Police and Fire Unions Wave the Bloody Shirt for Better Pay

Barely one month after the murders of five police officers in the streets of Dallas, the police and fire unions are using those deaths in a ham-fisted attempt to intimidate the City Council on pay issues.

Mayor Mike Rawlings blasted the groups at a council briefing Wednesday: “That’s not the way police and fire officers should act,” he said, “and I’m disappointed. It is mean. It is belligerent. It is immature. It’s violent. It’s bullying.

“And I just come back to this notion that how do we want to teach our kids. This is not the standard we want to have for this city.”

The night before Rawlings spoke, a report on WFAA Channel 8 showed Katrina Ahrens, a Dallas police detective and widow of one of the murdered officers, taping a radio advertisement that accuses Dallas District 11 City Councilman Lee Kleinman, a North Dallas conservative, of betraying the memories of the fallen officers:

“My name is Katrina Ahrens,” she says, reading from a script into a microphone. “My husband is Dallas police officer Lorne Ahrens.”

In the finished version of the ad, a piano plays softly in the background.

“Lorne always said he would proudly take a bullet to save a citizen,” Detective Ahrens says. “On July 7, that’s exactly what he did. My brave husband was killed by the downtown sniper. Our two young children were devastated.

“When the TV cameras were around, Councilman Lee Kleinman talked of backing first responders. But just days after our officers ran toward the gunfire, he ran away from his promise.”

This is about an incident a week ago in which Kleinman refused at first to meet privately with negotiators for the unions in his office. He says it was because he wasn’t sure who represented whom. Eventually he did invite them back to meet with him, but they declined his invitation.

But that’s also not what it’s about. I told you the real story a week ago. The unions have hired Ron DeLord, a nationally respected negotiator, to handle pay talks with the city. DeLord has authored a book and a PowerPoint presentation promoting his services, designed mainly to show unions how tough he is.
At Wednesday’s briefing, the mayor held up a graphic from DeLord’s PowerPoint. I told you about this last week. It’s a photo of a cheetah eating the guts of a felled wildebeest (antelope-cattle type animal in Africa) while other wildebeests look on. The cheetah is labeled “union.” The dead wildebeest is labeled “elected official.” A wildebeest in the background has a caption in a balloon over its head that says, “Wow, that could be me next time.”

The point is supposed to be that the unions should pick out one elected official and really do a number on him or her to put the fear of God in the rest of them. For the last two weeks, ever since the friction in the office, Kleinman has been the wildebeest, perhaps an odd choice because of his record of strong support for law enforcement.

But that’s exactly where this gets messed up and where the unions have made a terrible botch of it. Their beef with Kleinman is not about his support for law enforcement in any moral or philosophical sense. It’s about money.

Kleinman is supporting a pay plan put forward by the city manager and by the chief of police, who, you may remember, came out of the downtown police murders with a lot of people admiring him, too.

“I would kind of separate police pay from police issues,” Kleinman told me during a break in the briefing. “We have our police department and the issues and policies that our chief is trying to put in place.

“There has been a lot of resistance from the associations including an attempt to fire our chief, so I have a hard time giving a lot of credibility to them when they went against our chief.”

That was a year ago. The big talk then was a so-called soaring murder rate and worsening response times on police emergency calls. Chief David Brown scrambled the shifts of many officers, putting more on patrol during high-crime hours — a move that higher seniority officers did not like at all. The main police association orchestrated a failed effort to get Brown fired by the City Council.

The battle now is between the chief’s financial plan for next year, which would devote more money to hiring new officers, and the plan favored by the unions, which would devote more money to restoring salary increases that police in all ranks agreed to give up during the 2008-2009 recession.

Brown and top staff presented the council with numbers Wednesday they said showed that Dallas police pay is more competitive than portrayed by the unions. A police officer who has reached top pay for the rank of officer makes $83,000 a year, just above the average amount for large Texas cities. More than half of all uniformed police and fire officers last year earned over $100,000.

But a lot of this has to do with how you cherry-pick the numbers. Officials of the Dallas Police Association, the main union, complained in the corridor after the briefing that the numbers in Brown’s presentation had presented a distorted picture.

Unfortunately, they also tried to deny any connection with the dead wildebeest. Asked by a TV reporter if the wildebeest graphic came from the union’s consultant, Mike Mata, third vice president of the DPA, said, “No, absolutely not.”

Departing from strict journalistic objectivity, I said from the back of the scrum, “Yes, sir, it’s from your consultant’s web page.”

Mata said, “Well, we did not produce that nor did we ask them to produce that, nor did we ask them to force it or show it to the City Council in any way, shape or form as some type of intimidation.

“The consultants we have hired have done contracts all over the state of Texas and all over the country for 20-plus years. We would never in any way, shape or form use any type of intimidation.”
Mata lashed out at the mayor for lashing out at the unions: “I thought that was very disingenuous,” he said. “I thought it was insulting after the loss of five officers that we’ve had in a mass murder, how they were killed in the street.”

To be fair, that was a hallway scrum where questions were sort of blurted out and people had to blurt out answers on their feet with no time to think. The more I listened to Mata talk, the more I got the impression he thought the mayor was complaining mainly about the wildebeest. The picture. Mata said several times his group had not shown the picture to the mayor.

Even my own favorite posse on the council, Grigston (District 14 Councilman Philip Kingston and District 1 Councilman Scott Griggs), at the end of the day were engaged in some sort of sleuthing to prove that the wildebeest picture was “tongue in cheek” and that no one in the union had ever killed a wildebeest or in any way suggested a similar fate for an elected official.

But they had. The radio ad by Detective Ahrens accuses Kleinman of cowardice and betrayal. Invoking the images of the brave officers running toward danger and then accusing Kleinman of running the other way is about as brutal a hatchet job as I can imagine. And I can imagine.

It is exactly and precisely what DeLord, the consultant, proposes with his graphic. Choose a target among the elected officials. Bring him or her down. Make it bloody. Make sure the rest of them see it. Then ask for another meeting.

Does it make it any more reprehensible that they chose an elected official who actually has a staunch pro-cop record? I don’t know. That question might be too deep for me.

But I know this. The radio ad is a perfect replication of the strategy suggested in the wildebeest graphic, and there is nothing tongue-in-cheek about the radio ad. The radio ad is as vicious as it gets.

And in unscripted remarks Detective Ahrens made to WFAA reporter Tanya Eiserer at the end of the piece, she sort of doubled down: “The council members,” Ahrens said, “just don’t respect us as people.”

All of the council members? Any of the council members? That’s just not true, and it’s a horrible thing to say. It’s a terrible thing to say to the city after the outpouring of deep communal grief that the city experienced following the murders of the five.

And it’s paranoid. And it’s narcissistic. The dark side of police culture, the downside, has always been the need of some cops to posture themselves as a superior and afflicted race, apart from and above the community. Throwing those deaths in an elected official’s teeth over a pay dispute is an expression of that very darkest side.

Somebody has to work out the pay issue. Frankly, somebody has to be a grownup. Kleinman said, “I feel for those officers. I understand that she’s upset. But this is a labor issue. We are allocating resources and trying to do what we can to provide services to the city.”

Rawlings said, “I guess what I’m really asking the association, they can hire who they want with their fees and their dues, but, associations, I ask you to disavow this visual and this strategy, totally disavow it and promise that they will never try to intimidate council members again.”

And take down that ad.
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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