Copyright 2006 THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS
Pop quiz: What do you know about the following Dallas police officers?
1. Mark Delapaz.
2. Brian Jackson.
3. Leandro Garza.
Those who keep abreast of current events should have no trouble identifying Mr. Delapaz as the disgraced ex-narcotics officer at the epicenter of the Dallas Police Department's embarrassing 2001 fake-drug scandal.
You might have had to search your memory a little to recall that Mr. Jackson was the last DPD officer killed in the line of duty. The 28-year-old patrolman was shot to death in November by a suspect in a domestic disturbance.
If you drew a blank on Officer Garza, don't feel bad - I did, too. The answer is that he was the 2005 DPD Officer of the Year. He works in auto theft.
The point here is that, unless you have routine contact with the Police Department, you may not think much about your local cops unless somebody gets in trouble or somebody gets killed.
That's especially true in Dallas, where the department in recent years has been made infamous by the kind of inflamed revelation that tends to suck all the oxygen out of the room: the frame-up scandal that landed innocent people in the slammer; a series of officers disciplined for bad behavior; angry fights over police pay; the awkward, racially politicized battle over the departure of the last chief.
So it's not exactly a seismic shock that the department is having trouble finding qualified rookies eager to protect and serve in the city of Dallas. According to statistics published Sunday in The Dallas Morning News, the city managed to fill only between 65 and 70 percent of its police academy classes last year.
The reasons are varied: Suburban departments offer better pay; there are lucrative opportunities in the private sector; wartime military recruitment siphons off qualified candidates.
There's another less tangible but crucial reason, which might be loosely defined as plain, workaday respect.
People just aren't breaking down the door to work in a department that is, fairly or not, still linked in the public consciousness with embarrassing revelations and political warfare.
One officer who recently joined the Rockwall department bluntly told The News that he chose the comparatively quiet suburb over Dallas because it's "not in the news a lot with scandal."
As a matter of fact, the DPD has stabilized considerably. Morale is better, hiring practices have been tightened up, problem cops have been weeded out.
To tell you the truth, I don't think the department has done a particularly effective public relations job getting that across to the community - and to potential recruits.
It's true that I didn't know the name of the most recent officer of the year. When I called to find out, the department didn't know offhand, either.
"Hmm ... I'd have to check on that for you," said a corporal in the media relations department. She called back later with Officer Garza's name.
The last time most of us really put much thought into the difficult, demanding and occasionally dangerous job these people do for us was when Officer Jackson was killed, quickly followed by the shooting death in Fort Worth of Officer Henry "Hank" Nava Jr.
Shocked, sorrowful residents in both cities no doubt made it a point in the following weeks to wave or smile or say thanks to a police officer.
And then we forgot. Friends, where is the love?
I'm not promising that the newspaper is going to have a front-page "good news" story about the Police Department every day - that's just not how newspapers work. But we the citizens should have enough sense to thank a cop now and then without being reminded.
Paychecks count, of course. But a little public recognition goes a long way. If the word got around that people in Dallas are as grateful and supportive of their police officers as they are of their football team, the line of applicants might be out the door and around the block.
So wave, or say thanks. It doesn't cost anything.
And if you see Leandro Garza, tell him I said congratulations.
February 7, 2006
Dallas: Police could profit from public praise