Ready to blow

Either somebody finds a way to turn down the heat at Dallas police headquarters, or the family feud between the new chief and the old one goes nuclear.

And won't that be a pretty sight? Just as Dallas gets ready to do its fashion-model runway walk in the 2012 Olympics selection process, police headquarters blows up in a really nasty, very racial administrative scandal. It's every nightmare the city's image-obsessed business leadership has ever had, all rolled into one.

It could happen. That deal recently in which everyone in the police department kissed and made up over a controversial plan to put more than 100 office cops back on the street? Those were strictly Mafia kisses. If you got one, ask Santa for some Kevlar pajamas.

There are two things driving the tension. One, having to do with The Dallas Morning News, is pretty obvious and public: Reporter Todd Bensman has been hammering the new police chief, Terrell Bolton, with some tough reporting, which Bolton and his supporters view as malicious and which they think is being churned by Bolton's antagonists within the department.

But another, potentially more serious, cause of unrest hasn't been reported yet: There is now the distinct possibility the civil rights mess inside the department -- up until now strictly a lawsuit matter involving claims of job discrimination -- could escalate and produce criminal investigations of former chief Ben Click and/or some of his former assistant chiefs.

Two very knowledgeable sources told me that Bolton has made it plain to Click and some of Click's ex-assistants that a criminal investigation is not out of the question. One source said that Click approached Bolton through an intermediary seeking assurances there would be no criminal probe, and that Bolton shot him down.

Bolton would not agree to an on-the-record interview with me on this subject. Click told me on the phone last week that he is not aware of any criminal investigation. He declined to talk about it beyond that.

Through the department's official spokesman, Sgt. Hollis Edwards, I was told there is no criminal investigation of Click or any of his former subordinates.

But I do know this: the word "criminal" is very much in play at police headquarters, and it's a lot of what's amping up the bitterness.

Cpl. Lee Bush is suing the Dallas Police Department, alleging his civil rights were violated by a racially distorted system of discipline. The U.S. Justice Department has joined Bush in his suit and also has upped the ante by charging that the department is guilty of racial bias generally.

Click and former City Manager John Ware always said these civil rights "disparate discipline" charges were trumped-up junk. In particular, Click assured the city council there was nothing to them. Not long after the feds said they thought there was, in fact, plenty of substance behind the charges, Click retired.

Last September, when departmental veteran Bolton took office as the city's first black police chief, he clearly suggested that he thinks there may be merit to the charges and that, furthermore, if you were in on it, you can kiss your badge good-bye.

According to the people I talked to, if the civil rights stuff does extend to some kind of criminal investigation, it will have to do with whether Click or any of his subordinates committed perjury in the lawsuit depositions, not with any charge that any of them has committed an actual criminal civil rights offense.

A well-informed source told me that a mid-level police official went to Bolton soon after Bolton took office and told him that he had engaged in deliberate discrimination because he had been told to do so.

"He said, 'I was just following orders,'" the source said, adding that Bolton seems to believe the person's claim. A charge of perjury, then, might be based on a sworn deposition in which Click or an assistant may have testified that he never ordered anyone to discriminate.

But even if such a thing exists, according to people I talked to, it's going to be weak stuff -- all very subjective, unwitnessed, extremely tough to prove. It could also be false.

"I think the chances of anyone finding a realistically prosecutable charge are nonexistent," said an attorney familiar with the situation who spoke on the condition that he not be identified. This was a lawyer, by the way, who sues the city regularly, far from being on their side.

What's significant is that anyone would even consider going after Click and the others criminally. Click is kind of an icon. Whatever else he did or didn't do as chief -- and some people say he didn't do squat -- he nevertheless devoted a whole lot of time to the rubber-chicken circuit, going around town to Rotary lunches and bridge dedications getting people to like him. And he is a likable guy.