Cue the weird science fiction music for “THE RETURN OF RENEE.” You want to see something really scary? Go to the Dallas Police Department Twitter page, Dallas Police Dept @DallasPD, scroll down a day or two and look at the item, “Today, Chief Hall returns to duty.”
It’s a cellphone video that looks like it was filmed in the basement of the Kremlin five years ago. She may be back, but I worry that she could be under the control of an alien force. Maybe they had her on a ship. That’s the vibe in this video.
Dallas Police Chief U. Renee Hall disappeared suddenly and mysteriously from duty six weeks ago. This video was shot by an unidentified person with a disembodied voice somewhere in a strange place. I swear it could be the opening scene for a really spooky sci-fi movie.
First you see an empty enclosed space, utterly silent. Could be the inside of a mother ship or maybe a gigantic mausoleum, like a war memorial. Then a big door lifts up in the distance, and you figure, “OK, garage door. Got it. Something gonna happen here.”
Headlights appear. A long, dark mass coming toward you resolves into a black SUV. The hum of the engine engulfs you, then dies. The camera stares at this parked SUV for a full 12 seconds in complete silence. You’re thinking, “Aliens gonna jump out.”
Finally the rear door on the shotgun side begins to swing open slowly. A centurion comes around from the other side, maybe the driver, then goes off camera. Door still opening very slowly. Finally Chief Hall steps out in a black suit, not her police uniform.
A woman’s voice behind the camera says, “Good morning, Chief.”
It sounds formal, like maybe the voice is coming from the head of a welcoming committee that you can’t see yet standing behind the camera. What if they’re aliens?
“Good morning,” the chief says in a stage voice.
She takes position in front of the cellphone camera. Speaking as if to a crowd: “I am so excited to be back. I just want to thank the community and everyone for all their well wishes.”
She uses the “you guys” thing from how-to videos on YouTube: “I want to make sure that you guys know how appreciative I am …”
You’re thinking, “What guys?”
“… for your support and your well wishes …”
What well wishes?
“… and cards and all the love. I do want to take an opportunity to thank Chief (David) Pughes, the executive team and, of course, the men and women on this great police department who followed the plan to a T that I left before I went off on medical leave.”
OK, this is where the movie starts messing with real life. There was no plan. There was no T. She just disappeared. Reporters for The Dallas Morning News figured it out and told the city manager. Judging by his reaction, I always figured the city manager found out she was gone from the News.
The city manager said she was on a medical leave but he couldn’t say what for, and he couldn’t say how long she would be gone. The thing is, especially for someone like a chief of police, there’s no such thing as a medical leave where they can’t say what for or how long you’ll be gone. That’s called, “We gotta get a new police chief.”
Meanwhile, the murder rate is climbing; we’re having all kinds of community discontent over the state police coming in and patrolling city streets; and pressure is building from the City Council to do something. All of a sudden, the city manager announces she’s coming back, but she’s going to be on light desk duty, and she can’t be in public.
Guess what. There’s no such thing as a police chief who has to be on light desk duty and she can’t meet the public. That’s called, “We gotta get a new police chief.” Then it is announced that she can meet the public after all, and she’s going to appear before the council.
So the aliens didn’t transplant her head or anything. She’s still herself. She’s going to come back. She’ll tell us what happened, where she’s been, why she had to take a powder like that. Everything will be back to normal.
No. Not normal.
“You guys made your adjustments,” she says in the video.
You mean because we’re still here?
“Now it’s time for me to get in here, do the work, because we still have a lot of work to do, so I’m ready, excited, and I will see you guys shortly. Thank you, guys.”
She disappears. A silence of several seconds ensues. We see the empty garage. Finally a door slams. That’s it. End of movie.
Here is what I drew from the movie about the chief’s return. Nothing about it was normal. Not one thing. Nothing about the chief being back is normal. It’s all abnormal. City Hall is in the extremely abnormal phase of its lunar cycle.
Chief Hall did appear before the City Council and gave a lot of vague, smiley-face answers to a bunch of inarticulate, frown-face questions from council members about crime, mostly related to a recently released 398-page consultant study on crime and law enforcement. The council members all said we need to do something about crime, and Chief Hall said she’s going to do something about crime.
The consultant study is a masterpiece of the genre. Ostensibly a deep dive into the numbers, it really just swims in the numbers. The study nudges very gingerly toward a conclusion, but more as a whisper than a clear conclusion.
The relative inefficiency of the police department as a crime-fighting tool, it suggests, is not to be found in the cops or their number but in how their bosses run the department: “It is noteworthy,” the report says, “that this commentary is a reflection of operational management and not DPD’s focus on crime fighting.”
Muddied and lost in bottomless paragraphs of jargon in the report is the one clear line of responsibility for the “operational management” problem. It’s not really the city manager. It’s not even poor Chief Hall, whose brief tenure here has got her going on retreats in outer space. The people responsible for the mess and misuse of the police department are the City Council members who hired the consultant in the first place.
And the consultant is never going to tell them that straight up, because the council writes the consultant’s check. Nobody hires consultants who make the people who hire them look bad.
But that has been the problem for decades. It’s where we get our anti-car wash and gas station jihads. Constituents see street drug dealers and hookers on a parking lot and think they’re looking at crime. And they are. Just not the source of it.
The cops need to be focused and marshaled on shutting down the hidden crime nests that spawn the visible stuff. But they can’t get there. We just don’t have enough cops, and they can’t be deployed strategically if they’re always playing whack-a-mole cleaning up quasi-homeless penny ante offenders to keep some council member happy.
A few years back, the council members called in directly to divisional commanders to tell them what to do with their patrols. Some of that has been redirected with some shuffling of the command structure recently, but the core issue, City Council members micromanaging cops, is unchanged.
To give the consultant study its due, it does suggest all of what I am saying throughout. It says over and over again in many different ways that we can’t even tell how many cops we need, because we have no coherent handle on what we’re doing with the ones we have.
That means we have an unmanaged police force. Sure, there’s a chief when she isn’t off visiting the planets, and, yes, we have a city manager. But the chief can’t chief and the manager can’t manage when the City Council has its fingers in every pie.
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I’ve always been all for single-member council districts. It’s the only way to give neighborhoods power and prevent the city from being totally domineered by a deep-pockets business slate. But that doesn’t mean we should have single-member police departments — 14 semi-autonomous sub-agencies whose main function is to help reelect council members.
In a strong-mayor system, which we do not have, the mayor can protect the police department from council members. That’s what it takes — somebody with enough political muscle to scare them off so the cops can do what they need to do.
We, on the other hand, have a mayor who has appointed a commission to find out if we even have a crime problem. Maybe if his commission decides we do, the City Council can hire this same consultant back to do another study on what to do about it.
Meanwhile, I’m keeping a close eye on the chief. That video gave me the willies. I watched it several times. Let me tell you something. I’m not totally convinced that it’s even her. I don’t think she is, either.