Dallas' Chief Problem

Dallas police Chief Terrell Bolton has a simple answer for those who've questioned whether he had any advance knowledge of the massive fake-drug scandal that enveloped his narcotics unit in late 2001: He knew nothing.

In the case, which became national news, a Dallas police informant set up unsuspecting day laborers and car mechanics with fake cocaine. The chief is on record saying he played absolutely no role in his department's decisions, even though the informant was paid the unprecedented sum of $210,000 for his efforts.

At a council briefing last March, Bolton said he knew nothing was amiss until more than three and a half months after his department and the Dallas County District Attorney's Office learned the drugs at issue were, in fact, fake. The chief pegged the date he first heard about it as "right before Christmas" 2001--more than two and half months after a clear pattern of bad cases had become evident.

At the March briefing, only Mayor Laura Miller, a former investigative reporter, pressed Bolton for more.

Going straight at the leadership the chief has shown as head of the 3,000-officer department, the mayor questioned why it took Bolton so long to figure out what was going on in his own department. One fake-drug case was uncovered in September 2001, Miller noted, and she couldn't understand why the chief was out of the loop.

"...Since it was the largest bust in the history of the department," Miller said, "I wonder why you weren't told right away...It's hard for me to see why in November, when the DA comes to us and says we've got nine cases with problems, why you were not told for another month about what was going on. Can you address that?"

After being warned by City Attorney Madeleine Johnson that such issues will be critical in the lawsuits filed against the city by the dozens of fake-drug victims, Bolton responded: "I think the public should understand that these things were being investigated. Our rules and our general orders require supervisors to take action and ask for an investigation...People asked for an investigation even before I was told, and they fulfilled their responsibility."

The exchange between Miller and Bolton escaped coverage in the daily media. But it demonstrates why the fake-drug fiasco is capital-T trouble for the chief. In the biggest scandal to hit the department in recent memory, Bolton either presided over a disaster--or he was out to lunch.

The largest of the bad busts--the seizure of 176 pounds of "cocaine" in the parking lot of an Oak Cliff Jack in the Box on August 7, 2001--was important enough to the chief that he listed it among the highlights in his annual job review.

Until recently, with the chief bunkered down and seldom talking to the press, and key police officials having signed pledges not to discuss their roles publicly, there was little more to learn about his out-of-the-loop defense. But a lawyer who has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of 13 of the informant's victims amended it recently to say that Bolton was brought up to speed on the fake-drug problem precisely when the mayor would have expected.

"Chief Bolton had actual knowledge of these problems after meeting with [Deputy Chief John] Martinez in October 2001," the suit alleges. Attorney Don Tittle says his information comes from a well-placed source whose identity he wouldn't disclose.

"I was told Bolton just blew it off," Tittle says. In court papers, Bolton and Martinez deny the meeting took place.

Whatever the chief says about what he knew and when, there are plenty of people in Dallas who no longer believe him, even if his bosses, from City Manager Ted Benavides to the majority of the Dallas City Council, appear to be giving him every benefit of the doubt.

The chief's loss of credibility unites a legion of critics in law enforcement, political and media circles who have watched him try to explain away problems before, from his role in a 1993 sex-club scandal to his demotion of a slew of seasoned commanders when he took charge in late 1999. Influential people in and out of the department say they simply don't believe Bolton when he speaks. District Attorney Bill Hill reportedly is among them.

At a time when one would expect fire to be raining down on Dallas' first black police chief, he has enjoyed the protection of a flame-retardant suit with two pairs of pants: race politics and Dallas' fear of race politics. Bolton has deflected criticism with stubborn denials, a dose of one-on-one political charm and a media strategy that for more than a year has kept him largely out of view.

The Dallas Police Department under Terrell Bolton is burdened by terrible morale, spotty management and simmering resentments caused by mass demotions and some bizarre key hires, but those issues are seldom heard in public.

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Thomas Korosec
Contact: Thomas Korosec

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