07/13/2006

Dallas slowly rebuilding department tainted by scandal, race tension, crime rate

By JULIA GLICK
Associated Press Writer

DALLAS- Besmirched by scandal and beset by racial tension, Dallas' police department needed to reinvent itself to be able to tackle the crime rate - worst among U.S. big cities.

Police Chief David Kunkle, hired two years ago to rebuild the department, has fired tainted officers, changed police tactics and gained City Hall support for his efforts. The result has been steady improvement in the nearly 3,000-member force, and crime, while still tops among big cities, has decreased.

Kunkle has fired more than 30 officers for misconduct since taking office, 14 of them since June. The firings include two officers accused of drunken driving and an officer accused of stealing tires from the police impound lot.

"Kunkle has improved on what he took over two years ago," said Alex del Carmen, a criminology professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. "He is slowly but surely chipping away at the old culture of the Dallas Police Department."

Kunkle, once Dallas' youngest captain and an ex-police chief of nearby Arlington, succeeded Terrell Bolton, the city's first black police chief.

Bolton was fired in 2003 following a four-year tenure plagued by poor management, costly lawsuits by demoted commanders and a 2001 scandal in which dozens of immigrants were wrongly arrested after police informants planted fake drugs on them.

Kunkle immediately demoted three top chiefs and fired officers involved in the fake-drug scandal. He banned the use of a neck hold that had led to a suspect's death and a community uproar before he took office.

He also helped lower crime in the sprawling city of 1.2 million people. Dallas still tops the FBI list of crime-ridden metropolises, but rates dropped in every category last year, including a nearly 20 percent decline in murders.

Because Dallas ranked No. 1 in burglaries in 2005, Kunkle began requiring officers to respond to burglary scenes rather than taking reports over the phone.

The department also adopted a New York City model of policing by examining statistics to pinpoint crime hotspots. A special unit of officers was assigned to problem areas for days to disrupt criminal activity and make arrests.

Despite the successes, Lt. Malik Aziz, president of the Black Police Association, questions some of the chief's firings and the department's commitment to recruiting more black and Latino officers.

The firings come at a time when the force needs about 600 officers to meet its staffing goals and struggles to pay competitive salaries. But Kunkle said they were necessary.

"I want people to believe in Dallas police officers again and them to believe in themselves," Kunkle said in an interview at police headquarters.

Aziz said that one of Kunkle's assets is skillful diplomacy. Kunkle also calmed troubled relations among police unions by meeting with them monthly, Aziz said.

"He has given us an ear and a voice," Aziz said.

The Dallas City Council has agreed to give more money to public safety and to fund 50 new officers each year to reach the department's hiring goal.

Kunkle said he wants his success measured in hard crime statistics and wants clear goals and rules for officers. He said the department has not had enough accountability in recent years.

South Dallas resident Mary Watkins, 77, said she was surprised when the chief met with her in person after taking office. She talks with him regularly now and has the ear of her neighborhood patrol officers, she said.

When she complained about a nearby crack house recently, police drove out the dealers and addicts within two weeks, she said.

"When Chief Kunkle came in, it got better," Watkins said. "It is more comfortable, crime is down in our neighborhood."

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