By Tristan Hallman
The Dallas Morning News
DALLAS — One top Dallas police official described trouble with its training academy as "foundation problems," and for the last few weeks, the department has been looking for ways to find and fix the cracks.
Department officials — including Chief David Brown — and its largest police association have traded barbs and allegations about possible lower training standards, intentionally altered tests, and even the suggestion of racial bias.
Then late this week, the training tale took more twists. Senior Cpl. Manny Sanchez, a top trainer at the academy, was placed on administrative leave Thursday after a state audit found that a male recruit's test score had been "intentionally lowered," causing him to fail. And officials are also looking into an allegation that a female recruit was incorrectly scored in the standardized field sobriety test exam, causing her to flunk also.
On Friday, The Dallas Morning News learned that the department is creating a new deputy chief position dedicated to overseeing the troubled training academy. The new leader, whose new position has not been officially announced, will quickly face a lot of issues.
For one thing, there is an internal affairs investigation into why and how the recruits' scores were lowered. Department officials also will examine the driving test scores for all recruits in what has quickly become a widening in-house investigation of the academy's procedures.
More Than An Error?
Sanchez, a 22-year department veteran described by some as a tough, straight-arrow cop, could not be reached for comment Friday. But others came to his defense.
The officer's attorney, Bob Gorsky, said there was no malicious intent whatsoever in how his client scored the recruit's test.
"If the department is suggesting anything other than a simple scoring error, that is absurd," Gorsky said Friday.
And Dallas Police Association president Ron Pinkston said in a written statement that he thinks commanders were blaming line-level officers first whenever they uncovered problems.
"We think the department needs to take a good look in the mirror before immediately scapegoating officers during inquiries," Pinkston said.
Pinkston's association has been tussling with the department over the male recruit in question and other training standards. He said the recruit had been repeatedly allowed to retake the driving test — contrary to the department's procedures — until he passed. The department denied that and said commanders followed procedures by giving the recruit remedial training to help him pass.
Last week, the department released a written statement saying that the recruit was black and Brown suggested that race played a role in the testing.
The statement said a review showed that over the last five years, three Hispanic recruits, five black recruits and one white recruit flunked out of the academy because they couldn't pass the field sobriety test exam. During the same period, five minority recruits also failed the driving test.
But the failures represented a tiny fraction of the recruits who went through the academy during that time.
The statement came after an academy supervisor sent an internal department email saying that per a commander's orders, recruits would no longer be failed on the practical portion of the field sobriety exam. They would have to pass only a written exam.
The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement requires recruits to pass a practical exam, said the commission's executive director, Kim Vickers.
After the email became public, Brown suspended field sobriety test training pending a review, then reinstated it days later after consulting with an expert. The department switched the order of the exams, giving the written test before the practical exam.
Brown has repeatedly declined to explain his initial suggestion that there might be a connection between race and the test failures, citing the department's ongoing investigation.
But Cletus Judge, president of the Black Police Association of Greater Dallas, said he had concerns about the way the test was administered. He told an assistant chief in February that some officers were concerned that it seemed as if only black recruits were flunking out of the academy on the practical portion of the field sobriety exam.
Texas Commission on Law Enforcement officials came to town Monday for a routine audit of the academy, but they came with an added focus on the two tests after Pinkston's allegations.
On Thursday, commission officials found the changed test score. The officials have not publicly announced their other findings from the audit, and they could not be reached for comment Friday.
'I Was Disposable'
Gorsky, meanwhile, explained Sanchez's actions in dealing with the male recruit's driving test score. The recruit made the same mistake twice during one of his driving tests, Gorsky said.
But instead of penalizing him once for the errors, Sanchez penalized the recruit for both mistakes. The double penalty resulted in the failing grade.
Gorsky also said Sanchez did the scoring of the recruit when he eventually passed the test.
Retired Sgt. Keith Wenzel, who was once Sanchez's supervisor, said the senior corporal is a "stand-up guy" who "has nothing to gain by trying to get a rookie fired."
"He has put hundreds of rookies through the academy," Wenzel said. "He was really strong on them, maybe sometimes overbearing. But at least his goal was to put out really strong, quality police officers."
Wenzel said that he believes Sanchez will be transferred out of the academy, where he has worked for years, regardless of the results of the investigation.
Black Police Association board members, including Judge, specifically discussed Sanchez at a recent board meeting, saying they believed he was overly harsh on black recruits and played an outsized role in deciding which recruits to terminate.
"We're really disappointed," Judge said Friday. "We don't know how many good potential police officers we've lost."
One Hispanic former recruit, Kristy Lopez, also flunked out of the academy after failing the driving test. Since the training issues have come to light, she now says she believes she was treated unfairly.
Lopez, now a detention officer in another North Texas city, is originally from Illinois. She said she "picked Dallas because I thought they were the best, and I trusted them."
Now that trust is gone.
"They didn't work with me at all on the driving," she said. "I was disposable."
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Copyright 2014 The Dallas Morning News