Read My Lips: The Sky Is Not Falling

Depending on how you looked at it, they were either “shocking discrepancies” or “old news.” And not just old news, but old news that had been rendered obsolete by subsequent information. While activists for police reform were gloating, others charged that the October series by The Dallas Morning News, which showed inconsistencies between the initial officer reports of police shootings and the autopsy reports by the county medical examiner, was “irrelevant” and “irresponsible.” The good gray News, some speculated, had lost its head.

Naturally, since this is Dallas 1988, the articles touched off a bizarre chain reaction of charges and countercharges. City manager Richard Knight issued a statement saying he was “disturbed by recent implications of a coverup.” County commissioner John Wiley Price called for an independent review of “at least these nine shootings.” City councilman Jerry Rucker said that even though it was “very wasteful and horribly expensive,” an inquiry “might be necessary” to assuage the public’s new fears.

To begin with, from what I can glean, just about everybody missed the point of the series. Almost entirely, the focus of outrage was the nine shootings themselves, shootings that were said to have been erroneously reported by police immediately after they occurred. In some of the nine, or most of the nine, or a few of the nine (depending on who’s looking at what data when), the police reported that they had shot their victims from the front, when in fact the victims had been shot from behind. The News’s rival, the Dallas Times Herald, took the unusual step of, in effect, rebutting the story, pointing out that at least in some of the cases, the information was corrected the next day when both papers printed stories indicating that the victims had been shot in the back.

In both the News series and the Herald counterattack, as with most news stories in Dallas these days, the implications were far more compelling than the facts. The News’s findings implied, at least to some (including the chief of police’s boss, Richard Knight), a coverup. See, we told you, sang a chorus of police critics, something’s rotten on Main Street.

Actually, according to Assistant Managing Editor/Projects Howard Swindle, the News never intended to imply a coverup. The paper knew full well that in some cases, the facts of the shootings had been rectified in print, and possibly in subsequent internal reports that were made available to the grand jury. But those subsequent reports were secret, as is the entire grand jury process. The public, including the victim’s families, had access only to two documents: the initial police accounting and the autopsy report.

What the News was attempting to do was to indict the lack of accountability in the process. “The truth is,” says Swindle, “that in each of these cases the only report the public has access to- the initial version of the shooting-painted the officer in the most positive light. Whether or not that initial impression was corrected before the case reached the grand jury [which, in all nine cases, chose not to indict the officers] is not relevant because the public would not have seen that. The issue is not lethal force, but the police department’s accountability to the public.”

It’s important to remember that the series came in the wake of over $2 million in judgments against the City of Dallas for stonewalling the family of Ronald Cox, an Addison police officer who was mistakenly gunned down in a drug raid by a Dallas cop. On the heels of that shocking episode, which casts doubt on the department’s honor from just about any angle, further revelations about erroneous reporting, sloppy efforts at preserving evidence, and insensitivity to the victims’ families were bound to escalate criticism to an all-time high.

But here is the irony: we have a new police chief, Mack Vines, a man brought in from outside the state to view the department dispassionately and make the tough decisions necessary to win its credibility back. We have a new special investigations unit that is responsible for reviewing future police shootings. We have a new man at the top of internal affairs, the department charged with maintaining documents pertaining to in-house probes. We have a relatively new deadly force policy that emphasizes improved training in non-lethal options, strengthened in the aftermath of the congressional hearings one and a half years ago. We have new pro-cedures for gathering and preserving physical evidence, spurred in part by criticism from the civilian police review board and the medical examiner’s office. The department has abandoned its legal ! effort to maintain the secrecy of sensitive files on police shootings. We have hung on to a civilian police review board despite adamant opposition from the Dallas Police Association. We have begun the slow process of chipping away at the institutional arrogance that has pervaded the police department and hindered its ability to establish good relations with the public, especially minorities.

Why didn’t the official reaction to the News’s series point to this progress? Why do we continue to put ourselves in the ludicrous role of Chicken Little panicked by a falling acorn? Who is setting the agenda in Dallas-the elected and appointed leadership of this city or the press?

What disturbs me most about this incident is not the News’s article, which was enlightening about past investigative procedures regarding police shootings. What I lament is the result, the reaction-especially that of Richard Knight, who played right into the hands of critics when he emphasized his discomfort at the implication of a coverup rather than stressing the process of change under way. I find fault with leadership that allows a newspaper article, and one with no real revelations that hadn’t been addressed, to disrupt the city and exacerbate an already volatile debate.

As a community, we must be sensitive to those who have felt the cold rebuff of public entities such as the police. We must continue to redress the wounds created by decades of discrimination against blacks and Hispanics. But at some point we need to begin to move forward rather than back. We must look ahead at the challenges that lie before us and seek aggressive solutions, not regressive responses. Chief Vines has indicated that he fully comprehends the problem and that he has the mettle to fix it. Let’s not knock him down before he has the chance.


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