by Jim Schutze
Everything goes back to Detroit, I guess. Well, not me. I was thinking more about the Dallas chief of police. Again.
Yesterday, the Dallas chapter of the National Latino Law Enforcement Organization joined a growing chorus of critics calling for Chief U. Renee Hall to be canned. The NLLEO is a bargaining organization representing almost half of Dallas’ officers. It claims a membership that is a third white, a third African American and a third Latino.
Hall came here from Detroit in 2017. I came here from Detroit in the late 19th century. Someday I’ll tell you my secret. But yesterday while I sat in a press conference at NLLEO headquarters in West Dallas and listened to their complaints, I felt like Hall and I must have just got here from the Motor City on the same bus.
A lot of this is cultural. And, no, I don’t mean racial. I mean Yankee. Please allow me to explain.
I truly did work as a reporter in Detroit so long ago that the era I covered in police/community relations took place while Hall was still in elementary school. You would be justified in wondering what relevance my own experience could possibly have to hers.
One legacy of my time on the police beat in Detroit in the 1970s is that I have never had any kind of all-out loyalty to or unquestioning belief in cops. For me, it always depends on which cops we’re talking about.
The department I covered in Detroit in those years was ghastly. Overwhelmingly white with a high percentage of very young cops who lived in small towns outside of Detroit, that department murdered people on the street for being black, and that’s not a theory or an impression. That police department lacked basic legitimacy in the minds of a majority of the city’s residents, because they viewed it as a tool of thuggish oppression, certainly not as an arm of the law.
When I moved here in the late 1970s, I assumed things would be much worse. Why? Because I’m a Yankee. Yankees are taught from infancy that, no matter how bad things may be where we are, things will only get worse the farther south we go.
And, yes, the Dallas Police Department has gone through some very difficult periods during my long tenure here. Even now justice is a work in progress. Important work is being done today by Sara Mokuria and John Fullinwider, co-founders of Mothers Against Police Brutality. They have documented ongoing cases of intolerable wrongdoing by Dallas police officers, some of which remain unresolved.
But, no. The Dallas Police Department was not worse than Detroit when I got here. It was better. Better by quite a bit. Its shortcomings were shared by American police departments everywhere, but its strong points distinguished it from other departments.
When I got here, DPD maintained a high degree of professionalism. In spite of having lower pay than the whiter suburbs, DPD was able to keep a lot of very long-tenured officers on the force. Most important, the police force, reflecting the will of the city’s residents, displayed a willingness to embrace diversity in the ranks as an absolutely necessary, logical and desirable step toward maintaining basic legitimacy.
So I had to unlearn some Yankee things. Then I had to put that together with some other stuff I learned in about 100 years of covering cops. The police do things we badly want them to do, but they will not keep doing them if we don’t show some respect.
Dallas has been hemorrhaging experienced cops for going on two years and is now 600 to 800 officers understaffed. At yesterday’s NLLEO press event, I asked Todd Harrison, president of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT), what single factor is most important in keeping experienced law officers on the farm. I had been focused mainly on stubborn problems in the city’s police and fire pension fund.
Harrison, a sergeant in the Austin Police Department, said, “Pension and pay are good (issues), but officers a lot of times leave if their morale gets low. They don’t feel appreciated. They don’t feel respected. That can lead to officers leaving even if your pay is good and you do have a good retirement system.”
So let’s unpack that a little. Who in this world gets to have good morale? Or demand it? What are cops – too sensitive? No, no, this is what I mean about that other stuff I had to learn by watching police officers and firefighters on the street at night doing what they do. They put themselves in the path of death to protect you and me from getting killed.
I don’t care if that cop is sitting at a desk all day downtown. The badge in the pocket, the gun on the hip mean that officer has pledged to step into danger for you and for me if the occasion arises. Look at the sheriff’s deputy in Florida arrested for failing to confront a gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. Is anybody going to arrest you or me for not going after a gunman?
Good, tell me it’s not our job and it is the cop’s job, but job descriptions do not cover life, death or mortal sacrifice. Whether it’s a soldier, a cop or our brother-in-law, if somebody even agrees to step in front of a bullet for you and me, let alone does it, then simple moral decency requires us to have respect. And if we don’t have respect, they ain’t gonna do it, no matter how sweet the pension. Would you?
At the press event, NLLEO Dallas Chapter President George Aranda called for Hall to step down or be fired. He ticked off a timeline of events in which he said Chief Hall has done things that have eroded morale among Dallas officers by showing disrespect for them. He provided results of a survey of more than 1,000 officers in NLLEO showing an overwhelming lack of confidence in the chief.
Aranda’s timeline began with an enormous misstep early in Hall’s tenure here. Soon after arriving and long before she could have known much, Hall shut down the entire Dallas vice squad and frog-walked the vice officers out of their offices in a humiliating display before their peers.
None of that resulted in a single indictment. Nobody was even fired. Everyone from vice was reassigned within the department. But none of it has been resolved almost two years later, and no one has been cleared. Aranda said at the press conference that all of those officers’ careers have been ruined, even if they still have jobs.
I remember wondering at the time which police department Hall thought she was running. The Detroit Police Department? Maybe not. Maybe she thought she was brought here to run that imaginary department we Yankees just assume we will find. In fact, a little over a year ago I wrote her a public letter that she probably didn’t even see reminding her that she and I are Yankees. That was after she gave D Magazine a ridiculous quote in which she said she thought she was being treated harshly in Dallas over the vice squad issue because she’s black and that’s just how Dallas is. She was ignoring or not aware of the fact that her immediate predecessor, who also is black, left town to harps and hosannas.
So why did she think that? Because it’s in the movies, I guess. That’s why I thought it. My brain needed a Hollywood cleansing. Probably still does.
I asked Aranda what causes a murder spike. He said not enough cops. And by the way, while we’re on the subject of murder and not enough cops, allow me to share a very interesting fact about the recent murder at Jim’s Car Wash on Martin Luther King Boulevard that has been in the news this week. This is something I have confirmed with multiple sources, including one in the police department who is in a position to know.
At the request of the owner of the car wash, Dale Davenport, the police department had multiple units patrolling the car wash just before the shooting that took one life and injured four others. The shootings happened just after all of those officers were called away because of patrol shortages elsewhere in the city.
Those shootings were an illustration of exactly what Aranda told me later at the press conference: Murders go up when the number of cops on the street goes down. Here’s a guy trying to keep his business open in a sea of crime, basically abandoned by the city, and a Dallas judge has the temerity to blame him for the crime and shut his business down. More on that next week.
As Mike Mata of the Dallas Police Association told me last week, the number of cops on the street in Dallas is down not because of recruitment. More people are lined up to become cops in Dallas than the department has the capacity to train. The numbers are down because trained tenured cops are leaving. And as Harrison of CLEAT said, they are leaving as much over morale as over money.
I know Hall did not initiate the morale crisis in the department. We have the outgoing mayor to thank for that. It began before Hall showed up. But guess what? Hall is the chief now. Retention is her responsibility. The key to retention is morale.
To pull that off, to improve morale dramatically enough to turn things around, Hall would have to achieve a near miraculous turnaround in her leadership style. She’s got to stop talking to preachers and go talk to cops. And win them over. I’m not betting cash money on it.