Nobody Gets Out Alive: Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle Explains Why He's Retiring

Tomorrow morning, at around 10, Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle will hold a press conference during which he will announce that, effective April 30, 2010, he will no longer be Dallas Police Chief. He has known this day was coming for a while. He told Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm about a month ago: "I'm ready to go." At least, that's more or less what he remembers saying. She asked him to reconsider. He did not, and so, tomorrow, he is retiring.

"I had decided from the time I started, but particularly a year ago, I wanted as much as possible to control the time and circumstance under which I left," Kunkle tells Unfair Park tonight. "Dallas chiefs need to be somewhat term-limited, because it's a job that has a shelf life. And so I picked a time I think worked for me personally and for the department. I am turning 59 on Friday. Originally, when I talked to the city manager, I said I would be leaving in February. That's 38 years from the time I started with DPD, which had a certain symmetry.

"The chief's job tends to eat everybody up, and I wanted, if I could, to leave with dignity, without being ... not being ..." He pauses, then begins again. "When I told people about the job at the beginning, I said, 'Nobody got out of that job alive.' I just felt it was the right time for me personally, and it's a benefit to the department to have somebody new with a clean slate and with all of the hope and optimism that occurs when somebody starts in a new position with new ideas.  That was the reason behind the decision."

A Q&A with the chief after the jump. (Update at 12:12 a.m. Thursday: Also after the jump, Mary Suhm's memo to the council announcing Kunkle's retirement, dated today.)

He says he decided to retire long before he took the job -- maybe as far back as when he first joined the Dallas police for 38 years ago. Kunkle says even then he saw it as a no-win job, a "daily battle." If there's anything surprising about his retirement announcement, it's that it comes without the attendant furor accompanying some of his predecessors' kicking-and-screaming farewells. Kunkle, who can point to steadily falling crime numbers as he ticks off his major successes since '04, instead points to a New York Times article that more or less said three's an unlucky number

"When Michael Bloomberg ran for his third term, there was an article in The New York Times about third-term governors and mayor and how they had miserable experiences. You either leave under circumstances you control or because you're forced out. I am not tired or worn out or depressed. It felt like it was the right thing to do for me and the department. When I called people today, there were some I wanted at the press conference who are special to me, and it made me think maybe I should have waited longer. But you never know when the right time is.

You say you wanted to control the circumstances of your exit, that you didn't want to be forced out. Was something coming down the pike that would hasten your exit, or are you simply speaking, ya know, hypothetically?

From the time I started in GP in 1982, every single week was a battle Nothing different now than there was then. And not to equate my job with being president or governor or mayor, but there comes a time when it's appropriate for change. In my view this was a good time to do it.

Have you recommended a replacement?

No. My intent is for this to be a national search, which I think they're going to go. I wanted to be of whatever assistance I could be in a new transition. Originally my deal was to leave in February, but she asked me to extend it to April. I'm willing to do that. I don't have any job I am leaving for, but I think I will have job opportunities. One thing I was going to tell the media, to give them tomorrow, by the way, is the article in the September 2004 issue of the Observer written by Eric Celeste. Because a lot of the people who cover us don't understand the history and environment I came into in 2004. That article does a good job talking about internal politics and external issues affecting the department.

But let me say this: What I am most proud of: is the traditional issues which had caused most of the division between people in community and the department have largely ended. We're not having the problem we used to, things like in-custody deaths. I think this has been the quietest five years in the history of DPD. Crime's gone down every year, we've hired 700 cops just now beginning to come onto the streets. There are some people I've asked to be with me tomorrow: Laura Miller is one. Elba Garcia, who's out of the country, was another.

What is your last day?

I will be leaving by April 30

Do you expect they will have your replacement by then?

They believe they will have a candidate ready to be in place at the end of April.

When Mary Suhm asked you to reconsider, did you?

Even today, when I started calling people, I was surprised by the amount of ... the intensity with which a lot of people I talked to didn't want me to leave. I'm emotionally conflicted, but I think change will be good.

Why? You talk about how mayors and politicians need to change every few years, you mention term limits, yet most people would say that when it comes to police chief, continuity is a place. After all, look at the chaos here, with changes every four years give or take. You've been here five now, and till now, all seemed fine.

Continuity is good, but change is also good. When I was chief in Arlington for almost 15 years, would argue that was a good thing. I just think a place like Dallas, there's a period when ... even Dallas mayors, at five or six years, that seems to be the point where they don't necessarily get burned out, but it's time for them to leave. Ron Kirk, Laura Miller ... These are not good answers. They just make sense to me at the time. You never finish. I think it's a good five years, and I am proud of what I've done.