Shot in the Dark

Dallas Independent School District police officer Mike McKinney was working an off-duty protection job at an auto parts store one night in March when he went out for some food. Walking back toward the store with a cheeseburger and a pizza, McKinney saw the door of a parked van open up.

A German shepherd hopped out and started coming at McKinney. The dog was growling and moving toward him, making him back up. McKinney would later say he felt that his life was threatened. The dog forced McKinney to step backward until he was against a wall. McKinney yelled for the dog's owner, a 61-year-old Dallas woman who was sitting in the van, to get her dog under control, McKinney says.

The woman got out of the van, but she wasn't able to get the dog to back off. McKinney says he then told the woman not to move. He pulled his handgun and fired a shot into the ground. The noise scared the dog off, just as McKinney hoped.

But that wasn't the end of it. Not by a long shot. The dog's owner yelled, "I've been hit." A bullet fragment had ricocheted and hit the woman in the calf, creating a "small pin hole," according to Dallas police called to the scene. Although the dog owner was treated at the scene by paramedics and released, later that night she sought medical attention for the wound at Parkland hospital.

For any other off-duty police officer working for any typical police force, the incident would have been considered serious enough to be investigated thoroughly (and this one was) and probably would have ended with a report being placed into the officer's file. But this was not a typical police force, and McKinney was not a typical police officer.

This was the Dallas schools' police department, an organization dogged by racial disharmony and allegations of discrimination from African-American employees who are filing internal grievances, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints and lawsuits. This was also Mike McKinney, an African-American and 11-year department veteran who has filed more than 60 district grievances.

Last month, the once-content McKinney filed a federal lawsuit against the district alleging that the department fosters a racist environment that is unfair to African-Americans and that Manny Vasquez, DISD police chief of three years and lawsuit co-defendant, is behind the trouble.

"If you've been somewhere 10 years and you've never been written up, disciplined or nothing, and then this man comes and every day you get written up?" McKinney says. "Either I've gone from a good person into a bad one or this person doesn't like me. The first 10 years I filed one grievance, and we resolved that matter. One grievance."

The school district was on break, and neither Vasquez nor anyone else from DISD responded to requests to answer questions for this article. The Dallas Observer in May reported that some of the department's African-Americans have filed many grievances against Vasquez. The May 22 article, called "Cops on Campus," said African-Americans had misgivings about a now-approved plan for Vasquez to replace the schools' security department with a full-fledged police force, mainly because they feared Vasquez would use the plan to try to oust longtime African-American employees. The district has not yet filed a response to McKinney's lawsuit in court.

In his lawsuit, McKinney says, "Manuel Vasquez instituted a campaign of retaliation which included not allowing [McKinney] to work off-duty jobs," which the suit claims is "a major part" of income for DISD's security officers.

The lawsuit also alleges that Vasquez would invent things to blame on McKinney and then attempt to discipline him. Even though witnesses were found to clear McKinney of wrongdoing, Vasquez punished McKinney anyway.

Take the shooting incident, McKinney says. Even though a Dallas police investigation cleared him of wrongdoing and said he was justified in firing his weapon, in the aftermath of the incident Vasquez demoted him from police officer status to that of a security guard. McKinney also was directed not to work any more after-hours security jobs. The punishment is unjustified and a blatant effort to force him to quit the department rather than serve as a low-ranking guard spending his days overseeing a center for pregnant students, McKinney says.

"I had been having these problems with preferred treatment and then the shooting...which was investigated by the Dallas Police Department," he says. "I was cleared of it as a justified shooting, and Vasquez took it and ran with it. He wanted to make more out of it than what it was...He took that incident and recommended termination. When the board wouldn't approve of that, they told him to go think of something else. Then he came up with the idea that if we can't terminate him, we're going to demote him to a security guard...That's the lowest you can be."

During a hearing related to the shooting and McKinney's demotion, school officials said McKinney was not justified in using "deadly force" because he had other options such as dropping his pizza and cheeseburger to see if the dog would have gone after them instead of McKinney. They also said he should be demoted because he did not have formal approval to work an after-hours job.

The first part of the district's argument could be true, but since McKinney didn't drop his food it's impossible to say. McKinney says he doubts dropping his food would have done anything because the dog acted hostile toward him when he was on his way out to get food, too.

The second part of the district's argument is true, he says. He did not have the proper permission to work an off-duty job, but that's only because while he regularly submitted the forms seeking formal department approval, the forms were hardly ever returned to him or fellow black officers, McKinney alleges. Identical requests for off-duty work were routinely signed and returned to the white and Hispanic officers, he says.

The department's discriminatory practices put him in the position of being at the off-duty job without a signed permission form. Then, district officials used the lack of a signed form to justify his demotion. Solely because he is African-American, he was set up to violate department policies that were being violated because of the department itself, he claims.

"I've been here almost 12 years," McKinney says. "He just got here. I'm not going to let him run me out of my job. I'm having to swallow my pride. I've never had to swallow my pride before in my life. If you've never had to swallow your pride, trust me, it's hard."

McKinney says he wants the district to pay him $5 million for such things as loss of wages and mental anguish.

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Charles Siderius
Contact: Charles Siderius