Ticket to Ride
In August, Sergeant Raul Rios called it quits. He couldn't stand working in the Dallas Police Department anymore.
The 21-year department veteran says the immediate cause of his leaving was his surprise transfer from supervising a dozen patrol officers on the streets of Northwest Dallas to a graveyard shift in communications. He had spoken up for three officers whom police Chief Terrell Bolton had fired for scuffling with a fleeing felon at the end of a car chase last May. "If you disagree with the chain of command, they'll bury you," he says.
Rios, whose views about the fired cops were vindicated last week when Bolton's bosses in the city manager's office reinstated them with lesser punishments, says he loved the department. "I always respected the rank. I believe in that," says Rios, a seventh-grade dropout who went to Vietnam, to remedial classes and the University of Texas, then to the DPD.
But there is no way he could respect the over-promoted people Bolton began installing three years ago, he says. "In my chain of command, they didn't have the experience or intelligence to do the job. The rank and file see it, but there's nothing you can do about it.
"So you smile and go on, but, you know, there's a lot of expressions out there of 'I'm not gonna do this. I'm not gonna do that. I'm not gonna do shit.' You're going to do your job. Answer calls. Get there as fast as you can. But the general feeling among the officers I know is, 'I'm mad. I'm not writing tickets. I'm not gonna go the extra mile.'"
In police work, the extra mile translates into productivity and numbers: arrests big and small, cleared cases, traffic stops and tickets.
Over the past three years, in a period coinciding with Bolton's arrival in the top job and the rejection in 2001 by Dallas voters of a police pay-raise referendum, law enforcement productivity in Dallas has fallen off a cliff, according to police and court records provided to the Dallas Observer under Texas' open records law.
The documents show:
Arrests dropped 11 percent a year in 2001 and 2002 after falling only slightly in the previous three years. Total arrests for all offenses went from 79,752 in 2000 to 62,624 in 2002. The drop came in a period in which crime in Dallas--measured by an index set by federal standards--increased 6 percent.
··· Drug arrests last year fell 30 percent, from 3,005 to 2,106.
··· Traffic citations, which had been going up every year in the 1990s, began to level in 2000 and plunged in 2001 and 2002. In 2002, DPD wrote 20 percent fewer traffic tickets than just two years earlier. That's 76,000 fewer tickets.
··· City budget officials say they expect to collect $5 million less in ticket revenue from the municipal courts this year than they did two years ago, and they continue to revise their projections downward. Dallas drivers probably don't need statistics to tell them the streets and highways are dicier today than ever, but here's one, anyway: Traffic fatalities went up 13 percent in the two years the ticket writing went down.
··· DPD, which in the late 1990s was on par with other large cities in solving violent crimes such as murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault, has fallen well below them in the past several years. When a suspect in a crime is identified and taken into custody, an offense is considered cleared. Dallas' clearance rates for violent crimes fell from 44 percent in 1998 to 28 percent in 2001. National statistics gathered by the FBI show departments in other large cities, those with more than a million residents, cleared 47 percent of violent crimes in 1998 and 39 percent in 2001, the most recent year for which national statistics are available. Their arrest rates fell. Dallas' fell a lot more.
If you think the numbers sound scary, wait till you hear what the street-level cops have to say.
The Observer met with three veteran officers--one white, one Hispanic, one African-American--at an Uptown steak house recently to talk about life in DPD patrol and their attitudes about their jobs. They all declined to speak on the record for fear of reprisal, so we agreed to assign them pseudonyms.
Lou, who is black, has been with the department 21 years. He works alone, on patrol, in a squad car in a predominantly Hispanic section of the city. He spends most of his time answering calls for service. "If I get a call for a sexual assault, or a robbery in progress, I'm still running balls to the wall," he says. "I have a bad attitude, but I'm still gonna take care of business."
The difference in his thoughts today, as opposed to a few years ago, he says, is that he usually opts to do less. He takes more sick days and has far less enthusiasm about making routine traffic stops, he says. From the stops flow tickets and sometimes more: arrests for drugs or guns or outstanding warrants. "You can hit the jackpot and have a wanted felon in the back seat," he says.
"In my best months I used to write maybe 150 tickets. You can write four, five a day no sweat," Lou says. "Last month I think I wrote six...I've been getting off work on time."
Lou says he has soured on the job for a host of reasons, starting with the quality of his chain of command. Digging into a plate of fried calamari, Lou reaches for a food analogy to describe his bosses. "We used to have caviar. We had leaders. Real men. Now we have cream cheese."
His reference was to Chief Bolton's demotion in his first months on the job of a raft of experienced commanders, all of whom subsequently quit the department. Their replacements were mostly less-seasoned officers, some of whom were triple-promoted from sergeant to chief, just as Bolton was in the early 1990s. Lou's station house has been stuck with one of the duds, he says.
"I would say the pay referendum has something to do with it, too," he says, referring to voters' rejection of a 17 percent pay hike in early 2001. "If nobody cares...why should I?"
Jaime, who is Hispanic, is also on patrol, a lone man in a car. He uses what he says is a cliché around the department to describe why his productivity has crashed and burned: "You can get in trouble for doing your job," he says. "You can't get in trouble for not doing your job."
In his view, erratic decisions in disciplinary cases in Bolton's regime have soured him toward joining chases, seeking out high-crime areas or doing much beyond answering the calls assigned him.
He says he understands a need for the department to "pop" officers who break the rules, but he says he sees the chief going too easy on some and too hard on others. Like Rios, the retired sergeant, he believes Bolton was out of line in firing the three officers in Northwest whose actions were captured by camera in a TV helicopter last May. Even the suspect said the three--Ricardo Rodriguez, James Walker and Senior Corporal Gregory Fanucci--should not lose their jobs, he says.
"Bolton thought he had a free pass on that because nobody was black," says Jaime, who believes Hispanic and white officers are more closely scrutinized than African-Americans under Dallas' first black chief--a common complaint among Hispanics and whites on the force. The three fired men had exemplary records with nothing but commendations.
"Bolton lays the hammer on these guys when they were acting in the course of their job. It's not like they were sitting in a coffee shop, reading a newspaper, letting the calls go by. They were trying to apprehend the guy. He could have killed somebody."
The man they tackled and scuffled with was wanted for house burglary and credit card abuse. He eventually pleaded guilty to those crimes, as well as to stealing the car he was driving in the chase and resisting arrest.
Says Jaime: "If there's any semblance of perceived impropriety and you're not the right guy, you're gonna be severely disciplined. I have a family. I can't afford to let this guy put me out of work." He would not have been mad, he says, if Bolton suspended the officers for a few days and explained to the public that some situations require officers to use force, which is never pretty. "He needs to be our voice," says Jaime as he knifes off the last sliver of his bone-in rib eye. "Bolton's never our voice."
Al, who is white, says a few years ago he made as many as 90 trips a month to jail with people he'd arrested. These days, he makes no arrests and writes no citations. He sought out and landed a low-voltage job that requires neither. "I'm only marking time," he says, saying he needs less than five years to collect retirement.
"My immediate thinking right now is that we're being run by incompetents," he says. "They're inconsistent in the way they administer rules and regulations, so how am I supposed to have faith in what I'm doing? What am I supposed to do if I don't have any support from my department?"
He says "sniffing around drug houses" and "seeking out a lot of action in high-crime areas" are things patrol cops do at their own discretion. "I would venture to say that most aren't gonna do that today."
Al says he hasn't always been so down on DPD brass. "I never agreed with everything, but our level of professionalism in the past was high and we had leaders who could articulate what they were trying to do." Today, he says, he has no idea why the administration does what it does. "We're just at constant battle with them," he says.
The drop in ticket writing, he says, has specific roots in the pay referendum. "Everyone knows tickets mean revenue to the city. They can't make you write tickets," he says. So when most of City Hall and Dallas' business leadership lined up against the police pay raise, some cops pushed back. They made deliberate decisions to keep their ticket books under the seat, he says.
Assistant Chief Randy Hampton, who has headed the patrol division since late 1999, has a far different take on the department's morale than the three officers.
We must have picked all the sour apples.
"We expect a lot of our officers, and I have not seen anything to the effect they are laying down," Hampton says. "I have not seen anything that concerns me about the level of service."
Similarly, he says he doesn't believe the department has a morale or productivity problem. He says he tells officers that morale "comes from within...in what you're doing."
Hampton, though, says he is at a loss to explain why arrests and ticket writing have dropped so swiftly. "I don't have an answer," he says. "We have seen somewhat of a national trend where you have a reduction in arrests nationwide."
FBI statistics support that view, but only to a degree. Few departments have had as sharp a decline as Dallas, particularly in solving violent crimes.
Hampton, who was the only administrator made available to answer the Observer's questions, says DPD has not added detectives to investigative units--which target major crimes such as homicide, rape and robbery--since Bolton became chief. So as the number of crimes has inched up, each detective faces a bigger workload.
Hampton said he "could not speak for" the huge drop in drug arrests, many of which are made by a specialized squad. The narcotics unit was hit with a widely publicized scandal in late 2001 in which a DPD informant set up more than a dozen Mexican immigrants with large quantities of fake drugs. It appears the bogus-drug fiasco paralyzed drug enforcement throughout 2002. Deputy Chief John Martinez, head of the narcotics unit, did not return calls for comment.
Although most of the department's enforcement statistics are going down, Hampton points out that it has kept up with national averages by at least one yardstick. DPD's ability to arrest suspects in all crimes--violent ones and more-difficult-to-solve property crimes such as car theft, larceny and burglary--is on par with the national average, statistics show.
In 2001, the last year for which comparisons are available, departments in the nation's eight largest cities solved 17.8 percent; Dallas' rate was 17.5 percent.
It's hardly a given, though, that a department's success at identifying and arresting suspects should be getting worse. In El Paso, for instance, the clearance rate has gone up four years in a row. "I've got an excellent department willing to work," says El Paso police Chief Carlos Leon, who took over the post four years ago. "I've also been working hard to develop what I call our sixth man, the community, which supports their PD and is willing to be involved."
Leon says he has had to work, as has Dallas, against a backdrop of contentious pay and benefits issues affecting the ranks. Last year, after more than a year of negotiations, El Paso reached a new contract with police that included a pay raise, putting officers more in line with departments in the Southwest.
Hampton says it is fairer to compare Dallas' record with cities such as Phoenix, which is similarly large and sprawling with a population that has grown in each of the last five years. In Phoenix, the clearance rate for violent crime has been more or less steady for the past five years, while the arrest rate for property crimes has dropped along with Dallas'.
Unlike Dallas, Phoenix makes its crime stats available to the public on its Web site, and they are frequently updated. "It's no secret in Phoenix that over the past couple of years we've become tops in the nation in auto theft," says Sergeant Randy Force, a department spokesman.
He says the drop in Phoenix's overall crime-solving numbers is driven by a spike in car thefts, of which only 9 percent are solved. (Dallas also solves only 9 percent of its car thefts.) "We've assigned several new squads to go after it," Force says.
In Dallas, no single crime stands out as car thefts do in Phoenix, although Hampton says car burglaries have been rising faster than other crimes and that they, too, are difficult to solve. "That's the thing that jumps out at us right now," he says. No new squads targeting car burglaries have been organized, but patrol divisions have been directed to step up enforcement in neighborhoods that have been hardest hit, Hampton says.
Officials with some of Dallas' police associations say the troops aren't lazy, they simply aren't being managed properly and are being conditioned to make fewer and fewer arrests.
"Officers are afraid to do their jobs for fear they'll get complaints," says Al Schoelen, secretary of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents about 600 officers. Minor complaints that used to be handled at lower levels are referred in Bolton's department to internal affairs, which is likely to take four to six months to make a decision, he says. Once internal affairs gets involved, the matter goes on an officer's record, regardless of the outcome.
Senior Corporal Glenn White, president of the 2,400-member Dallas Police Association, agrees. "The more aggressive you are, the more people you confront, the better chance you have of having a complaint," he says. "Right now, it all depends on who the individual is as to how much punishment they're going to get. Officers are very frustrated right now. If you keep hitting the dog in the head with a stick, he's gonna stay under the bed."
Beyond that, White says, patrol officers are so tied up with answering dispatched calls--which include everything from crimes in progress to false alarms, barking dogs or loud-music complaints--they have little time to do anything else.
The officers the Observer interviewed couldn't agree more. On many days, say Jaime and Lou, they finish one call and are immediately dispatched to another. A lot of that work has little to do with serious crime or making arrests. "You don't have time to sit on a hot spot, or keep your eye on a drug house. Before you can see what's going on, maybe identify the [criminal] players, you're called to go somewhere else," Lou says.
Hampton says that about 1,150 officers are currently employed to answer calls, and that 150 officers have been added to patrol since Bolton took over. Jaime, Lou and Al say that is almost impossible to believe because their shifts appear to them to be regularly understaffed.
With no detectives being added to handle burglaries, thefts and violent crimes, White says it is clear why a smaller percentage of offenders are being arrested. "How are you supposed to put your best foot forward when you have 15 new cases on your desk a day? You can't."
Indeed, the numbers seem to lend support to White's claim. In 1999, for instance, DPD detectives and patrol officers arrested 1,727 people for violent crimes; three years later they arrested only a handful less: 1,677. The difference now is that more cases are coming in the door.
White says DPD brass have moved to fix only one area of declining law enforcement of which he is aware: the two-year traffic-ticket drought.
It is illegal in Texas for departments to set rigid ticket quotas, but there are more subtle ways to prompt officers to write more citations, White says.
Patrol officers are graded on their "activity"--the number of calls they respond to, arrests, tickets, stolen vehicles recovered and the like. They are expected to be as busy as the average officer in the sector where they work. The evaluations do not affect job security or pay, but they can come into play in promotions and transfers.
In February, DPD commanders changed the system they use to grade "activity," and the changes are likely to increase ticket-writing, White and other officers say.
In the past, a felony arrest and traffic ticket each counted equally on a point system. In the new "Patrol Daily Activity Report," traffic tickets were downgraded to be worth less than other work, such as making arrests, so officers who want to make certain they have satisfactory "activity" will be prompted to write more tickets, White and others say.
Beyond that, recovering a stolen car is worth less (1.3 points) in the new system than writing a speeding ticket (1.6 points). "They spent an enormous amount of time putting that form together," White says. "Their goal, I guess, is that they want more tickets."
Hampton says that isn't the case. He says the new point system was designed to be fairer for officers. "Some activity takes more time, and we wanted to reflect that," he says.
Of all the things affecting a department's productivity, one of the most difficult to measure is morale.
"There's no doubt morale and attitude affect a department's overall productivity and performance. There is a link, and there's any number of behavioral theories you can use to support that," says David Webb, assistant director of the Bill Blackwell Law Enforcement Management Institute at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville.
Webb says morale tends to sag when officers believe "all the rules and procedures they're used to are changed," especially when they have not been consulted. "They're no longer stakeholders in their department," he says.
If there's a constant in Dallas officers' complaints about Bolton's regime, it's that important career matters such as transfers, promotions and discipline seem to follow few rules. "It's a brother-in-law system," complains White.
A sergeant who declined to be identified says he has never seen morale lower in the three decades he has been with DPD. "Patrol officers work in their cars in ones and twos, and they pretty much do their job the way they want to do the job," the sergeant says. "You hear these officers in the hallways, and the bottom line is they're not happy. They're a very apathetic workforce. The attitude is: 'Why risk it? Nobody cares.'"
It would be unfair to lay all the blame on Bolton, although the plunge in morale--as well as police service--runs concurrent with his term, the sergeant says. "Things like pay and sick time and the money issues aren't Terrell Bolton's responsibility, and they're part of it."
But it is Bolton's responsibility to recognize the morale morass and address it. "He's making no moves to do so," the old department hand says. "There's no leadership I can see to turn things around."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.
- Hate Our New Comment System? Just Make a Burner Facebook Account.
- SCOTUS Talked about UT Admissions Behind Closed Doors Thursday. Tuesday We Learn What...
- Dallas Animal Services to Partner With Lost Dog App to Help You Find Fido