Well, I think I just submitted the dumbest open records request of my 100-year career as a journalist. I sent it to the city. This was a tough decision. I swore I would not do this. Then I did it. My open records request was, “Where is the police chief?”
But you know what’s even dumber? They’re not going to tell me. How crazy is that? Dallas Police Chief U. Renee Hall has been absent, incognito, whereabouts unknown, or, as they used to say in Mickey Spillane crime novels, “in the wind,” for a month now, and nobody will say where she is.
I would feel like the world’s dumbest reporter — can’t even find out where the chief is — except that I may have some serious competition in that department. I don’t want to speak ill of a former colleague, a guy whom I greatly admire and love, but I must say that Dallas Morning News columnist Robert Wilonsky’s recent interview on this topic with City Manager T.C. Broadnax took a certain cake. I just wish I knew what kind of cake.
Wilonsky took Broadnax to task for not telling anybody what happened to the chief of police. It sounded from his story like Broadnax was just about wiping away tears he felt so terrible about being a bad communicator:
“Could we better communicate?” Broadnax asked rhetorically, I assume. “I guarantee you we can. Gotta do a better job of communication.”
I read that and thought, “Yessir, great, no need to beat up on yourself, big guy. Just tell us. Where’s the chief?”
But in the story, Broadnax never says where the chief is. The story doesn’t even say Wilonsky asked him where the chief is. I read the whole damn story. I still don’t know where the chief is.
When I read it, I said to myself, “Look, I am not going to go file an official open records request demanding to know where the chief of police is. That could go down on my permanent record. It could come back on me.”
You never know where or when. I could find myself standing on a cloud outside the Pearly Gates, and St. Peter is waving this piece of paper at me: “Did you call yourself a reporter all those years down there, and you had to file an open records request to find out where the chief of police was?”
Just tuck my head: “Guilty, sir. Please direct me to the elevator.” But then I might take a few steps, stop, turn back and say, “Peter, you do know, right, what Wilonsky did?”
Not just Wilonsky. It’s his whole newspaper. Not asking where the chief is must be some kind of official policy. The Dallas Morning News ran an official “editorial,” the things where they tell us (ta-da ta-da, trumpets) what the paper thinks about the world. The headline was, “Protect, serve and communicate: when police use silence, citizens take matters into their own hands.”
I thought, “OK, now we’re going to get down to it. The News is going to tell city officials to hurry up and tell us where the chief is before ‘citizens take matters into their own hands.’” Scary, right?
They started off with a quotation from the late Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw. So you know this is going to be serious. Apparently the editorial board, the committee that writes this stuff, talked to Broadnax, and it sounds as if he must have turned on the waterworks for them as well:
“I should have — that’s a weakness of mine — shared a little bit more, generically, with my bosses about the chief being out,” Broadnax told the committee. “If there has been one area that we have been working on with Chief Hall and DPD and our entire organization, it’s communicating to the public. We can get better.”
So this is right where somebody on the committee says, “Where’s the chief?” And then later when they write the official editorial, they tell us where the chief is. Right?
Wrong. The official editorial doesn’t say where she is. It doesn’t even say they asked, which I find very hard to believe. Please. They’re sitting around their big table, and they’ve got the city manager right there, and they’re talking about this whole business of nobody knowing where the chief of police is, which is totally crazy, and you’re telling me not one person at the table even thinks to say to him, “Hey. Where’s the chief?”
That just did not happen. They did not overlook that question. That’s impossible. They did not ask, not get an answer and then not tell us that they asked and did not get an answer. Unless they’re all on crack. Otherwise, not even asking the question would defy certain basic laws of human nature. Something else must be going on here.
By the way, while we’re on the subject of Broadnax’s big mea culpa crocodile tears about how he’s just got to communicate better, let me point out what he did a couple of days later. Rebecca Lopez, the senior crime and justice reporter at WFAA Channel 8 News caught him somewhere, put a microphone in his face and asked him about the chief.
“I don’t respond to rumors,” Broadnax said. “Then if you’ve read, the Morning News will issue you a statement, but, then again, I am not going to respond specifically to that question.”
Let me translate some of that from really bad communications to something more like the spoken word. Telling the reporter from Channel 8 to go get her information from The Dallas Morning News translates roughly into English as, “Screw you and your little dog, too.”
It’s especially insulting, now that we know the Morning News does stories and editorials about where the chief is and doesn’t say in the story where the chief is. Or that they even asked. So I guess the “statement” Lopez could get from the paper would be something like, “How dast you ask?”
Interesting, though, that the city manager brings up rumors. The News, in its editorial, brings up people taking things into their own hands. Because guess what? At this point the rumor mill on Chief Hall is at fever pitch.
I’m not going to repeat the rumors here for a couple of reasons. One, they’re rumors. Secondly, probably more important, my own suspicion based on the meager amount of information I have been able to glean is that Chief Hall really is recovering from a very tough medical procedure that requires long debilitating convalescence.
Piled on top of what she may be going through physically, the rumors, if she heard them, could be devastating. I’ll give you one hint: Take every crazy, dark, loony, corrupt, asinine thing that really has happened at Dallas City Hall in the last decade, roll it all up in one big ball, apply it to one person and you’ve got a fair approximation of the rumors flying ’round about Chief Hall right now.
I blame that 100% on Broadnax, for his screw-you attitude, and on The Dallas Morning News for their attitude, which, when you peel the onion, is, “We know, but we dastn’t share.”
How do they imagine people are going to react? How else could people react but by going straight to the rumor mill? Why do they think there is such a thing as a rumor mill?
People have to know where the chief of police is. They just do. She’s not their Aunt Mary. She’s the chief of police. Generally speaking, most people would be willing to stop asking questions and stop pestering altogether if somebody would just tell them where she is. Most people would say, “Got it. Best wishes for her.” That’s how you quell the rumor mill.
You don’t quell the rumor mill by bowing up all haughty about it and saying, “How dast you ask me where the chief of police is? Upon my sworn and sacred oath to be a better communicator, I shall not, I shan’t not, I dasn’t ever tell you where the chief of police is.”
People see something like that on TV and they think, “Dast? Now that is weird. So weird. What if the chief was never actually from this planet?”
She’s from Detroit. So am I. I can tell you from personal experience, for most people, being from Detroit is not all that far a reach from not being from this planet. I love Detroit. I’m proud of being from Detroit. Being from Detroit is not a burden. But I guess, once people know, I try not to startle them.
This whole weird dast business does not help. One person who will not be helped at all by dast in the long run is the chief. Speaking of things that can come back to bite you, that’s not one you want on your résumé: “7/10/2019: Vanished into thin air.”
It’s not that I haven’t been working the problem. On July 19, I asked Mary Elbanna, chief of staff to Mayor Eric Johnson, to ask the mayor about the nature of the chief’s leave. She wrote back to me a month later: “Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson Joins Coalition of Mayors Calling on the United States Senate to Take Immediate Action on Gun Safety Legislation.”
I think that’s how it’s going to be with our new mayor. He’s going to take on the tough ones, like being in favor of gun safety as opposed to being in favor of gun danger. And I agree with him on that. I salute. But I wonder. Where in the hell is the chief?
I have also been in communication with the city manager’s office. They sent me a copy of the city charter. Communication-wise, that’s up there with being told to ask the Morning News for a statement.
So finally I bit the bullet and filed an open records request. I know, I know. Someday they’ll have my picture on the pull-down screen in a journalism class at Columbia: “Here’s a guy down in Texas who once filed an open records request to find out where the chief of police was.”
Great. Laugh it up. Do you know where she is?