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Can Dallas Keep Austin and Houston From Prying Away Its Police Chief?

Interim City Manager Kim Tolbert told our neighbors to "go back home," but let's unpack her odd statement and why all eyes are suddenly on Chief Eddie Garcia.
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Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson and Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia bromance
Mayor Eric Johnson is a big fan of Chief Eddie Garcia. But so is the mayor of Houston and the city manager of Austin, who happens to be Garcia's former boss. Illustration by Dean MacAdam

Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia is suddenly a wanted man in two of the state’s other large cities, and our City Hall was caught looking. Houston and Austin are both without police chiefs; Houston’s resigned amid a rather alarming department scandal and Austin’s reportedly got fed up that the city couldn’t agree to a contract with the police department and retired after 25 years.

Complicating matters is that T.C. Broadnax has taken the city manager job in the state’s capitol, and, if you’ll recall, Garcia told reporters that he would “go through a wall for that man” once his boss’ messy Dallas exit became public knowledge.

And so it wasn’t totally a surprise that interim City Manager Kim Tolbert sent out a statement on Wednesday night to reporters. Her phrasing, however, warrants a raised eyebrow. Without naming them, she told our neighbors to “turn around and go back home.” (She also misspelled his name as “Gracia” once. Maybe she just had thankfulness on her mind.)

So what’s going on here? The crux of the issue, as the Dallas Morning News reported this morning, is that the Dallas city charter precludes the City Council from signing a contract with the police chief. He is an at-will employee, meaning the city manager could part ways with him at any time just as he could part ways with the city. I got on the phone this morning with sources around City Hall and tried to get a sense of what’s happening behind the scenes. Here’s what I can tell you, although I promised not to name names so folks could speak freely.

New city managers often want their own cabinets. The top of the org chart famously cleared out in 2017 when Broadnax came onboard, either by his hand or by the employees taking the hint. Already, as my colleague Bethany Erickson reported yesterday, Tolbert has reconfigured the city’s reporting structure, made some promotions, and filled some positions—and she’s only doing the job on an interim basis. Two of Broadnax’s top deputies appear set to leave for city manager gigs in DeSoto and Topeka, Kansas. Tolbert should be anticipating a further exodus, which means she will have more hiring to do. It would be a headache to find a new police chief on top of all that, and probably a migraine to find one who has the respect and support Garcia has among both the rank and file and his bosses.

Garcia hasn’t commented. But multiple City Hall sources say that the chief began wanting some additional contractual protection two years ago, when Mayor Eric Johnson and a few of his colleagues tried and failed to fire Broadnax. By all accounts, Garcia seems to enjoy his job and the city he’s in charge of policing. But he also said it felt like he was losing his favorite coach when Broadnax resigned.

Houston has a strong mayor system, which means Mayor John Whitmire will make the next hire with the City Council’s approval. Broadnax is the man to watch in Austin, which shares with Dallas a council-manager system of government that will require the city manager to get his council’s approval. It’s hard to imagine either body turning down Garcia, who has had success lowering violent crime here. Broadnax also had a disastrous first hire for police chief: U. Reneé Hall resigned after being caught in a lie about her department’s use of tear gas during a George Floyd protest. He would probably like to not repeat that gaffe.

Conveniently, the Dallas City Council is presently undergoing a review of its charter. The months of discussion during the review process never included an amendment to allow the Council to sign a contract with a police chief. Former Dallas City Councilmember Adam McGough has told the rest of the Council that there is a mechanism by which they could do so, but has not elaborated and did not return my phone calls. He was also on the charter review board and did not suggest an amendment related to a police chief contract.

The City Council has until May 17 to submit final charter amendments for discussion, so perhaps this is setting the table for such a deal. (Voters will have to approve any changes in November.) Until then, apparently our best public response is the city’s chief executive sending statements not unlike Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s infamous Comic Sans screed after LeBron James left for the Heat.

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Matt Goodman

Matt Goodman

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Matt Goodman is the online editorial director for D Magazine. He's written about a surgeon who killed, a man who…
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