Will New Pay Deal Be Enough to Fix the Dallas Police Department?
So do we love our cops here in Dallas or what? Will our cops be happy now that we're about to agree to more pay for them? People who know a few things about police issues in Dallas say the same thing to both questions.
Dallas City Manager A.C. Gonzalez last week announced he's ready to agree to a police and fire pay package that looks like most or all of what the police and firefighters asked for months ago at the beginning of a long and grueling negotiation process.
Pay for new hires will go up by 15 percent over three years. Pay for all but the top seniority ranks will go up 10 percent over three years. Those who have already reached the top of the pay scale will receive more modest raises.
Not bad — close to what they asked for originally. But before we dive straight into the pay issue, it might be worth taking a moment to ponder a larger question. What are cops for, anyway? What do we pay them to do?
And then there also is the question of what we do not want them to do. A persistent thread during the pay negotiations has been the suggestion by some that the Black Lives Matter movement has caused an erosion of morale among the blue ranks. Five Dallas police officers were shot and killed by a sniper on the streets of downtown last July 7 during a protest over police shootings.
But even if unrest over police shootings has harmed police morale, what do we do with that? Ban unrest?
Just before his unexpected retirement at the beginning of September and only two months after the sniper murdered the five downtown, Police Chief David Brown was still neck-deep in the pay negotiations that now appear near resolution. He spoke then to a Dallas audience about the issue that looms over police pay, morale, recruitment, attrition, community anger and everything else to do with cops.
"Every societal failure, we put it on the cops to solve," he said. "Not enough mental health funding, let the cop handle it. Not enough drug addiction funding, let's give it to the cops.
"Here in Dallas we have a loose dog problem. Let's have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, give it to the cops. Seventy percent of the African-American community is being raised by single women, let's give it to the cops to solve as well."
A year before the shootings, I had a long one-on-one conversation with Brown in a coffee shop across the street from police headquarters. He talked about the concept of community policing and the emphasis given to it by instructors at the police academy. He said he was confident every graduate of the academy has a good understanding of the social and communal duties expected of them.
But Brown, a career cop from college days, also told me he was confidant that the minute every new recruit steps into a car with their trainer for the first time, the trainer tells them to stuff every single word of that community policing business and concentrate instead on not getting themselves or the trainer killed.
Brown was not telling me that he did not believe in community policing — the idea that modern police officers must connect with and feel empathy for the community they police. He grew up in a tough Dallas neighborhood. Those streets are his birth soil and the people who live on them his people.
But he was telling me another piece of the same story he told in that speech a year later, after the five were murdered. There's a point where we ask too much, where we pile on duties and missions that may not be compatible. We can't send cops into situations where people want to kill them but also order them every time to keep their hands in their pockets and smiles on their lips.
Of course, if they walk into every situation ready to shoot somebody, sooner or later they'll shoot people who don't need to get shot. But Brown knows that, too. Not easy, any of it.
And now we come to what may actually be the least easy part, at least in practical terms. Whatever it is we want them to do, how much is it worth to us? Can we afford to pay what they want?
These pay negotiations have not always been a pretty process. In August the widow of one of the slain officers taped a radio ad that made it sound as if Dallas City Council member Lee Kleinman, a law and order conservative, had helped get her husband killed.
Kleinman's real sin was that he had declined to meet with a consultant hired to help negotiate the new pay deal. For that, the widow waved the bloody shirt barely weeks after the killings. That's how bitter the process had become.
The most empathetic explanation I have heard for the bitterness of the cops on the pay issue comes not from a cop but from one of their most dedicated critics on the police shootings issue. But that one will take a little explaining. I'll have to come to back to it.
For now, let's clear the decks a little on pay. A great deal of what is commonly believed — that the cops are all out there risking their lives for $22 an hour — is not really true. It's a little bit true. It's complicated.
Where it has been true up until now is at the new-hire/trainee and first-few-years rookie patrol officer end of the food chain. Until this new pay package, assuming the council approves it, new and low-seniority police officers in Dallas have indeed been earning a pay rate that is next to the lowest among all Texas peer cities — 63 percent of what a starting officer gets in suburban Plano.
The new pay package the city manager is about to present to the City Council will bump up that bottom level of pay by 15 percent in the first three years of service. Assuming pay levels stay the same in the peer cities — probably a bad assumption — the 15 percent starting boost and subsequent raises in the package will boost Dallas first- through third-year police officers up to somewhere around mid-pack statewide.
It's also worth knowing that Dallas police officers get extra pay depending on their skills and duties — an average of $8,946 per officer according to the city manager — plus they already earn 5 percent pay bumps for each year of service up to 11 years, at which point those pay bumps stop. That means, according to the city manager's figures, that about 60 percent of the uniformed officers at the bottom rank are making between $80,000 and $90,000 a year. Just under 5 percent of them make more than $125,000 a year.
The rank just above police officer is senior corporal. Half of Dallas senior corporals make $90,000 to $100,000 a year. Just under 9 percent make more than $125,000 a year.
Dallas, by the way, has more senior corporals in the ranks, 1,432, than police officers, 1,376. When it's all said and done, more than half of all "topped out" uniformed personnel, meaning those who have reached their 11th years, make six figures or more.
But when all of that extra pay and regular pay not including overtime is added up, if we consider only those officers who have reached their 11th year of service, top pay for Dallas rank and file police officers is still 6 percent less than the market rate for Texas peer cities. The average Dallas patrol officer can get a better than 20 percent raise by going to work for Austin, or they can stay in the same house here, go to work for Plano and get a 10 percent bump.
The overarching reality, meanwhile, is that cops today are in ever shorter supply in a market that can't get enough of them, according to Ron DeLord, a Georgetown, Texas, lawyer. DeLord is the national labor consultant hired by Dallas police and fire officers to negotiate their new deal.
"Nobody wants to be a police officer anymore," DeLord says over breakfast in a Love Field hotel. "There's too much crap. If you look at the millennials, they value quality of life. There's no quality of life for the police. And they do shift work. You could be here 10 years trying to get a Saturday off."
Of course, DeLord, a national law enforcement and fire labor consultant, makes his money negotiating higher pay for cops and firemen. He has a certain vested interest in the picture he paints.
City Manager Gonzalez, who has at least a theoretical interest in holding the line on pay, agrees with DeLord that a competitive market for cops and a diminishing pool of recruits have been important reasons for attrition on the Dallas force in recent years. In a recent presentation to the City Council, Gonzalez listed the two main reasons for the dwindling size of the Dallas force as 1) "leaving for better compensation and retirements," and 2) "reduction in applicant pool."
The designated size of the uniformed force now is supposed to be 3,511. But the actual number now is an estimated 3,382, putting it at just under 4 percent below full force.
The designated force of 3,511 uniforms, if we had them, would be 500 more than we had in 2007. If we had the full 3,511 now, that would give us 2.69 police officers per thousand residents. The ratio in 2007 was 2.44 cops per thousand citizens.
Average response time for top priority police calls in 2007 was 8.5 minutes. In 2015 when we had 2.73 cops per thousand, the response time was 8.09 minutes.
Of 241 officers who left the force in the previous fiscal year, 43.6 percent retired. Another 27.4 percent either left law enforcement or moved out of the area.
Of the total who left, 19.1 percent moved laterally to other police agencies or federal law enforcement jobs. That number was double the percentage who had moved laterally to other law enforcement jobs the previous year.
Just over two-thirds of those who moved laterally to other law enforcement jobs were in the five- to 10-years-of-service range, considered the most vulnerable to poaching by other departments. In their mid-20s and early 30s, settling down, maybe with more than enough adrenaline adventure under their belts, most are still pretty far from the better money here.
But that still comes to only 31 officers in the previous fiscal year who were in that age and seniority range and left to go to other agencies. That amounts to only 13 percent of all attrition and less than 1 percent of the full uniform force that year.
DeLord, the consultant, sells hard on attrition from poaching as a problem for Dallas in the future. He insists other agencies see Dallas' young officers sitting there fully trained and experienced, feeling underpaid and unappreciated. And he says agencies with fatter checkbooks will continue to come here looking for officers to poach.
"They are going to pay what it takes to get them. They're paying $15,000 to $20,000 more. A guy who's been here 10 years can walk to Fort Worth and make a $25,000 pay raise and stay in the house he's got. In this area there are probably 300 police departments you could work at and never move."
Dallas Police Basic Academy recruit class #150 graduates on Nov. 4.
That substantial bump in pay was what drew Officer Dakota Moore from DPD to Fort Worth in November 2015. The son of a 30-year veteran Dallas officer who retired with the rank of lieutenant, Moore seems an unlikely candidate to be lured from his hometown department. After four years on the job, he had worked in the narcotics unit, where his father served, and was assigned to the metro unit, handling arrest warrants for violent felons when Fort Worth announced it was hiring. Those are choice assignments by police standards.
"I came here with the full intention of being and staying a Dallas police officer," Moore says.
But then Fort Worth came calling. A former partner saw on Facebook that the department there was offering a lateral transfer program that provided expedited background checks and shortened academy and field training for experienced, qualified officers, and Moore had about a day to decide whether to head west. The Dallas department last fall had just scheduled its first corporal exam in several years, and Moore was one class short of qualifying to take the test, so with no immediate chance to move up in rank, the chance to move Fort Worth, give up his second jobs and still come out ahead was too tempting.
"I really would have loved to say in Dallas but unfortunately the financial opportunities and potential gain from that was too much to pass up," he says.
Like many police officers, Moore worked second jobs to supplement his pay in Dallas, doing various security work at a school, a bank and an Uptown bar. Critics of higher police salaries often point out that police officers have plenty of opportunities to work second jobs, but saying a cop can always get a second job isn't exactly a good recommendation for their first job, being a cop. Moore's single, but for some young Dallas police officers, he says, it was "almost a necessity to work a second job ... to be financially stable and support their families."
For officers looking to start a family, working six or seven days a week at multiple jobs can be especially life-draining.
Other factors beyond pay tip the scales on a choice between staying in Dallas or moving to greener pastures, Moore says. He has friends in the DPD and takes care not to say anything negative about his former employer, but he clearly likes his work environment in Fort Worth better than his old department, where "politics" — in how decisions about how discipline, assignments and basic management were handled — add stress to an already stressful job.
As much as anything, morale comes down to having rank-and-file officers feel that the community and their bosses have their backs. And that sense depends on more than salary or the ratio of officers to residents.
Which helps explain why not everyone buys the argument about the need for higher pay or accepts that the crime-fighting efficacy of the department is a direct function of the size of the force and the ratio of cops to residents. City Council member Philip Kingston says the city still must decide whether the size of the force is the most important factor in crime fighting and how big a force the city can afford.
The city manager has proposed adding 449 uniforms to the full roster of 3,511, which would give Dallas its largest force ever and its highest ratio of cops to residents. Kingston isn't convinced that's the best way to fight crime.
"Given its effect on our budget over the last 10 years," Kingston says, "it's the most underanalyzed question in Dallas.
"My view of history is that the problems with the department in the early 2000s were entirely the result of bad leadership."
Kingston says the rank and file in the department basically went on a sit-down strike and quit doing their jobs under Chief Terrell Bolton, who was fired by the city manager in 2003. "But you had these outside advocates who came in and said, 'The problem is not the cops. The problem is not enough cops.'"
The advocates he's talking about persuaded the business establishment and the City Council that Dallas needed to have 3 police per 1,000 population because that was the ratio in New York City, where crime had seen great reductions.
"They made that up," he says. "You can spend days reading about proper staffing levels for policing, and you will find cities that are incredibly successful at a ratio of 2.25 cops per thousand. Fort Worth would be an example. And you can find cities that are completely out of control at 3.7 officers per thousand.
"I think it all goes back to management, strategy and approach."
The factors DeLord talks about, the "too much crap" factor, however, would seem to be largely beyond the reach of either management to control or pay levels to assuage, especially if we're talking about Black Lives Matter and the growing furor over police shootings. That's a tough one to quantify. But it's even harder to imagine what the solution would be.
One gloomy evening in early fall, longtime community organizer John Fullinwider is standing in a small auditorium at Fair Park with a wireless lapel microphone fastened to his shirt, conducting a professorial seminar on police shootings for an audience of a few dozen activists. All are listening intently. Several in the audience became activists after their own family members were shot by police.
Slides click by on a large projection screen above his head — grisly autopsy photos of police shooting subjects, some of whose relatives are watching from the audience, crime scene photos, body cam video, page after page of police internal documents, as well as family photos of the dead before they were shot.
Fullinwider, a medical librarian and researcher by trade, has gleaned all of this documentation and evidence from open records demands and his own painstaking research. Most of the small audience is pitched forward on their chairs, some taking notes.
John Fullinwider is critical of how Dallas police handle shootings.
"When you shoot someone," Fullinwider says, "you may get some fouling or soot. It may show up on the wound if you shoot him at a very close range, less than 6 inches. If you shoot him at up to 3 feet you will get stippling, which is where the skin tears and there are like little bb's on the skin.
"If you don't see either soot or stippling, it means you are at least 30 inches out."
He calls for the next slide, an autopsy photo of the corpse of Clinton Allen, a 25-year-old man shot by a lone police officer after a foot chase in 2013. The officer said Allen struggled with him and tried to take his gun. An autopsy showed PCP in Allen's system.
Allen's death led to the founding of Mother's Against Police Brutality, with which Fullinwider is associated. The group is not directly associated with Black Lives Matter and was not on the street the night the five were murdered.
"Clinton was shot seven times," Fullinwider explains, pointing to the bullet holes in the larger-than-life photo above him. "He was shot right here, there, there. He was shot five times in the chest. None of those wounds have soot or stippling on them according to the autopsy."
Pointing to new photo of the back of the body, he says "The last shot in the autopsy, a close-range shot, was at the back. Thin soot surrounds the wound. This was a close shot in the back."
Then he shows a police document. "This is a listing of the people shot in 2013, some of them. Clinton Allen is number 18." He points to the place on the list where the victim's weapons are described.
"Look at his weapon," he says.
Under weapon, it says, "Hands."
"So Clinton Allen was not unarmed," Fullinwider says. "He had his hands."
Gasps and a few ragged fragments of laughter erupt from the audience.
At another point in the evening, Fullinwider talks about the five officers killed downtown. "The death of the five officers is a terrible thing," he tells them. "'Terrible' doesn't even describe it.
"But just imagine if after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, someone had said, 'Well, we just can't try to make the schools better any more, we can't do any reform of education, because it's just too painful because we had this shooting.'"
His point is clear. The kind of organizing and advocacy that Fullinwider and others are doing around the police shootings issue will not stop or go away just because it makes cops angry or even if it causes them to quit the profession or move elsewhere.
I mentioned at the top of this piece that a frequent critic of the police was also the person who offered me what I thought was the most empathetic explanation of the bitterness they feel over the pay issue. That was Fullinwider.
He was a teacher in the Dallas school system in the 1990s, where he won the district-wide "teacher of the year" award in 1997. He says experience as a teacher may afford him a certain insight into how cops feel about pay.
"Teachers and cops are kind of in the same boat as far as their job description," he says. "Anything that goes wrong with the youth of today or any societal problem like poverty among children is supposed to be taken care of by exemplary teachers. If they can't take care of society's big problems, then they're not a good teacher."
But what binds teachers and cops even more closely, he says, is what the public professes to believe about them as opposed to how the public treats them about pay. The public, he says, mistakes its own sentimentality about teachers and cops for respect. The difference is what happens on payday.
"When you get to working conditions and pay," he says, "it's not really respect. It's more like Norman Rockwell sentimentality."
The guy working for Ford assumes Ford wants to pay him as little as it can get away with. But because the public professes to have so much reverence for them in the first place, cops and teachers may interpret the public's skinflint character on payday as betrayal and hypocrisy.
"Then that really hits them in the morale," he says.
Police on patrol at the 2016 Texas State Fair.
Viewed in that light, the widow's attack ad against Councilman Kleinman can take on another character. Instead of an attempt to use the deaths of the five as blackmail against Kleinman, by Fullinwider's interpretation the ad could have been a sincere expression of deep-felt emotion. You always say you've got our backs, until it comes to money.
DeLord, the labor consultant, says the agreement that the city manager will present to the council soon is a good one. And, of course, he helped negotiate it. He hopes the rank and file of the various first responder associations will vote for it and that the City Council will, too.
He just thinks that even with this new pact Dallas will still face serious recruitment and retention problems. The main problems the city must confront, he says, are an ongoing pension crisis, longstanding pay litigation left over from prior regimes and a general aura of unresolved ineffectiveness.
"Dallas is in such a hole," he says, "compounded by the low pay, compounded by just the trouble of Dallas. It's a huge city with lots of trouble and now a failing pension. People are bailing out. Hundreds are going to retire. (Former Chief) Brown walked out.
"You haven't even seen how bad it's going to be," he says. "They're going to have a lot of trouble hiring. For every person that Dallas wants, the Texas Department of Public Safety will take them, Border Patrol will take them, every suburb will take them.
"Nobody can save Dallas today. It's going to have to play itself out, and then it will be a new day."
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