Calling the cows home

Ben Click, our recently departed police chief, had it down: If you want to make it as chief in Dallas, just go to all of the neighborhood meetings, nod with astonishment and concern every time somebody tells you the amazing news about his garage being burglarized, and stay far away from any real issues.

Now look at Terrell Bolton. He's been chief of police for a month and a week, and he's already so deep in alligators that some people wonder whether he's going to last. One of his supporters said a little ruefully last week, "It's not a given that he can survive this."

According to people who definitely would know and who talked to me on background, Bolton himself views what's going on inside his department as "war."

War is a tough way to start.

Bolton inherited two nasty problems that Click had managed to hide from public view: a federal suit against the department for racial discrimination, and the fact that entire units of the department had just wandered off the farm and were working for the FBI without any city council authorization.

Bolton took the latter one by the horns and ordered the intelligence unit back to Dallas police headquarters. Just about every day since then, the The Dallas Morning News has run a story or a correction about whether Bolton has made the FBI mad at us.

See, he'd be a lot better off right now if he were at a neighborhood meeting, eating a cookie and telling them, "I know how you feel about that lawn mower, because somebody snuck into my department and jacked my whole intelligence unit."

Some of Bolton's problems are of his own making. He kicked off his tenure by demoting nine people from the assistant chief ranks and promoting 12 others. That caused an immediate outbreak of rancor, envy, and back-stabbing -- all things that cops are really good at -- and deflected focus from the big issues.

But was he supposed to ignore that the intelligence unit had run away from home? How bizarre. How in the world did an entire division of the city police department -- 35 officers and staff costing the city $5 million a year -- simply move to the offices of the FBI without a city council vote or even a public discussion?

Unfortunately, of the two big issues waiting for Bolton when he took office, the FBI thing is the easy one. People high in the department said last week the racial issue is the much bigger, badder, deeper-running problem left behind by Click. This issue, in one form or another, is what's really driving the tensions in DPD.

The U.S. Justice Department is suing Dallas for "disparate discipline" under Click, alleging that black officers were treated much more harshly than white ones. The charges are based on a thick catalog of cases reaching back several years and coming right up into the recent past.

One of the roughest demotions handed out by Bolton as soon as he took office came straight out of the race issue: Bolton, who is African-American, busted Executive Assistant Chief Robert Jackson, who is African-American, back to sergeant.

Bolton has made no public explanation of the demotion. But for more than a year, Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price has been referring to Jackson as "that embarrassment." Price accuses Jackson of having made his own way in the department by staying meek and mild on the disparate discipline issue under Click. When I spoke to him last week, Price was pleased that Jackson had retired and left the department. His precise words were, "Thank God and Greyhound."

Jackson, for his part, didn't return my calls requesting comment.

The other issue Bolton seems to be moving on is almost as old and deep as the racial issue and is tangential to it: the real relationship between the community and the police department. Everybody in police work these days has some kind of buzzword spiel about "community-based policing," and, indeed, under Click, there had even been a kind of Special Division of Community Based-ness.

But ever since the incredible success of the East Dallas Police Storefront in the Little Asia section of Old East Dallas in the early 1980s, there has been a deep division in the department: Some people think the entire department needs to shift fundamentally, change its whole heart and philosophy in order to win over communities the way the East Dallas storefront did. And then there are cops who think that if they have to do that they might as well wear tie-dyed bandannas and wield bongs instead of guns.

Ron Cowart, the former Dallas cop who ran the East Dallas storefront, said last week he sees Bolton as the best hope the department has ever had for true community-based policing -- that is, police work that involves working hand-in-glove with other agencies, including social service agencies, code enforcement, public health, the schools, and so on, in an attempt to attack what Cowart calls "the true root causes of crime."

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze