Royal Police

Everybody wants the new Dallas police chief to fix everything. Obviously. Sure. When he's done with that, I wish he'd come over to my house and fix my computer.

The problem is fix what? Fix it how? That's where we get into trouble. Some of these problems are older than my dog, and I have a pretty old dog.

Last week I attended the funeral of a frequent source and friend of mine, Leonard Mitchell, who was for many years the head custodian at Elisha M. Pease Elementary School. He was only 41 years old and died of heart trouble.

More than 300 people filled The Lord's Missionary Baptist Church on Bexar Street across from the Turner Courts projects where Mitchell grew up. Ministers and members of several churches, relatives, friends and acquaintances waited in line at microphones to speak or sing moving testimonials to this wise, honest gentleman.

An especially moving element of the service was a shouted eulogy in which the minister chronicled Leonard Mitchell's successes, from a childhood in the projects to home ownership in Pleasant Grove, finally to a new house in suburban Duncanville. He was a fine husband and father, a solid member of his church and community.

I got to know Mitchell four years ago when I wrote a column about a run-in he and his wife had with Dallas police officers over a minor auto accident ("Hell Is a Nuisance," October 26, 2000). A police officer got mad at him, used the n-word on him and then arrested him for failing to properly identify himself.

"Failure to ID" is an illegal charge in Dallas, but the police have done it for ages, especially in cases where they don't have a legitimate charge on which to make an arrest. Mitchell spent two nights in jail and the next several years battling vainly to get the police department to admit it had wronged him. We continued to meet and talk on the phone long after I had finished writing about his case.

One of the things Mitchell straightened me out about was the ill-fated career of Terrell Bolton, the city's first African-American police chief. Mitchell and I were eating barbecue somewhere in Southern Dallas one day, talking about it.

I told him I did not understand why Bolton stubbornly refused to admit that any of his officers practiced racial profiling or used "throw-down charges" like failure to ID, which historically have been used against minorities.

He said, "Well, Brother Jim, I guess you forgot the cop who used the n-word on me and shoved me in a patrol car for failure to ID was a black man."

Oh, yeah. I had forgotten that.

He thought Bolton's problems were not black or white but blue. Bolton was triple-promoted from the ranks. He still had rank-and-file vision. He saw the police department as a blue army unto itself, separated from and above city government and "civilians." I never talked on the telephone or ate barbecue with Professor Mitchell and didn't go home smarter.

So another night last week I'm sitting in a crime watch meeting in the Love Field area, and things are going well. More than 100 people have jammed a room in the K.B. Polk Recreation Center to listen to a presentation by five members of the police department--two deputy chiefs, two patrol officers and an undercover narcotics supervisor.

The cops obviously know this mainly middle-class African-American neighborhood well, understand its problems and sort of speak its language. There's a lot of smiling and scattered applause as each officer gets up to make a presentation. The homeowners in this room, plagued by drug dealers, prostitutes and thugs, see these police officers as their protectors.

But then, like the onset of a sudden toothache, I hear the speech that is always made at these deals. One of the deputy chiefs, trying to tell people how to reach the police department, goes off on a tangent about how they mustn't call their city council members to complain about the police.

"That will only slow things down," he says.

Aha. So a guy in a uniform is standing up here telling American citizens they are going to be penalized for petitioning their elected representatives. I've heard this speech a dozen times at meetings like this. It's sort of an assumption of Dallas police culture: Citizens must not call city council members to complain about police matters, because council members do not matter to police.

The attitude is reinforced by the fact that so many people in Dallas leadership skipped school the day democracy was explained. The Dallas Morning News editorial page is always inveighing against the city council for interfering in police matters, sort of the way the American colonists tried to micromanage King George's tax policies, I guess.