Go on, Oppress Me

Consider this: The city's first black police chief is fighting off an investigation of his own department for racial profiling. The first black chairwoman of the Citizens/Police Review Board is doing everything she can to shut down a racial-profiling investigation by her own board. And the city's first black mayor and first black county commissioner are defending them.

Life is complicated, isn't it?

This all started with the issue of "failure to identify," the charge police bring when a person fails or refuses to provide identification or gives a false name or identification.

The underlying principle here is that there is no law in Texas, or anywhere else in the United States, requiring American citizens to provide identity papers or otherwise identify themselves to the police, absent some other kind of mischief. You can never lie to the police about who you are, but you never have to say who you are unless you are in trouble for something else.

The basic allegation is that some police officers in Dallas illegally arrest people for failure to ID as an original offense--the main reason for getting arrested--and that they use it as a way to hassle poor people and minorities.

A set of numbers reluctantly released by Dallas police Chief Terrell Bolton a few weeks ago, numbers Bolton hoped would show that failure to ID charges are not used unfairly by police, actually showed the reverse: Black people in Dallas are arrested on this charge at a much higher rate than whites.

Two cases in particular have received intense scrutiny. Last April 30, Donato Garcia, a 44-year-old Latino construction worker, was arrested in front of his children on a charge of failure to ID. By arresting him and taking him to jail on this charge, police officers violated both the law and the clearly established official policy of the department. At some point after his arrest, in an apparent attempt to make the arrest legal, an additional charge of sleeping in public was added.

A subcommittee of the Citizens/Police Review Board has been trying to find out who added the sleeping charges and when.

The second case that has received attention is that of Leonard Mitchell, a 37-year-old African-American criminal-law student and long-term employee of the Dallas public schools who was arrested on a failure to ID charge last July. Mitchell's case seems to be a clear-cut instance of misusing the charge, coupled with some very rough physical treatment by police.

The chairwoman of the review board is Sharon Middlebrooks, an unsuccessful candidate two years ago for the District 7 city council seat in southern Dallas. Middlebrooks, who is black, was appointed to the review board by the mayor. At the December meeting of the board, Middlebrooks shut down an effort by some board members to ask questions about the Garcia and Mitchell cases. Middlebrooks also has opposed some members who want the board to demand numbers to show whether there is a broad pattern of racial profiling in Dallas.

Bolton, the city's first black police chief, has said publicly that he will aggressively pursue any new policies he thinks are necessary to prevent racial profiling by police. But Bolton also says he will not release numbers already in his possession that might show whether some arrests, especially for failure to ID, indicate a pattern of racial profiling.

I tried to talk to Middlebrooks to find out why she won't allow the review board to look into this issue. I did reach her one time, but when she heard what I wanted to talk about, she hung up and then refused to take my calls.

I left her a phone message telling her that members of her own board were assuming she was acting on instructions from the mayor. Even though I never heard from Middlebrooks, I did hear from the mayor. He said, "I don't know where you got your information that I had instructed my appointee to suppress this, but that's absolutely not true."

I asked the mayor how he felt about Bolton's refusal to provide numbers to show whether there is racial profiling in Dallas. Kirk, our first black mayor, supported Bolton. "I'm going to defer to Chief Bolton on that." But he qualified his support in an interesting way: "I'm concerned with racial profiling, and I raised that issue with Chief Bolton. As for the numbers, I might want a different approach, but I am supportive of his decision."

On this key question--the kind of highly charged issue that would have demanded absolute racial unanimity in the past--the mayor is willing to allow for some amount of complexity and difference of opinion. He personally would rather have numbers. But he's willing to ride with the chief's decision not to provide them. And he's willing to admit publicly to the difference.

I spent a long time last week discussing these questions with Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, the county's first black commissioner and a key supporter of Bolton's candidacy to become police chief. Price expressed even stronger support of Bolton than the mayor but with an even more complicated set of reservations.

Mainly, Price made it plain he doesn't want to do anything to box in Bolton or cut him short of political breathing space. "This man has been there one year!" he said several times. "Give me a break."

Price insisted that racial profiling is an important issue for him, at least in theory. But he also said he doesn't see clear evidence of any kind of racial profiling crisis in Dallas, and therefore, he doesn't think people should be beating up on Bolton.

"I'm not willing to take him and grab him by the neck and say, 'You gotta do something on racial profiling tomorrow.' I'm not saying it doesn't exist. But I'm not going to harp on it, because I haven't seen a spike in internal affairs cases that would say it's there. And I'm not getting the calls. This phone used to ring off the wall with complaints about things like this, and it just isn't happening now."

Price says he won't get excited about racial profiling until somebody shows him numbers that prove it exists. In the meantime, he supports the chief. The chief, meanwhile, says he's not going to provide any numbers. Therefore, the circle would seem to be closed.

But not quite. Not all black leaders agree. James Fantroy, the councilman from District 8 in southern Dallas, was very careful when he spoke to me not to criticize the police chief. But Fantroy is particularly upset about the Leonard Mitchell case, and he made it plain to me that he intends to get answers on this case and numbers for all similar cases from the police chief.

"I feel that there's a possibility that Mr. Mitchell was misused. I am asking the IAD [Dallas police Internal Affairs Division] to get down and really investigate what happened that night."

Fantroy indicated that he will seek a city council vote demanding that the police department pony up the numbers on racial profiling. If he does, it will create a very interesting showdown among black leaders.

"Today, we have got one of the best police departments in this country," Fantroy said. "My concern, and all I am saying, is that we may have a few bad apples, and we want to clear them out. Before you can do anything about a problem, you have to admit that you have a problem."

There are at least two ways to view the complicated protectiveness that black leaders feel toward Bolton on this issue. One is to say black leaders are hypocrites. They used to jump all over this kind of issue back when the police chiefs and the mayors were all white. Now, in order to protect the career of one of their own, they are willing to equivocate on basic constitutional rights.

This argument contains at least a measure of obvious truth. I said to Commissioner Price, "Fifteen years ago, you wouldn't have needed numbers."

He agreed. But he said, "That was 15 years ago. The issue was access."

And that remark brings us to the other view, which involves the fact that now there is access, and there is diversity among the power-sharers. And things look genuinely different from the driver's seat. Some of the same black leaders who might have leaped on this issue with an unyielding fury 15 years ago, when they were shut out of power, now have more invested in the system.

From that perspective, everybody starts to look more familiar. Bolton is easy to understand. His position on racial profiling is neither black nor white. It's blue. He's a typical career cop, for whom the paramount issue is protecting the blue kingdom from civilian control.

For the others, the issues are painfully mixed. They want the city's first black police chief to succeed. They know that racial profiling may occur, to some extent. But they see a greater value in the gradual consolidation of power than in going to war over individual rights.

Of course, try selling that to Leonard Mitchell or Donato Garcia. I don't think either one of them is going to be too thrilled to hear that they need to forget about their head-knocks and nights in jail on false charges in order to serve the greater good.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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