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Can Old Dallas Cops Learn New Tricks?

The Dallas Police Association tries its best to appeal to a new generation.
By Eric Celeste |
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The headquarters of the Dallas Police Association, one of the biggest PACs in the city, is situated in a repurposed building just south of downtown that once served as the main office of an industrial scale manufacturer. The cops still find old springs lying around on the property. 

Three of those cops—DPA president Ron Pinkston, 26 years on the force; first vice president Frederick Frazier, 18; third vice president Michael Mata, 18—sat around a table one recent afternoon to explain why they think a recent survey found such low morale in the force and what they want to do about it. The three look like cops. They’re beefy and barrel-chested. They’re also oddly polite and deferential, because being interviewed is not something cops ever get used to. After about 10 minutes, though, salty language easily finds its way back into casual conversation. “We speak like police officers,” Pinkston says, “not like politicians.”

That’s not entirely true. They might look like cops, and their word choice might sometimes be colorful, but their message these days is decidedly honed, crafted with professional help. 

“In the past, we haven’t been part of the solution,” says Pinkston, who has been DPA president for a little more than two years. “Now we want to be part of the solution. And we want both citizens and cops to know that.” (Key message No. 1.)

“We have one goal,” Frazier says. “We want to make Dallas the best place in the country to be a policeman.” (Key message No. 2.)

“We need to address the elephant in the room,” Mata says. “The label that we have, the one that says we’re not minority-friendly.” (Whoops. Off-message!)

Under nearly two decades of leadership from its past president, Glenn White, the DPA was seen as a group that almost proudly fought with police chiefs and city leaders. It was well known that White couldn’t be in the same room with minority association leaders for long before arguments would break out.

That image of an obstinate, tough-talking DPA is one the new membership wants to change. The group still makes many of the same policy/pay/benefits arguments White did on behalf of its members—about 2,800 of the force’s 3,500 cops—and it still endorses conservative candidates for office. It just wants to do it with more of a smile, less of a snarl.

Violent crime is still low compared to the 1990s, so what problems is the DPA trying to solve? You name it: cops want higher pay, cheaper insurance, and better retirement options. They also want changes in the department’s use of deadly force policy—i.e., a clearer definition of the “reasonable fear” for his life an officer needs to feel before firing. They want foot- and car-chase policies made less restrictive, they say to “better allow police officers to reasonably and safely perform their duties of protecting Dallas residents from violent and felony offenders.” Transfer policy, internal affairs investigations, promotion procedures, ethics policies, even mileage requirements for replacing squad cars—the DPA wants changes to all of it.

Why is this important to citizens? Consider that, according to the DPA, 81 percent of cops live outside the city proper because they can’t afford Dallas’ cost of living, given their pay (starting salary: $42,900) and terrible insurance package (deductibles can exceed $9,000 for families). To compare: 64 percent of all city employees live outside the Dallas city limits. The DPA says its list of concerns addresses the underlying reasons police morale is shockingly low. Eighty percent of officers in a recent DPA survey said morale is “low” or “the lowest it’s ever been.” As well, 87 percent said they didn’t believe they had the full support of the police administration to do their jobs properly, and more than a quarter were seeking jobs outside the department. Unhappy officers who don’t feel an attachment to the city make for an unsettled force—and that should concern every citizen.

That’s because, even though the DPA is trying to ask in a more polite manner, it is still asking for changes that its critics see as favoring chasing bad guys over protecting innocent citizens. The deadly force policy is a good example. After a female DPD officer was fired last year for shooting an unarmed suspect, the deadly force policy was amended to say that “officers will only use deadly force to protect themselves or another person from imminent death or serious bodily injury. …. Officers may draw or display firearms when there is a threat or reasonable belief that there is a threat to life or they have a reasonable fear for their own safety and/or the safety of others.” The DPA says the policy is confusing, too restrictive, and puts their lives in danger. 

Since there have been 19 cop shootings of civilians this year (as of this writing in early November), arguing for more leniency to pull a gun is a dicey proposition. Police management—city staff, council members, and police administration—understand that it’s a tough but necessary task to balance citizen safety with cop security. They’re not easily swayed by the DPA’s argument that we need to give cops the freedom they need to make life-and-death decisions in the field. As one city official told me, “Yeah, they’re trying to be reasonable in some areas, like carrying cop cameras on their uniforms. But their reasonable force demands are insane. They just want the right to shoot whenever they think it’s necessary, end of story.”

The DPA knows it has to do a better job making its case not only to city officials, but to a new generation of cops as well. “When we were joining the force, the average age was something like 22,” Pinkston says, “and we listened to the old heads, kind of did whatever they said. Now, these new guys are 28, have a family, kids, and they’re just more sophisticated about the politics of the job than we were. We have to reflect that.”

Specifically, sophisticated in the racial politics of large urban police forces—“the elephant in the room,” as Mata notes. Although officers can belong to more than one group, the DPA has led the charge to bring together all the major police associations—the DPA, the Dallas Fraternal Order of Police, the Black Police Association Greater Dallas Chapter, and the National Latino Law Enforcement Organization of Greater Dallas. Chief David Brown has championed this idea, saying that appeasing each of the groups makes substantive change more difficult to achieve. (Brown declined to be interviewed for this column, as did local NLLEO president Robert Arredondo.)

This is where the DPA still stumbles—even though it is more diverse than it ever has been, with almost 80 percent of the cops as members, in a department that is about one-quarter black and one-fifth Hispanic. The problem comes when the group is not sensitive to the cultural realities it has to confront. It’s the very reason minority police associations often exist in other large urban areas. (It’s also worth noting that having one police association is not a panacea. San Antonio’s police association has been embroiled in a seven-month labor relations battle with the city over a new collective bargaining agreement.)

“I would love to have one organization,” says Cletus Judge, a 27-year veteran and the Black Police Association president. “And we’re all on the same page with pay and benefits.” I should note that it was difficult getting Judge on the phone, because—even though he is four years from retirement—he was working an outside security gig. “But there are basic issues of equity and diversity, especially when it comes to officer discipline, that require minority associations to advocate on behalf of their members. We’re no different from the rest of the city in terms of the issues we face day to day.”

Concern over adequate minority representation is nothing new in most public arenas, but it’s tough for some cops to accept, especially those who ascribe to the theory that all cops bleed blue. DPA members tell stories of minority DPA officers like Mata enduring taunts from Hispanic leaders on the force. One posting on the official Facebook page for the local NLLEO chapter suggested that Hispanic members should not listen to Mata’s efforts to make the DPA more diverse because he “does not habla” Spanish. At the same time, minority cops pointed to Facebook posts by DPA members that made them feel as though their concerns were being mocked. As Mata acknowledges, “This place can be just like high school sometimes.”

In fact, as of press time, the black and Latino organizations had both pulled out of talks with DPA over consolidation.

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