Barely beneath the surface in the city’s grief over last week’s shootings of two Dallas police officers and a store security guard was bleak bitterness left behind by last year’s ugly battle over the police and fire pension system.
Sure, we would all be better off if our feelings about fallen officers didn’t have to get mixed up with our feelings about money, but for that to happen, we would all have to live on some other planet.
It’s in the nature of what police and fire officers do for a living that fights over pay will always come down to questions of honor, especially if people are not very careful what comes out of their mouths. And that includes the cops.
Two days after the death of Dallas police Officer Rogelio Santander, The Dallas Morning News published a letter to the editor from a retired firefighter saying, “I nearly choked on my supper when Mayor Mike Rawlings asked the public ‘to show more respect for police.’
“Where was that respect last year,” letter-writer Phil Ruzicka asked, “when he tried to take over the Dallas Police and Fire Pension? He all but called us greedy thieves and liars.”
Part of my heartbreak in reading that letter was that I had watched the mayor’s first press conference dealing with the shootings last week. I wasn’t there. I saw it on TV. I have spoken to the mayor several times eyeball to eyeball and lots of times on the phone.
I don’t claim to know him well personally, but I do know enough about him to know he wasn’t faking the shock and grief that showed so plainly on his face in that press conference.
It’s unfair to suppose he felt anything less in his heart than what the rest of the city felt last week. We were all stunned and sickened that peace officers had been gunned down again in a city still haunted by the July 7, 2016, ambush in which a military veteran bent on revenge against police shot 14 people, killing five police officers.
Yet the fact of last year’s acrimonious pension battle also dwells in memory, especially the memories of cops and firefighters. The letter-writer above, Ruzicka, is hardly exaggerating when he says the mayor and his supporters in the pension battle “all but called us greedy thieves and liars.”
What the mayor actually said during the pension fight was that the city’s police and firefighters “have taken the citizens out in an alley and just pistol-whipped them.” Sure, he was speaking metaphorically, not literally. We all get that. But you know what? Especially when speaking about cops, pistol-whipping is almost never your best go-to metaphor. Almost anything else, even metaphorical references to Dracula, might offer less opportunity for serious misunderstanding, not to mention profound insult.
The thing was, the people who were standing behind the mayor, urging him to hold the line on first responder pensions, were expressing the same pistol-whipping thug theme, just in more sophisticated terms. Jere Thompson, heir to the 7-Eleven fortune and chairman of the private Dallas Citizens Council, wrote an op-ed piece for The Dallas Morning News in which he explained how cops and firefighters, whom he called “the beneficiaries,” carried out their insidious plot against the taxpayers:
“The beneficiaries voted to invest in high-risk, speculative, illiquid assets that collapsed in value,” Thompson wrote. “The beneficiaries also paid themselves annual cost-of-living-adjustment increases of 4 percent during the past decade, more than twice the actual [cost of living] increases paid by Social Security. DROP [a savings plan] even paid guaranteed 8 percent returns, compounding the cost-of-living-adjustment increases.”
True, true, true. For decades, the Dallas Police and Fire Pension System did not operate on sound fiscal principles. But two things are important to remember. First, during that entire period, with a Bush in the White House and the gloves off in terms of financial regulation, the entire nation was not operating on sound fiscal principles. And, by the way, just like the Dallas pension system, most people were making money hand over fist until 2008 came along and put an even bigger fist right in the nation’s face.
Secondly, firefighters and cops spend most of their time fighting fires and fighting crime. Their mission in life commands of them an intense level of concentration that doesn’t always leave a lot of time for fiscal expertise.
They’re not on the pension board. They’re fighting fires and crime. Yes, their representatives are on the board. But so are the city’s representatives, including the council members and mayors during that period who were always wheedling the pension plan to invest in their friends’ favorite projects. Lots of sin to go around.
Somebody hands a rank-and-file firefighter or police officer a brochure that says she or he can participate in something called Deferred Retirement Option Plan and the plan will pay 8 percent on savings, no matter what. Oh, and I almost forgot: To get the 8 percent, they have to not retire when they become eligible. They have to keep going out there risking their lives. So maybe they assume someone out there thinks their lives are worth 8 percent.
Because of what they do — because it’s not like what the rest of us do — there is always an extra requirement of respect from those of us whom they protect. Even in a very hard-fought negotiation over money, it’s a terrible mistake to start using language that’s over-the-top tough.
Last week we saw why. One of them is going to get shot, burned, killed, severely wounded, disabled for life while risking life and limb to protect us. When our tough words come back to us, they will stick in our throats and hearts like knives.
But, wait. There’s a bit of a two-way street here, as well. Two months after the downtown ambush, the widow of one of the slain officers recorded a radio ad unsubtly linking Dallas City Council member Lee Kleinman, a pro-law enforcement conservative, with the shootings.
Kleinman had resigned from the pension board to lead the mayor’s team seeking a pension settlement, and the other side was mad at him over money issues. Speaking of her recently slain husband, Senior Corp. Lorne Ahrens, Katrina Ahrens, a Dallas police detective, said in the ad:
“Lorne always said he would proudly take a bullet to save a citizen. On July 7, that’s exactly what he did. My brave husband was killed by the downtown sniper. Our two young children were devastated.
“When the TV cameras were around, Councilman Lee Kleinman talked of backing first responders. But just days after our officers ran toward the gunfire, he ran away from his promise.”
The Dallas Police Association withdrew its longstanding political endorsement of Kleinman at the same time. A national police and fire bargaining consultant was pushing the local police and fire groups at the time to use more extreme, targeted tactics, like this ad and the very public withdrawal of the endorsement, to get what they wanted from elected officials in contract negotiations. I always assumed that was where the Kleinman ad came from.
And, sure, all is fair in love, war and contract negotiations. But the cops and firefighters face that same coming-back-to-bite-you peril that the mayor and his team faced when they talked tough from their side. When you start using something like the deaths of your own brothers and sisters as a bargaining ploy, you sort of monetize things. At the very least, you remove those deaths from a certain sacrosanct protection and place them out in weather with the rest of the profane world.
So what am I saying, don’t do it? Oh, sure, you think some guy at the Dallas Observer is going to tell people to stop acting the way they have for about 200 million years? If I could do that, I’d tell them also to stop by my house and leave off some money.
I’m just saying it’s how it is. We’re all sort of idiots sometimes. We go too far. We don’t go far enough. Whatever. But those typical excesses and mistakes become especially difficult for us and especially painful when the verbal mistakes involve people who risk their lives to protect us. Now we’re all staring at the same newscast, reading the same newspaper story, imagining what must be in the hearts of the loved ones of those fallen soldiers for safety.
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There is not a perfect equivalence at work here. I do think the police and fire associations went too far with the Kleinman ad, but that comes after decades and decades of conservative respect for authority among the rank and file. It’s not as if our cops and firefighters have been big left-wing radicals all these years.
On the other hand, people on the management side of the line in Dallas seem to think they get points for saying outrageous things about unions. Just last month, Kleinman told The Dallas Morning News, “I hate organized labor.” He suggested to me later he should have used other words, but I’m not so sure that would have helped.
There are two bottom lines here. Mayor Rawlings certainly was sincere in his grief for the fallen officers and in his compassion for their families. It would be vindictive and wrong to deny him that.
But Phil Ruzicka, the letter-writing retired firefighter, was right to choke on his supper when he heard the mayor call on citizens to show more respect to police. How about the mayor starts it? It all begins with No. 1, does it not?