The brand-new mayor elected Saturday is in for a tough initiation. During the campaign, Eric Johnson, a lawyer, gave the legally correct answer to questions about loose dogs and other knotty day-to-day problems: not the mayor's job.
And he's right, legally and on paper. The day-to-day operation of city government is the city manager's job. Until it isn't. Like sacking a police chief who has some constituency juice out there in that very nebulous realm everybody calls "the community." When it's time to fire a police chief — or do something else hard — nobody puts his or her hand up. Everybody's looking at his shoes and pointing every which way.
I bring it up not because I want to see our current chief cashiered, but I am aware a bunch of other people do, and, yes, meanwhile, there's that murder business going on.
A number of people close to or in the police department think getting rid of Dallas Police Chief U. Renee Hall is an important step toward stemming the catastrophic rise in murders and violent crime in Dallas. I’m not sure I fully understand the anti-Hall animus — always seemed OK to me — but one way or another her days probably are numbered here. It's really just a question of who does the numbering.
I talked to people who are in the police department, retired from it or close to it. The only one who would talk to me on the record was Mike Mata, president of the Dallas Police Association, the biggest bargaining group for officers. He said, “I don’t believe Chief Hall has the answers to the problems in the city of Dallas right now.”
The grain of salt there is that I have never spoken with any president of the DPA who liked whoever was the sitting chief at the time. Usually the most positive thing they say is that they liked the last one better — seldom meant as a compliment.
Mata pointed to the same issue several other observers saw: He said the short-staffing issue in the department is not a recruitment problem but a retention problem. Too many officers are ditching out of the department too soon after completing their training.
One veteran of top management pointed out that it takes about 17 months to turn a new recruit into a full-fledged cop capable of going out on patrol by herself or himself. Losing them too soon after completion of that much training is expensive.
Why are they leaving? One big reason seems to be the pension system, which was supposed to be all patched up and good to go after the 2017 pension reforms … but wasn’t. The chief executive of the fund is still calling it “fragile,” and the Legislature’s new property tax reform act knocks a pin from under it by capping increases in local property taxes. You can look at the tax cap from the point of view of a taxpayer about to write the annual check to the county tax office: Oh, good, it won’t be as bad as it would have been. Or you can look at it from the point of view of a cop planning for retirement: Oh, damn, this place is a junk-pile that won’t be able to make good on its obligations to me.
Either way, the picture ahead is of uncertainty for Dallas police officers and firefighters. There are ways to fix it, of course, but that gets us into another big reason why cops may be bailing on us early — bad morale.
In 2017, two members of the City Council who were also on the pension board, Philip Kingston and Scott Griggs (am I allowed to mention those names any more?), proposed a simple fix that would have required no new taxes. Griggs and Kingston, who were voted off the council in Saturday's election, suggested in 2017 that Dallas renegotiate the sales tax money it kicks in to the Dallas Area Rapid Transit System every year and use some small portion of that to buttress the police and fire pension system, possibly through creation of a bond fund dedicated to public safety.
Dallas now gives DART roughly $280 million a year. That’s half of DART’s total sales tax revenue and more than half its annual operating budget. Not too far beneath the surface of the renegotiation idea was a feeling that DART is one of these so-called regional entities anyway that bleed the city to benefit the suburbs.
First item of evidence there would be DART’s stubborn commitment to building the unneeded, mostly speculative Cotton Belt line from D/FW International Airport to Plano across some of the lowest density, most transit-resistant territory in the region — another truly stupid, monumentally expensive boondoggle from the boondoggle-ites — while DART has dragged its feet for a decade on building a badly needed second line through downtown Dallas.
Judging by the blowback from then-Mayor Mike Rawlings and his boondoggle-ite supporters when the pair suggested renegotiating the DART deal, you would have thought Griggs and Kingston were communist fascist cannibals. Apparently saying out loud the word “renegotiate” when speaking of DART is like saying it in your prayers to Jesus.
So, anyway, none of that got done; the pension fund remains in a precarious status; and, yes, sure, the cops and the firefighters know it, and they don’t like it. Would you?
They don’t like the boondoggle-ites much, either. In fact, the last five years have seen a serious tearing of the sheets between first responders and a business establishment that the cops and firefighters had always before taken for their trusted friends and supporters. Not to beat a dead horse, but it didn’t help things in 2017 when Rawlings portrayed police and firefighters as disloyal or even unprincipled for pursuing their interests on pay and pension.
On the one hand, in a tough negotiation things get said. No use carrying your hurt feelings around like a sack of rocks forever. On the other hand, the old business elite has more than shown its hand in recent years. Notice, for example, how much more careful they are never to speak ill of the idiots who talked City Hall into wasting $120 million on a fake kayak-whatever in the river that had to be torn out and a bicycle bridge that’s still too wobbly to let anybody ride on it. They can say bad things about cops and firefighters but never a discouraging word will pass their lips about fake kayak-whatever-ers. After a while you get a picture.
Some of the uneasiness with Chief Hall inside the police department clearly has to do with policing issues, and I wish I had been able to get more cops to go on the record about it. I did reach out to Chief Hall for comment. Her spokesperson referred me to the city manager. As it stands, I’m a little reluctant to go into too much detail, mainly because I don’t know what I’m talking about, not that that has ever stopped me before.
In very broad terms, an impression exists within the department that Chief Hall has assigned a lower priority to focused attacks on career criminals. We’re talking about special squads assigned to work felony warrants and/or crime hot spots.
There is a strong belief among career cops that most crime is carried out by a hardcore 10 percent. Concentrating on them, these officers believe, gets them off the street but also tends to yield a high return in drugs and guns.
Getting large numbers of guns off the street is a high priority among police officers who have to go out there and face those guns every day and night, and they think focusing on the worst of the bad guys is a good way to do it. They think Hall isn’t getting it done.
Hall did not do herself any favors recently when she said, “There are individuals in this city who have returned from prison who cannot find a job, who are not educated. In those instances those individuals are forced to commit violent acts.” Newly elected Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot had already roiled waters by announcing new policies aimed at getting law enforcement out of the mental health, weed and petty theft business. But Creuzot never said anything remotely like Halls’ remarks, which seemed to pose a sociological excuse for violence.
Within 24 hours Hall was on Twitter trying to pull it back: "Today my point was simple,” she Tweeted. “there is no excuse for crime.” Good enough. Should have left it there. That would have been way tougher than Creuzot, who said there can be an excuse, as in stealing a loaf of bread because your kids are hungry.
But Hall had to Tweet on: “Crime in general, however, is on the rise in Dallas for many reasons. One of them being the lack of opportunity. In no way, am I using that as an excuse to commit a crime. However, we have to work together as a community to remain vigilant and proactive. I've asked our pastoral community, as a beginning, to develop ways to teach people how to resolve disputes without violence and find opportunities without resorting to crime.”
Pardon my French, but what in the hell does that even mean? “There is no excuse. But there is sort of an excuse. But I’m not using that excuse. Maybe the preachers can help.” Well, you know, a lot of these things just amount to Twitteritis. Some ill-advised Tweets from important people do sell newspapers, which is good for me, but I think a good rule for most chiefs of police would be, “No tweeting.” I might even add a second rule: “Ever.”
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The fact is that the city is facing a very disturbing spike in murders, a leading indicator for a more general increase in violent crime. We plain do not have enough cops. The consensus seems to be that we are down about 800 officers.
Hall inherited a lot of ill feeling in the ranks that was not her fault. In a way, it’s galling to me that Rawlings skates out of here to harps and hosannas, leaving behind a legacy of mistrust and bad morale for which Hall gets blamed.
All of a sudden, these are bad times. People get scared in bad times. But this is exactly the kind of slow-boil crisis that exposes what's wrong with our city manager system. May I make a prediction based on experience? The new mayor is never going to have the kind of bones it would take to call for firing the chief, so when the pressure to do so gets hot enough, he will say, "I dast not importune on the city manager's prerogatives."
The city manager will say, "In a matter of such grave moment, I must look to the city council for guidance." And the council will say, as it does in matters great and small, " Headsplith peas and onions moon mission sure can dance Deuteronomy."
Did you ever notice that the founding fathers of the country didn't come up with a country manager?