Fake Justice

The Dallas fake-drug "investigation" announced with fanfare last week by the city attorney is a heavily controlled inside job dominated by city staff that will produce none of the fundamental justice people are looking for.

Mexican-Americans wronged in fake drugs aren't looking for an outcome in which somebody calls for better accounting procedures. They want to see justice with a big J. So does anybody else who understands how terrible these cases were.

Fake drugs is the scandal in which more than 80 cocaine cases had to be dismissed and dozens of Mexican immigrants released from jail after it was revealed someone connected with the Dallas Police Department in 2001 had been systematically framing people with ground-up billiard chalk.

The announced purpose of the city's fake-drug panel is to look for major underlying causes. But a bureaucratic search of policies and procedures will never turn up anything meaningful, for at least two reasons.

First, no fake-drug "policies" will ever be discovered. It wasn't "policy." There was never a memo that said, "TO COMMAND STAFF: WHEN FRAMING PEOPLE ON FAKE DRUG CHARGES, BE SURE TO PICK ON DEFENSELESS IMMIGRANTS."

Second, the city's probe is so secretive and so firmly under the thumb of city employees that anything really significant will be concealed. That's already happening.

The justice people need in fake drugs is political and fundamental. What went wrong in fake drugs is what's wrong at the core of the whole police department and all of city government in Dallas. We need stern civilian oversight of local government, especially the police. That's justice with a capital J.

But to get that lesson across, we needed very public hearings in which city officials, especially police officials, were compelled to sit in the glare and say in public the kinds of things we reporters hear from them all the time in the corridors of City Hall. We needed a probe that was big, messy, loud and brutal. We needed to search not for a policy on a piece of paper but for a culture and an attitude that made people think it was OK to pick on defenseless immigrants. We're not talking about accounting procedures. We're talking about Dallas-style ethnic cleansing.

But we're not going to get that big brawling public airing of the wound. Instead, we're getting the typical Dallas deal: a tight-lipped whitewash.

Local authorities agreed two years ago to hold off on their own probes of fake drugs until after a federal investigation. That agreement expired November 25 when a federal jury acquitted the only Dallas police detective indicted by federal authorities. After the acquittal, both the Dallas County district attorney and the Dallas city attorney unveiled their own so-called "independent" investigations, with stern vows of no rock unturned.

But even in making the announcements, both the city attorney and the acting Dallas police chief did everything they could to hide the ball.

Two weeks ago I was reminded by Bill Hill, the district attorney, that the federal Drug Enforcement Administration had audited Dallas police procedures relevant to fake drugs more than a year ago at the invitation of former police Chief Terrell Bolton. Nothing could be more pertinent to the city's probe. If there is a DEA report in hand addressing the same questions the city now wants to investigate, then that report should be the city's starting point.

I started by asking the office of acting police Chief Randy Hampton for the report. His staff promised to get back to me but never did. I followed up by filing a Public Information Act demand for the report more than a week ago, to which I have received no response.

When Hampton and other officials filed out of Mayor Laura Miller's office on Tuesday, December 2, after a high-level meeting to discuss fake drugs, I waited in the scrum in the hall. I wanted to give Hampton a decent opportunity to talk about the report in front of people. I asked him if he had any official report in hand addressing the origins of the fake-drug scandal.

"Not that I'm aware of," Hampton said.

The problem with that response is that police officials were already answering questions from city council members about this report by then and had acted on some recommendations in the report. An active effort was already under way to conceal portions of the report from the city council. I can't tell you how I know that. But I challenge Chief Hampton or the city attorney to deny it.

I don't know what's in the report. Maybe it's innocuous bureaucrat-speak. I tend to think there must be something somebody thinks is sensitive, or the acting chief and city attorney wouldn't be so eager to hide it. The point is that the instinct of the cops and the bureaucrats they work for at City Hall is to hide the ball.