Leonard Mitchell thinks it was Mickey-Mouse of the police department to punish two white cops and let two black cops off  in his case.
Leonard Mitchell thinks it was Mickey-Mouse of the police department to punish two white cops and let two black cops off in his case.
Stephen P. Karlisch

We Shall Stay on Top

If you're Terrell Bolton and you make $132,000 a year in base salary plus $20,000 a year in overtime as Dallas' First Black Police Chief, sure, you're a walking civil rights case. If somebody criticizes you, a bunch of civil rights-style pickets will surround that fool's house in a hurry.

But if you're Donato Garcia, a 44-year-old Latino construction worker, or if you are Leonard Mitchell, a 37-year-old African-American public school maintenance supervisor, forget about it. Even if you get arrested and jacked with by the police in a way that genuinely violates your civil rights, don't bother calling the local civil rights constabulary. Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, Dallas City Councilman James Fantroy, former NAACP official Lee Alcorn: They only do civil rights for rich people these days.

And now for a round of that rousing civil rights anthem, "We Shall Stay on Top."

Unfortunately, real civil rights violations seldom happen to people at the top of the heap. The Garcia and Mitchell cases have to do with the Dallas Police Department's use of "failure to i.d." as a throw-down charge in order to arrest somebody who isn't doing anything against the law. They call it a throw-down charge, like a throw-down gun, because it's used to incriminate someone who is otherwise clean.

It's not against the law to refuse to provide the police with identification, as long as you're not accused of a crime and you're not a witness. State law is explicit: The police cannot arrest you solely for failure to i.d. But they do it all the time, and the police department's own numbers show they do it especially to black people. African-Americans are arrested for failure to i.d. in Dallas at twice the rate they should be according to population ratios.

One hot day last July, four Dallas police officers handcuffed Leonard Mitchell when he refused to give identification (see "Hell Is a Nuisance," October 26, 2000). According to two affidavits by witnesses, some of the officers repeatedly called Mitchell "nigger." Eventually, two of the four--but not the two who had used the epithet--received a few days' suspension.

Here's the interesting part: Later, when Mitchell appeared before the open microphone at the Dallas City Council to complain about what had happened, his own councilman, Fantroy, turned a deaf ear.

Councilman Fantroy, along with Alcorn, sometimes of the NAACP, are part of an effort by black civil rights leaders in Dallas to stonewall the whole business of racial profiling in order to avoid making First Black Police Chief Bolton look bad.

Fantroy and Alcorn were slated to appear before the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee on March 27 to testify on the misuse of failure to i.d. as an arrest charge and on the fact that this bogus charge tends to go hand in hand with racial profiling. Before the Austin hearing, Alcorn had been holding his own private hearings on the issue for months at a church in southern Dallas.

But Alcorn and Fantroy both bailed on the committee hearing in Austin the day before it happened. Not one black leader from Dallas showed up. None of what people told Alcorn at his hearings was relayed to the lawmakers.

All of their words were wasted. All of them were betrayed.

Nobody called me back--not Real Chief of Police John Wiley Price, not Alcorn, not Fantroy. It always seems to me that grown-up men should be able to hike up their pants and do a mature interview even with reporters they're mad at, but maybe that's just me. In the meantime, I really don't understand the stonewalling.

Mitchell and I ate some barbecue one day last week near the school where he works in Fantroy's district, and he offered me his thoughts. Mitchell thinks the racial strand is woven through his case in a very complex way. He pointed out that the two officers who had used the n-word on him were black.

"I have two signed affidavits from witnesses who said they both heard the black officers use the n-word. One of them said, 'Nigger, get your black ass in the car.'

"To me, the word is as offensive whether a black man calls me that or a white man. It's a word that causes a lot of pain and suffering, no matter who says it."

He feels the same way about racial profiling: Mitchell believes black cops may do racial profiling as often as white officers. "The profiling comes, to me, when an officer stops a person because of his ethnicity, whether the officer is black or white. It's not just an Anglo issue."

When the police department finally felt enough heat to do something about the Mitchell case, top management handled the disciplining of the officers in a way that still rankles Mitchell.

"They suspended the two white officers," he said, "but they didn't do anything to the black officers."

He laughed, but you could tell he didn't think it was funny. In fact, I heard sadness in Mitchell's voice when he talked about Bolton and his importance to black people as the city's First Black Police Chief. He thinks Bolton doesn't want to go by the book on racial profiling because he wants to be free to carry out his own brand of profiling.

"We're glad that we have a black chief. But if our black chief is going to stand by and let us be abused, then he's no better than the people who came before him."

At least Mitchell got some satisfaction: Two of the four police officers who arrested him for failure to i.d. were disciplined, however mildly, meaning the department had to admit the fundamental wrongness of what had happened to him. That's actually way better than what happened to Donato Garcia.

Garcia was arrested a year ago on a failure to i.d. charge while he waited for his wife to get off work downtown (see "Contempt of Cop," September 7, 2000). After he was already in jail, the police figured out they needed some more charges on him.

This is not rocket science. Five separate Dallas city attorney's advisories have warned the police department over the years not to arrest people for failure to i.d. When they go ahead and do it anyway, the police sometimes try to cover their mistake by piling on other charges well after the fact, such as sleeping in public or resisting arrest. Garcia was charged with both sleeping in public and resisting arrest.

Months later, at the end of a daylong trial that included extensive police testimony, a Dallas jury took 11 minutes to find Garcia not guilty on the resisting charge. Later, the Dallas Citizens/Police Review Board voted 9-4 to condemn his arrest for failure to i.d.

Garcia still faced the sleeping in public and failure to i.d. charges. Last December 11, without the knowledge of Garcia or his lawyers, someone from the Dallas city attorney's office approached Walter A. Knowles, a lawyer who handles traffic tickets in the municipal courts, and persuaded him to enter a guilty plea for Garcia in exchange for a penalty of "time served"--the time Garcia already had spent in jail the night they arrested him.

Garcia's real lawyers, David Davis and William Dippel, went to Municipal Court Judge Jay Robinson to have the guilty plea thrown out. But Robinson, a city employee, refused to lift it, even when he understood that a guilty plea had been entered for Garcia without Garcia's knowledge.

Last week, Davis and Dippel went to court and filed what's called a "Rule 202 petition for depositions." It means they want a judge to allow them to compel witnesses to give depositions in order to determine whether sufficient grounds exist for a lawsuit.

The list of people the lawyers want to depose is fascinating. They want to get sworn testimony from deputy police chief Ron Waldrop; from Levi Williams, who is the civilian "community relations advisor" to First Black Police Chief Bolton; and Municipal Judge Robinson.

What the petition does not say but I happen to know is that they already have in hand a sworn deposition from Knowles saying the thing was a setup to shaft Garcia.

This business goes right to the heart of the municipal court system. Davis and Dippel may be able to show that municipal judges, city attorneys and defense lawyers regularly conspire to cheat people out of their civil rights in order to raise revenue for the city and keep the court system running smoothly.

That's explosive.

There is irony upon irony in the way this is unfolding. Bill Dippel, one of Garcia's lawyers, is the son of Kenneth Dippel, who was Dallas' first assistant city attorney in the 1980s and who defended the city against bias charges brought by black police officers. Dippel says he is defending Garcia, who can't afford to pay for any of this, because Dippel grew up with a basic respect for the integrity of city government in Dallas and doesn't want to see the system slouch into corruption and callousness.

"I hope the outcome here will be that the city of Dallas and the citizens of Dallas will have a system in place so that issues like this can be resolved," Dippel told me.

So here's David Davis, a Latino, and Dippel, a white guy, devoting hours of their time and effort to defending the rights of a struggling immigrant construction worker. And the only thing the city's traditional African-American civil rights leadership cares about is saving the police chief's $150,000-a-year job.

I remember that when General Sir Charles Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown, the British military band played "The World Turned Upside Down." But I don't know how it goes. If you can whistle it, please call.


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