Pretend it’s midnight, and I’m rolling by some cops who are standing on the street in Dallas. I stop. I put my window down. I say, “It’s 12 o’clock at night. Do you know where your chief is?”
Only I don’t really make jokes with cops on the street. Too much a roll of the dice. But, come on. Last week the chief of police suddenly disappeared from office. Poof! Gone! Vamoosed! MIA! City Hall said it could not say what had happened to her because doing so might violate her privacy rights under HIPAA, the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.
Give me a break, will you? She’s the chief of police. She doesn’t have any damn privacy rights under HIPAA. She leads the police department. She’s an important public official and leader, and by the way she disappeared just as the city was descending into a cauldron of crime led by a soaring murder rate. And nobody can say where she went because of HIPAA?
Not only will they not say where she is, the police department and the city manager and the mayor’s office won’t even say if and when she will ever come back. They say she has to recover.
I have no idea and you have no idea if that’s the real reason she’s gone all of a sudden. Allow me to explain my own doubts in just a moment. But right now and for the sake of argument, let’s say it is true. Some surgical procedures, especially those that involve reconstruction and rehabilitation, can be consuming and debilitating for as long as a year.
If that’s the case here, then that is all the more reason she and the city manager and the mayor should have prepared the public for her departure. Especially at this difficult moment in the city’s history, we deserved a head’s up and a fuller explanation well ahead of time. And by the way, before somebody starts calling this hard-hearted, we’ve had our hearts broken before in Dallas.
Hall is still fairly new to town. She got here in 2017. If she doesn’t know the legend of Susan Hawk, someone should have told her.
You remember. In fall 2015 when then-Dallas County District Attorney Hawk suddenly vamoosed from office, her spokesperson, Mari (“Pants on Fire”) Woodlief, said Hawk was on a beach relaxing. By September of the next year when Hawk finally resigned, the true story was known.
Hawk’s tale was a bleak saga of divorce, stress, pills, booze and stays in mental health facilities. The real story was sad enough. The big fat public lies made it that much more awful.
At this point, it isn’t a good idea to tell the public in Dallas, “You’ll just have to trust us.” No, actually, we won’t. And there must be limits, too, to sympathy.
When someone occupies an important powerful post like district attorney or chief of police, we the public can only afford to go so far down the road with that person in terms of our personal sympathy. We still need somebody in there getting the job done.
Reaction from City Hall so far to the recent murder surge in Dallas has fallen on a spectrum from utter silence to incoherent babbling. At the babbling end, our new mayor, Eric Johnson, is having trouble deciding if murder is a bad thing. When he was running for office in the recent election, Johnson suggested on several occasions that murder fell pretty far down his list of priorities, somewhere in the vicinity of stray dogs, which he considered a honey-do for the city manager.
The city manager, who hires the police chief, has been silent. Now they’re asking us to accept a story about the chief of police that sounds distressingly Woodliefian (“Pants on Fire”). But the thing is — the murders, the murders.
This is a moment when we might benefit greatly from courageous, smart, well-informed, forward-looking leadership. For example, I am awaiting delivery right now of a new book by Thomas Abt, a senior research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and a nationally respected authority on law enforcement.
Called Bleeding Out: The Devastating Consequences of Urban Violence — and a Bold New Plan for Peace in the Streets (Basic Books), Abt’s book suggests a whole new approach. According to the reviews I have read and to interviews I have seen with the author, Abt seems to be saying some of the same things I was told years ago by longtime Dallas community organizer and activist John Fullinwider: At least as much law and order, maybe more, can be achieved by social workers as by cops.
Far from a slam on cops, this approach recognizes that we badly need both cops and social workers, but we need to get their jobs apart better. We have to understand that neither one should be tasked with the other one’s job. If we want to actually get something done instead of just pushing people around the social checker board at great human and fiscal expense, we need both cops and social workers.
Fullinwider said — and I think Abt is suggesting in this new book — that we tend not to appreciate how often bad behavior is the product of people truly just not knowing how to act. I’m talking about people really not knowing how the world works, not understanding that they don’t have to solve every problem themselves with a gun or a knife.
To be sure, some people know all of that stuff, and they want to use a gun or knife anyway because that’s how they roll. Abt addresses that reality with a policy he calls focused deterrence. His expression of it is simple: Either we’re going to help you, or we’re going to stop you. You pick.
It’s not soft on crime. It’s smart on crime. Abt, a respected scholar in law enforcement and criminology, summons studies and numbers to show that the smart on crime approach is working where it is in practice.
If punishment does no good because the person being punished still doesn’t know how the world works, at least try telling him how the world works. Tell people they can be protected from violence if they cooperate with the cops. Show a young mother whose children are hungry how she can get food without stealing.
At least try it. If it doesn’t work, lock ‘em up again. But helping people become productive, self-sufficient law-abiding citizens is way better for everybody than maintaining them as angry, lifelong wards of the state.
The things Abt is saying now and that Fullinwider said to me some years ago are closely related to the policies of the new Dallas County district attorney, John Creuzot. Widely and unfairly misrepresented and misconstrued by critics, Creuzot’s ideas about decriminalizing economic and minor crime fall squarely in this venue: Look for a window in time, a moment when we can still heal people and steer them right before we begin locking them up repeatedly.
In many ways, it’s a question of sheer practicality. Some of the mounting public dissatisfaction with cops is the product of absurdly impractical expectations. What do we think they are, life coaches?
We flood the streets with guns, drugs and myriad social problems that you and I have failed to resolve through politically derived public policy, the way those things are supposed to be solved. Then we tell the cops to go out there and straighten it all up for us.
Who takes that job? We hope the qualities they bring to the table will include courage and a commitment to fairly serve and protect. But these also must be people who are combat-ready. Our failure to resolve social problems has created conditions of combat on the street, and cops must be ready and up for it.
At their very best, the combat-ready people I have known have not often been masters of tact or gentle persuasion. Those faculties seldom play a big part in what their mission winds up being, and that’s good, because those qualities seldom are found in large quantities in their DNA. That’s part of why they take the job. It’s a big part of why we hire them.
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The growing emergency in the city provides a moment when somebody at City Hall — the mayor, the city manager, the chief of police — could really help. Mayor Johnson, in particular, is a smart person. I would love to believe his reluctance during the election to take on the murder question directly was an expression of unwillingness to be buffaloed on police staffing. Maybe what we need is a leader willing to tell us that the answer is not only more cops but also more social workers.
Then a week later the mayor disappears, and they can’t say where he is either because of RFPA (the 1978 Right to Financial Privacy Act). So nobody’s at the wheel, and no one will tell us why because of HIPAA, FCCIPP and RFPA.
What can we say about that? OMG, LOL and WTF!