Fake Justice

The Dallas fake-drug "investigation" announced with fanfare last week by the city attorney is a heavily controlled inside job dominated by city staff that will produce none of the fundamental justice people are looking for.

Mexican-Americans wronged in fake drugs aren't looking for an outcome in which somebody calls for better accounting procedures. They want to see justice with a big J. So does anybody else who understands how terrible these cases were.

Fake drugs is the scandal in which more than 80 cocaine cases had to be dismissed and dozens of Mexican immigrants released from jail after it was revealed someone connected with the Dallas Police Department in 2001 had been systematically framing people with ground-up billiard chalk.

The announced purpose of the city's fake-drug panel is to look for major underlying causes. But a bureaucratic search of policies and procedures will never turn up anything meaningful, for at least two reasons.

First, no fake-drug "policies" will ever be discovered. It wasn't "policy." There was never a memo that said, "TO COMMAND STAFF: WHEN FRAMING PEOPLE ON FAKE DRUG CHARGES, BE SURE TO PICK ON DEFENSELESS IMMIGRANTS."

Second, the city's probe is so secretive and so firmly under the thumb of city employees that anything really significant will be concealed. That's already happening.

The justice people need in fake drugs is political and fundamental. What went wrong in fake drugs is what's wrong at the core of the whole police department and all of city government in Dallas. We need stern civilian oversight of local government, especially the police. That's justice with a capital J.

But to get that lesson across, we needed very public hearings in which city officials, especially police officials, were compelled to sit in the glare and say in public the kinds of things we reporters hear from them all the time in the corridors of City Hall. We needed a probe that was big, messy, loud and brutal. We needed to search not for a policy on a piece of paper but for a culture and an attitude that made people think it was OK to pick on defenseless immigrants. We're not talking about accounting procedures. We're talking about Dallas-style ethnic cleansing.

But we're not going to get that big brawling public airing of the wound. Instead, we're getting the typical Dallas deal: a tight-lipped whitewash.

Local authorities agreed two years ago to hold off on their own probes of fake drugs until after a federal investigation. That agreement expired November 25 when a federal jury acquitted the only Dallas police detective indicted by federal authorities. After the acquittal, both the Dallas County district attorney and the Dallas city attorney unveiled their own so-called "independent" investigations, with stern vows of no rock unturned.

But even in making the announcements, both the city attorney and the acting Dallas police chief did everything they could to hide the ball.

Two weeks ago I was reminded by Bill Hill, the district attorney, that the federal Drug Enforcement Administration had audited Dallas police procedures relevant to fake drugs more than a year ago at the invitation of former police Chief Terrell Bolton. Nothing could be more pertinent to the city's probe. If there is a DEA report in hand addressing the same questions the city now wants to investigate, then that report should be the city's starting point.

I started by asking the office of acting police Chief Randy Hampton for the report. His staff promised to get back to me but never did. I followed up by filing a Public Information Act demand for the report more than a week ago, to which I have received no response.

When Hampton and other officials filed out of Mayor Laura Miller's office on Tuesday, December 2, after a high-level meeting to discuss fake drugs, I waited in the scrum in the hall. I wanted to give Hampton a decent opportunity to talk about the report in front of people. I asked him if he had any official report in hand addressing the origins of the fake-drug scandal.

"Not that I'm aware of," Hampton said.

The problem with that response is that police officials were already answering questions from city council members about this report by then and had acted on some recommendations in the report. An active effort was already under way to conceal portions of the report from the city council. I can't tell you how I know that. But I challenge Chief Hampton or the city attorney to deny it.

I don't know what's in the report. Maybe it's innocuous bureaucrat-speak. I tend to think there must be something somebody thinks is sensitive, or the acting chief and city attorney wouldn't be so eager to hide it. The point is that the instinct of the cops and the bureaucrats they work for at City Hall is to hide the ball.

The city's fake-drug panel was announced on a Friday. The previous Monday I attended a meeting of the city council' s Public Safety Committee, chaired by Dr. Elba Garcia, at which the members believed they were going to talk about how to proceed on fake drugs. To their chagrin, they found they could not discuss fake drugs because someone had removed that item from their agenda without their knowledge.

Who could do that? I tried to find out and wound up with a lot of finger-pointing between the city manager and the city attorney. But somebody on the staff took it off the agenda. I asked City Attorney Madeleine Johnson to tell me who is the boss in terms of the agenda--the council members or the staff. Is there anything that sets the pecking order?

She said, "No, there isn't."

I'm not a lawyer. But I say yes, there is. It's called: We fought a war with the British over this stuff. The people we elect are the boss. The people who just have jobs are not the boss.

Look, maybe having a political science debate with me is not everybody's idea of time well spent. I just want to make an observation: The culture and day-to-day practices of Dallas City Hall are such that people, even very smart people who went to tough colleges and top law schools, believe that hired staff may have the right and power to tell elected council members what they can or cannot talk about in meetings.

I'll go back and look, but I don't think the Declaration of Independence said, " secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the Dallas city manager." Hey, if it's in there, my bad.

The way the city's fake-drug panel ultimately got put together amounted to one of the more humiliating treatments of the city council I have seen at City Hall in a long time. On Monday after the Public Safety Committee found out it would not be allowed to discuss fake drugs, members of the committee made all sorts of brave promises that this investigation was theirs to manage and they were not giving it up.

Councilman Don Hill warned that no final decisions had better be made at a meeting scheduled for the following day in the mayor's office: "There will not be a final decision made in that meeting as to what and how and what the scope will be, is that correct?"

Chairwoman Garcia assured him no such thing would happen and that she and her committee were still very much in charge: "Right, you are perfectly right, because I want this to come back to the Public Safety Committee for discussion."

The next day--the day Hampton acted like he knew nothing about the DEA report--Garcia and the rest of them came filing out of Mayor Laura Miller's office with wobbly-dog grins on their faces, which I now understand: In that meeting, Miller and Johnson had informed Garcia and the others what the deal was going to be, who was going to be on the panel and what the scope would be.

The following Friday when Johnson formally introduced the panel to a specially called meeting of Garcia's Public Safety Committee, Johnson capped her remarks with an extraordinary edict of secrecy: "There will not be any discussion with these individuals," she said. "They will not be answering questions...I would ask that questions not be directed to them at this point in time." Instead, Johnson directed the council that any questions they might have for the fake-drug panel should be addressed to her, and she would pass them on.

Dr. Garcia listened to this speech in polite silence. Councilman James Fantroy spoke up: "I don't want to be highly critical here," he said, "because it's very touchy, but, Madam Chair, we will not be able to ask these individuals any questions during this investigation. That concerns me."

Fantroy went on to point out that the chief investigator appointed by the city is an ex-FBI agent with deep ties to law enforcement, and he raised the question whether this type of person will have an eye for the real issues in this case.

Great question. Fake drugs was a fundamental failure of law enforcement in Dallas. Is Fantroy the only person to whom it occurs that law enforcement may not be the proper venue to look to for objective insight? Or does everybody see it, but Fantroy is the only one with the cojones to say it out loud?

The work product of this panel will be some drab derivative of what is already in the DEA report that city officials are hiding. There is no chance that Mexican-Americans will get what they deserve--a fundamental reform of police governance, which, by the way, is what we all need to be safe from persecution. If they can come for them in the night, you better believe they can come for you.

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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