Mayor Eric Johnson Plays Dodgeball on State Troopers in South Dallas

NBC5 gave new Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson a nice slow pitch down the middle to show his leadership abilities last week, and he bunted.EXPAND
NBC5 gave new Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson a nice slow pitch down the middle to show his leadership abilities last week, and he bunted.
Raymond Crawford, screen grab from NBC5 Dallas
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Last week, NBC5 television handed our new mayor, Eric Johnson, his first easy home run pitch to show he can be a leader. A news host asked the mayor to talk about the roiling controversy in heavily poor and minority South Dallas over intensive patrolling of city streets by state troopers.

The question followed by a few days a news conference where City Council members effectively told the Texas Department of Public Safety to get the hell out of Dodge.

Instead of hitting this slow ball out of the park, Johnson bunted. The former state legislator, whose approach to the mayor’s office so far has been traveling to accept honorific awards and attending staged events, told NBC5: “Public safety is too important an issue for us to politicize.

“Politicians like myself and City Council members, we have our opinions about things, but at the end of the day, the police chief has to make the decisions.”

One shrewd observer told me that was the wet-nails excuse: “Sorry, but I just got these little beauties done and they’re still wet, so I really can’t touch anything for a while.”

Oh, and leaving it up to the police chief? If he’s going to put it all on Dallas Chief U. Renee Hall, maybe the mayor could at least hike up his drawers long enough to tell us where in the hell she is. She’s supposed to be on some mysterious medical leave where she can’t make any decisions, but she’s not. She’s still taking calls and making decisions.

There’s supposed to be an acting chief, but he’s not. You can only have one chief at a time. When elected officials need an answer, they don’t call the acting chief. They call Hall. She answers the phone. She isn’t gone. She’s just invisible.

So in other words, Johnson’s mealy-mouthed dodgeball response — he doesn’t want to politicize things — is the ultimate mealy-mouthed dodgeball political response to an uncomfortable challenge. “Who, me?”

It’s not that some Dallas elected officials don’t have reason to worry about intensive policing of a poor and mainly minority part of the city by out-of-town state troopers. But you know what would have been nice to see and hear last week while those reservations were being expressed in a news conference?

It sure would have been the right thing for somebody in leadership at City Hall to stand up and remind the public that it was Dallas that asked the governor to send state troopers here, not the other way around. That was the first line of the governor’s June 7 announcement. It began: “At the request of Dallas Police Department (PD) Chief U. Renee Hall …”

Oh, to be sure, some people at the City Hall press conference last week did offer disclaimers to the effect that the state troopers aren’t the problem. The problem, they said, is that people in South Dallas feel they are being harassed.

But let’s not you and me be too terribly dodgeball about that one. The picture painted here is racial profiling. Aimed at cops in today’s climate, that’s a serious matter and a serious charge.

Former Dallas City Council member Diane Ragsdale, who is black, put a point on it at a public meeting a few days before the press conference. She got up and shouted at Jeoff Williams, the regional director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, telling Williams she wanted him and his officers to get out of “our community.”

OK. By now everybody knows why a poor minority community might feel that way about an outside police force coming in and intensively patrolling the streets. It’s absolutely true. Bringing in police cold from outside the city to patrol poor, urban, minority neighborhoods is not often a formula for happy endings.

But none of the explosive incidents common to this kind of policing mistake seems to have happened here. So far, the behavior and approach of DPS troopers in South Dallas appear to be measured, disciplined and sophisticated. Then we also seem to have a whole lot of people unhappy about getting caught driving illegally.

District 7 City Councilman Adam Bazaldua, who spearheaded last week’s news conference, and District Attorney John Creuzot, who attended, reflected in their remarks the need for a deep-rooted connection between police and community. But the overall message of the press conference went the other way. The line from Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price was that DPS policing “appears to be leveraged against us.”

So would it not have been nice for somebody in leadership at Dallas City Hall to get out front and remind everyone that Dallas asked the Governor to send the state police here to do exactly what they have been doing and that it was Chief Hall who asked DPS to do it exactly where they have been doing it, in South Dallas.

In fact, let’s be more specific about that. For years we have heard that the city needed to force the closure of Jim’s Car Wash on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in South Dallas in part because of the terrible traffic problems the car wash was causing on MLK.

Former District 7 Dallas City Council member Carolyn Davis was killed July 15 in a traffic accident with an alleged drunk driver 5 miles southeast of South Dallas in East Oak Cliff. There was understandable anger and anguish when it became known that the other driver, who had racked up multiple drunk driving convictions in his brief unsavory past, had been allowed to stop wearing an alcohol monitor only a week before the accident that killed Davis, 57, and her daughter Melissa, 27.

Police Chief U. Renee Hall is the one who asked the governor to send state troopers here and then asked the troopers to concentrate on South Dallas.EXPAND
Police Chief U. Renee Hall is the one who asked the governor to send state troopers here and then asked the troopers to concentrate on South Dallas.
Brian Maschino

So, traffic. That’s what DPS has been doing. People at the press conference last week invoked New York City’s notorious stop and frisk policies in the ‘80s and ‘90s. But Williams, the DPS regional director, had painted a quite different picture a few days earlier at a community meeting.

Williams told the meeting that in two months in South Dallas his officers had made about 400 arrests, written 547 tickets and seized 71 guns. But in the same period, he said, they had issued 12,000 warnings.

Twelve thousand warnings. Does anybody want to talk about that number? DPS is keeping a tight lid on the exact nature of those warnings, asking the Texas attorney general to protect the agency from an open records request by The Dallas Morning News. Meanwhile, I have been talking with a couple of people who are close to the DPS officers patrolling South Dallas. These are not DPS officers talking to me, I should emphasize, but people to whom the officers are talking.

According to my admittedly second-hand sources, the vast majority of the warnings written by DPS officers have been for invalid driver licenses, invalid or missing license plates, expired registration, expired vehicle inspection and lack of insurance. Those violations have drawn warnings, not straight-to-jail arrests or vehicle confiscations. So on the one hand, the DPS troopers are not ruthlessly hauling everybody off the street for what some might consider technical violations.

On the other hand, I don’t think those are technical violations. I don’t want 12,000 people driving in my own neighborhood who either can’t legally get a driver’s license or just can’t be bothered. I don’t have any proof of this, but my very strong suspicion is that the population of people who drive without licenses or plates or inspections or insurance includes a whole lot of drivers like that guy in the accident with Carolyn Davis. I can’t think of any better way to honor her loss than by getting them off the streets.

Then there is this: The person who really engineered this situation, the chief of police, is somehow on leave but not on leave, AWOL but not AWOL, speaking from an unknown place under mysterious circumstances that the mayor and city manager refuse to divulge. How stupid is that?

At least the DPS guy stood up in front of the community and took his licks. Our own chief of police and our mayor are playing ducky-ducky dodgeball.

The day before Bazaldua’s press conference at City Hall, he told me he had spoken with Chief Hall the night before and that she had confirmed that it was her call for DPS to concentrate on South Dallas.

So, thing one: when an elected official needs an answer, he still calls Hall, the incognito chief. And she answers. But you and I are not allowed to ask her anything about anything, because we’re not even allowed to know where she is.

Bazaldua wants DPS gone, but he does not speak negatively about the DPS troopers: “Adjustments need to be made,” he told me. “They need to be made like yesterday.

“This is not on me ultimately to decide, but I have made it very clear where I stand in representing the community that I serve. The DPS presence is absolutely counterproductive to what we are trying to accomplish, which is combating violent crimes. I don’t see any data to support that that’s what’s happening.

“I see plenty of data to support that communities of color and impoverished communities have already been subjected to marginalization, systemic oppression and racism, which are only being perpetuated with this plan.”

That can all be true, of course, without reflecting any ill at all on DPS, which Bazaldua does not do. As for myself, speaking as a journalist, not a law enforcement person or elected official, the most important data I have seen so far are zero egregious shootings, zero bad beating videos and zero general mayhem. Everything I see reflects cops doing their jobs, probably walking a tightrope to get there.

So wouldn’t it be nice to have a leader at City Hall with the courage to tell people that? Sadly, however, our new mayor puts me in mind of that thing they say in West Texas about ranchers who went to Harvard. All résumé, no cattle.

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