this, spontaneously clapping," Glover says. He believes that the sentiments against Rollins grow from his actions during the Forsyth and Kirk episode, and from the lack of sympathy he has shown in the integrity unit for other officers.
Thrilled that Rollins now has to extricate himself from what looks like at best a poor judgment call, some of the police chief's critics have tried to call attention to the passenger in Rollins' car on the night of the incident, Denise Kile.
The president of Paramount Communications, a public relations firm, Kile until recently represented the Greater Dallas Crime Commission, a nonprofit, corporate-funded organization. The Crime Commission supports the Crimestoppers reward program, which offers rewards to anonymous tipsters who help put away felons.
Rollins, as chief over the investigative units, had contacts with the Crime Commission and met Kile, whom he is dating, through those contacts.
Rollins spoke with the Observer chiefly because he wanted to make clear that he had no role in the Crime Commission's hiring of Kile's firm or the firm's subsequent resignation from the account.
Nicki Murchison, the executive director of the Crime Commission, says Paramount gave up the account after she established an exploratory committee with Southern Methodist University to discuss using student interns to help Paramount develop the Crimestoppers television broadcasts. Murchison's current public relations assistant Katie Menges says that Paramount also claimed there was a "personality conflict" between Kile and Murchison. Kile would not comment.
Both Rollins and Kile testified before the grand jury.
In the internal affairs investigation, the critical issues will be whether he violated procedures by failing to identify himself or to at least contact others in the department.
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"If an officer had done this, they would be slammed," says Sgt. Richard Wilson, the president of the 750-member Dallas Police Patrolmen's Union. "Rollins is a 25-year veteran. He is supposed to know this stuff."
Wilson is concerned that because Rollins is a chief who oversees the internal affairs department, the investigation has the potential to be compromised. "We'd like to believe that it's going to be done right, but we will wait and see," he says.
Even if Rollins didn't bump the car, Wilson believes that the chief was obligated by department guidelines to take more responsibility than he did. Wilson says that if Rollins was concerned about the language the other car's driver and her friends were using, he should have radioed for assistance.
"You just don't go and blow it off," says Wilson.