Kunkle’s retirement leaves Dallas in a bind

The news that police chief David Kunkle is leaving should send quivers of fear through every single one of us. Kunkle was not the best chief in the past 25 years — Ben Click  did more with less and William Rathbun tried to do more with less — but he was the right chief at the right time.

And now that he is leaving, we’re going to have a hell of a time replacing him with someone who can do the job he did, given the constraints a Dallas chief works under. More, after the jump.

That’s because our council-manager form of government rates the police chief as no more important than any other department head. The chief reports to an assistant city manager, just like the people who run sanitation and water utilities and the parks department. The department’s decision-making process doesn’t end with the chief — it starts there, going through that assistant city manager and the city manager before it reaches the council. Kunkle, who had worked in Dallas and was chief in Arlington, understood the system and how to work with it. This turned out to be more important than command experience in a big city department, which he didn’t have.

Because chiefs who come from cities with strong mayor governments, where they have more control over budgets and hiring, never quite figure out the council-manager system. It drove Rathbun crazy, and he had big city experience in Los Angeles. Imagine that: Someone who was a star in L.A., one of the most complicated cities in the world, didn’t work out here. It’s the main reason wy he left go run security at the Atlanta Olympics. Plus the system limits the pool of qualified candidates; since Rathbun, the city has focused on chiefs who have worked under a council-manager government, which is one reason why we had to endure Terrell Bolton.

The other problem? Kunkle was chief when there was the political will — and the money — to beef up the police department. That is quite rare in Dallas, because even when there is the money, there isn’t necessairly the political will.The council, even in the best of times, has traditionally been hesitant about hiring more cops. We did a story shortly after Kunkle was hired, and I was stunned at the resistance on the council to getting Dallas to the 700 officers Kunkle wanted.

So Kunkle can talk all he wants about this being the best time for him to retire, citing his birthday and his 38 years as a cop. But don’t underestimate the financial blows the department suffered in the current budget, as well as the ones it could suffer next year, as equally as important reasons for leaving now. Who wants to be chief when the bosses downtown lay off cops? Which is a distinctly possibility in the 2010-11 budget if the economy doesn’t improve.


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