Dallas Police Sgt. Mike Mata had a story to tell me. About a week after our chat, news stations will begin reporting that, by the end of August, about 1,000 officers will have left the department since 2014. Mata, the president of the Dallas Police Association, will go on television and declare DPD to be “in a catastrophic state.”
But the TV reports won’t adequately explore the nuance of what that number means. Yes, it’s contributing to lagging response times and, of course, there are fewer officers on duty each night. But perhaps its biggest threat to the city is one that will compound on itself over the coming months and years as more and more officers leave: the brain-drain.
Mata’s story goes like this. He’s got a friend up in Frisco, a city that pays fresh officers at least $15,000 more annually to police a far less dangerous city. That friend works in recruiting for the Frisco PD, and the jewel of Collin County was recently needing to hire another 18 officers. Mata says this friend, who he doesn’t name, told him they got about north of 100 applications from the Dallas Police Department alone.
“They went and got all their performance packets. Their activity sheets. They got to see the quality of the officers, and they took all the best ones,” he says. “I taught at the academy for six years. The hardest thing is when those 30 to 50 recruits are standing there in their suits and dresses and you’re hoping—you’re hoping—that you have a good person; you’re praying they’ll turn into a good cop, OK? Their philosophy now, every other department’s philosophy who’s now stealing our officers, there is no hoping or praying anymore. They already know what they have, and they pick the cream of our crop.”
The Dallas Police Department currently has about 3,100 police officers. It’s the lowest staffing level in more than a decade, and City Manager T.C. Broadnax has been open about how challenging it will be to get back up to the 3,700 it had just six years ago. After the city failed to add its goal of 449 officers last year, Broadnax shifted the budget to fund about 250 instead—something he called more realistic.
Detroit Assistant Chief U. Renee Hall will inherit this in early September, when she takes over as the city’s top cop. So while I was meeting with Mata and Fred Frazier, a vice president for the association and a U.S. Marshal, for an upcoming feature on a somewhat related topic, the conversation inevitably dovetailed into the department’s woes and what Hall will walk into. Both men paint a bleak portrait of a police force bludgeoned by morale issues, stemming from overwork and low pay, higher ups who rank-and-file cops feel don’t value them as they should, and a city that hasn’t exactly been proactive at preserving their benefits or ensuring their financial competitiveness with other departments.
Mata remembers a time when switching police departments required starting at the bottom at the new city, having to re-earn the rank they reached in Dallas. He argued that it gave the city a bargaining chip—if you don’t like it here, leave—because each officer had so much to lose that they wouldn’t be able to. Those days are gone. Now cops can jet and take their seniority with them, moving laterally. The pension’s near-collapse was a last straw for many, and there are opportunities for them elsewhere.
Below, I’ll let Mata and Frazier speak for themselves. It’s been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Mata: We haven’t hired 1,000 officers in the last 10 years, and just under 1,000 officers over the last two years have left. Even if we had 50 in a class and had six classes a year—which right now we’re barely averaging 30 in class and we have four classes a year—it would take well over a decade to even catch up to where we were. And that’s not counting the continuing attrition we have.
That’s what the public doesn’t get, and that’s where Chief Brown in the past years has failed, because he convinced past mayors and past city councils, as well as the city council we have right now, that we could do more with less and we can fight crime with technology. And technology’s great. Don’t get me wrong, but at some point somebody still has to go serve that warrant. Somebody still has to answer that call and somebody still has to put handcuffs on someone. We’re so far behind now that it will take 10 years to even get close to getting back.
D: Technology’s a tool.
Mata: At the end of the day, somebody still has to investigate that crime. There is now a different generation of officer. Fred and I, we came up in an environment that you couldn’t leave here and go somewhere else. You’re losing tenure, seniority, everything. And, this being military-based, it’s about seniority. Well, they don’t say that anymore because now you have this younger officer which, for one, they don’t have loyalty because they see how they’re treated.
Two, now that we have all these lateral transfers, they don’t have to start over again. They take their seniority with them. So you have a seven-year officer here. They become a seven-year officer in Grand Prairie or Fort Worth and they only have to drive 10 more minutes down the road because nobody lives here; they live in Arlington or Grand Prairie already, so they drive 10, 15 minutes more on the road, but they get a $15,000 raise, and they lose nothing. Kids don’t have to come out of school. They don’t have to sell their house. They lose nothing.
And so I had one guy who left here to go work for the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission, for God’s sake. He worked for me. He left to go work for TABC because, and I didn’t realize this, but TABC is on the trooper scale. Troopers just got that huge pay increase, so he was making, he made $17,000 almost $18,000 more going to TABC. He said, ‘Mike, that’s my mortgage for the year.’ How do you blame a guy?
He has no loyalty here. He didn’t grow up here. We’re going all over the country bringing people here. They left their home already. What do they care about going to another department? And they see this other department as taking better care of the officer. They don’t have the pension issue. They don’t have a pay issue. Here we’ve got all those issues and we’re in the perfect storm right now and we didn’t have a chief, so I’m hoping with this new chief that’s coming in—and I’ve heard a lot of great things—that she’s able to right the ship. But I mean, if we’re being honest here, there’s so much wrong and there’s so much wrong that she can’t control.
She can’t control benefits. She can’t control pay. We would love for her to go in front of the City Council and say, “Look, I can’t get the quality officers you need and I need without this (money),” and I’m hoping she will do that, but when it all comes down to it, that’s all she can do.
Mata: To be perfectly honest, me and Fred, we want her to succeed.
Frazier: Oh, yeah.
Mata: We need her to succeed. We love this department. We love this city. We have loyalty here. We are in a catastrophic state. We have literally lost a third of our department. A third of it. That’s three full substations, if you look at just the patrol numbers. Three full substations out of our seven are gone. We used to have a point that we would have 30-something officers in a detail. Now we have, like, 13. So when you add those all up it comes out to three full substations. We need her to succeed. We want her to succeed. We’ll do everything we possibly can for her to succeed, but for her really, truly to succeed, she has to pick the right people underneath her, and the problem is we are so top heavy in this department right now. We have over 40 command staff. Okay, that’s double what Houston has?
D: Do you plan on recommending command staff on behalf of the association?
Mata: I don’t think that’s my place. I think it’s important for her to know the command staff that the rank and file respect. It’s very hard, and this is what gets me, I go to these disciplinary hearings every Thursday and I sit in these disciplinary hearings and I look at these command staff who tell these officers ‘I know what you’re going through. I’ve been there. I’ve done that,’ okay? The problem is they did it 15, 20 years ago. They haven’t put handcuffs on anybody in 15 years, much less arrested anybody, done any reports, or even gone to jail in 15 years. I was only out of the patrol for seven years and I’m telling you it’s night and day from when I was in patrol to how you police now. Night and day. It’s not even close.
With Chief Hall, when I heard that she actually goes out and still answers calls—we every once in a while will have a commander that does that, but he gets in a car with a sergeant and they just drive around. They might show up at a call, but it’s already been answered. I hear she actually gets in a squad car and goes out and answers calls and covers officers and puts handcuffs on people.
And so I called Detroit and I asked officers and they said, ‘Yeah, she does do that.’ That’s huge.
Mata: Because then, troops will believe in her leadership. Right now, we do not believe in our leadership. I mean, and that’s just a cold, hard truth. The troops have completely lost faith in City Hall and they have completely lost faith in the command staff because their command staff has not stuck up for them. When we were going through all these pension issues and all this stuff, we needed our command staff to stand up and say enough is enough. Treat our men and women with respect. And they didn’t because they were worried about their job. That’s hard for the rank and file to follow somebody.
D: Did you glean anything in that interview that made you feel like she was the one?
Mata: One thing, the fact that her father died in the line of duty. I’m not saying that a death helped her win us over, but unfortunately last year we buried four. Five with DART. How I see it is that she knows what every single picture, every single picture—we have 84 pictures downstairs on our wall of officers who have died in the line of duty—she knows what every single family has gone through and continues to go through because she feels it and she’s been there. And so, I think she can truly relate to the fear that every officer has of if I come home at night. How’s my family going to make it? Because she had to make it. Look what she is now. She’s a chief of police in one of the biggest cities in the United States, so some people have a problem with the fact that she has less than 20 years (experience). I don’t have a problem with that.
Just as long as the years that she does have, she learned. And in my personal opinion, it’s probably very hard to not learn in a city like Detroit, going through what they’ve gone through. It’s exactly what we’re going through now. It was probably worse there because their pension was even worse, and they went bankrupt.
On the relationship between the chief and the rank and file officers:
Mata: Her No. 1 job, just like I said on TV, is that she has got the troops to believe in her. Got to. And to do that, she’s got to fix the administration. She’s got to fix the (Internal Affairs Division). Those are the top two things she has to fix, and that will win over the rank and file.
If she doesn’t, she won’t get these guys. She won’t get the men and women. They’ll continue to leave. We’re losing 77 between July and August as of right now. You can probably add another 30 there, so we’ll lose 100 in the last two months of this fiscal year and add that to the 400 we’ve already lost, so between last year and this year we’re at 943.
Frazier: Those are alarming numbers. Every time we’ve done this in the history of the department, the city’s crime has followed within a huge increase. We’ve been shouting from the rooftops this is coming and (the City Council) has just been like “Oh, they’re just whining, they just want more money.”
D: Do you believe one of the things Chief Hall is going to have to prioritize is going to be getting more money into the police department?
Mata: She has to. Has to. We have to stop losing these officers and that is not stopping. This is one thing that the public doesn’t understand. Before, we were just losing the five-to-seven-year officer. That was bad enough, okay? Or the officer that just came out of the academy and is getting hired to go somewhere else. Now, with this pension problem, now you’re losing your 20-plus. Your 20-plus are your most seasoned veteran investigators. Those are the ones that you want investigating the homicides. When your father, your mother, your sister, or brother are killed, you don’t want a seven-year cop. You want the 25-year cop, who’s got skins on the wall and knows how to do it.
Frazier: Knows which rocks to flip over.
Mata: The rape cases, the child abuse cases, all those violent crimes, which violent crime is up almost 20 percent. All those violent crimes, you want your seasoned investigators to do that, okay? Well we’re losing all of them because of the pension and they’re tired of the city. They’re gone and you’re still losing those younger officers, so it’s from both ends you’re bleeding at. So what’s left? What’s left is your 10 to 20-year officer. The problem is there’s not a whole lot of 10 to 20 because that was a time when there was a hiring freeze. Fred and I were just at the start when they started hiring again and we have 22 years on, and so there’s not going to be a whole lot of those middle officers anymore.
Frazier: We almost feel like it’s an obligation now to try to get things back on the path. It’s the recruiting, retention and retirement. Those are your three phases of a police department. If you don’t have all three of things working, your police department’s not working. And we have all three of them at a stage right now that aren’t working. So that’s when you become catastrophic, because the recruiting can fall flat because sometimes you have freezes, right? So then you just need to make sure, well, you just got to do the retention and the retirement. If those two things are set in place, that department can work fine because those officers will figure a way to do more with less. But when you’ve got all three of them out of whack, and right now they are all out of whack…
Mata: You’re doomed.