We find ourselves in an insanely fraught moment for a new chief of police to start in Dallas. These times are not normal by any measure. What makes it worse is that we’ve had some terrible chiefs before. We have also had great ones. But in this moment, when we look at a new chief, is there some measuring stick by which we might at least guess what may lie ahead?
And, by the way, because of magazine deadlines, I am writing this fully two weeks before the decision is announced. I have my own favorite candidates from within the department. Maybe the job goes to somebody I have never heard of. I’m not sure that makes a difference to what I have to say here. Whoever it is, we won’t know what we’ve got until she or he gets going.
Laura Miller, our mayor from 2002 to 2007, a former journalist and shrewd observer of serial police chiefs, has an early vetting system. “There are two things that, if the new chief does them, you know that they’re not going to make it,” she says. “No. 1 is to fire all the people around them, because then you know that they’re paranoid. No. 2, if they go out and get a new car or whitewall tires, it’s the death knell. Mack Vines [chief from 1988 to 1990, indicted for perjury, fired] got whitewall tires, and everybody knew it was over.”
On the other hand, Miller is among several people I checked with who all had the same rubric for spotting a good one. It’s the Kunkle factor.
David Kunkle was chief of police from 2004 to 2010. He quit to run for mayor and lost. During his tenure as chief, Dallas saw dramatic drops in the murder rate and overall crime. Kunkle also instituted a set of reforms that presciently anticipated what will now be the new police chief’s most pressing challenge, resolving an unsettling rise in crime with the community’s urgent post-George Floyd demand for reform.
Kunkle’s emphasis on community policing—the forging of personal bonds between communities and cops—included a major dose of humility, a quality foreign to most old-school cops. The idea is that cops don’t “solve” crime. Communities do. By encouraging the community to trust them, the cops help enlist the community in the rule of law.
Kunkle’s style at Dallas PD never wavered. It was an iron grip on the wheel, a fierce sense of direction, an unshakable self-confidence, and unfailing humility. His public persona stayed down at about the wattage level of a Christmas tree bulb—the kind that blinks very slowly.
Asking the leaders of Dallas police unions to name a favorite Dallas police chief is usually like asking them to point to the tooth they’d like to have drilled on first. But when I do get the heads of the two biggest associations to cough up some examples, they both put Kunkle at the top of their lists.
“I would say Kunkle and Brown,” says Sgt. George Aranda, president of the National Latino Law Enforcement Organization–Greater Dallas Chapter. David Brown was Dallas chief from 2010 to 2016 and is now chief of police in Chicago.
Sgt. Mike Mata, president of the Dallas Police Association, says, “I think Chief Click and Chief Kunkle both did a very good job.” Ben Click was chief from 1993 until 1999.
The people who name Kunkle as the go-to model all get around to the same two factors. One is that he really knew how to do it, fight crime on the street, block by block, not from the FBI training manual. The other is that humility thing.
Based on watching him operate and knowing him a little, my Kunkle theory is different. I don’t think Kunkle was humble. He was strategically diplomatic and very self-controlled. It may have looked like humble. It was not, exactly.
Unfortunately and in spite of a flurry of rumors to the contrary, Kunkle was not available for the job again this time. He is 70 years old, and his wife told me his job from here on out is to keep her happy. He was in the car when she said it, and I didn’t hear him say a word.
Everybody understands this is too perilous a moment to indulge in personal invective and thin-skinned territoriality. Well, almost everybody. (Guess.)
No matter who has the job, it is not the paramilitary position of command it may appear from a distance. “When you are the chief,” says veteran council member Lee Kleinman, “you’re trying to figure out your support system. You have to keep in mind that your real boss is the city manager. You’ve got 15 other people on the Council who think they’re your boss, and you’ve also got a handful of union presidents that also want to be your boss because they represent the rank and file. The chief is in a position where he has to kind of make some deals.”
That’s how it works during normal times. To explain just how not normal things are now, we have to take multiple steps. Step One: the outgoing chief, U. Reneé Hall, has been under attack from the moment of her arrival from Detroit, in 2017. The initial criticisms focused on her core competence as a cop.
Mata says that even if cops can’t totally solve crime, they can damn well reduce it. But somebody in charge has to know how. “If you want to reduce crime,” he says, “you have to go proactively against the three drivers of violent crime, and that’s gangs, drugs, and guns.” He doesn’t believe Hall did any of that or knew how.
Step Two: more recently, the City Council became deeply skeptical of Hall’s basic honesty following the department’s botched handling of the George Floyd protests in June. Two months after what was basically a command and management debacle, Hall gave the Council findings of her comprehensive investigation. She was greeted with a response just short of jeers from a broad array of council members who considered the report a ham-fisted cover-up.
City Manager T.C. Broadnax, who is either a very principled man or a very stubborn one depending on who describes him, staunchly defended Hall for a long time on the competence questions, dismissing them as union flak. But the honesty issue came down very differently. A striking aspect of the George Floyd awakening is the degree to which it crosses color lines, nationally and here. A coalition of council members spanning those lines felt strongly that Hall’s handling of the protests and the aftermath was not up to par.
So, Step Three, and this I have from multiple council members, White and minority, conservative and progressive, all speaking to me not for attribution in hopes they can still work together: after Hall’s botched George Floyd report, a majority of the Council got word to Broadnax that one of two people was out, had to go, gone, out the door. Hall. Or him. He did what I would have done. He chose Hall. But we’re not there yet.
Step Four in the weirdness of now is what’s going on between Mayor Eric Johnson and Broadnax. It’s truly crazy times.
Broadnax keeps his mouth shut, but the mayor attacks him and the City Council in public rants. Meanwhile, the mayor repeatedly denies that he has any personal responsibility for the crime rate or even for choosing a new chief. But he repeatedly insists that something be done about crime and that the right chief be chosen.
Broadnax took the mayor at his word on lack of mayoral involvement in finding a new chief. He designed a recruitment process that consulted every Cub Scout chapter and garden club in the city. But when the mayor tried to jump in, he was fenced out and looking at a No Trespassing sign. Broadnax also came close to fencing out the City Council, with COVID as a convenient excuse. Instead of enjoying extensive meet-and-greet privileges, not to mention back channel communication, this Council was reduced by Broadnax to asking the candidates a few last-minute Zoom questions.
So, Final Step to Abnormality: the City Council must be really mad at Broadnax, right? I don’t think so. A council member put it to me this way: “The mayor needs to be given credit for accomplishing at least one of his major goals. He has succeeded in uniting the Council.”
Against him. Johnson’s thin-skinned vindictive personal style and especially the bizarre quarrel with the city manager have forced the Council to choose a winner. It’s Broadnax by a country mile.
The council members I spoke with told me they all know the selection process with the scouts and the preachers and so on was strictly vaudeville. This is Broadnax’s personal pick, period, end of story. But the Council is resolved to keep egos in check, keep sniping to a minimum, and support Broadnax on his choice. Everybody understands this is too perilous a moment to indulge in personal invective and thin-skinned territoriality. Well, almost everybody.
So where does that leave us? It leaves us with a chief chosen by the city manager in a process designed to shut out the mayor, also sort of shutting out the Council but supported by them anyway, at least for now, because they think the mayor is nuts. Does that sound like a formula for stability or what?
It all depends. We must hope for a Kunkle. But we must remain watchful for whitewall tires. Yikes and thumbs up.
Write to [email protected]. This story originally appeared in the February issue of D Magazine with the headline “Chief Mistake.” After the piece was published, The Dallas Morning News detailed how former Chief Kunkle has been diagnosed with the neurological disease Lewy body dementia.