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Officer's Death Ignites Dallas Feud : Service for Policeman Shot by Black Man Held in Verbal Storm

January 27, 1988|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | Times Staff Writer

DALLAS — John Chase was a cop giving out a traffic ticket when he died. A deranged man--significantly, a black man--pulled the pistol from the policeman's holster, terrorized him and then shot him.

Dozens of people watched it happen last Saturday on a downtown city street. They watched as Chase, 25, begged for his life before being shot in the face. Then he was shot twice more.

And in the initial recounting by police, there were reports of people in the crowd goading the killer, Carl D. Williams, to pull the trigger. A few minutes after Chase died, police killed Williams.

Now, fed by inflammatory statements, fueled by marches and slogans, Chase's death has become a major issue in this city--one of race.

A memorial service for Chase, attended by thousands of uniformed police officers Tuesday morning, did nothing to quell the verbal storm. Police Chief Billy Prince accused black City Council members of spreading "poison" with "wild general accusations" about his department, inspiring an anti-police attitude that may have made police more susceptible to attack. He said those critical of the police were little more than "freeze-dried experts."

But black community leaders see the police statements as little more than an effort to drum up support for the tarnished department.

County Commissioner John Wiley Price, who is black, Tuesday afternoon called for the police chief's resignation, saying he was incapable of running his own department.

"The man's got to go," said Price. "You are not going to stop us from being critical of the police department as long as their house is out of order."

Tuesday evening, hundreds of police supporters at a candlelight vigil cheered when speakers called for changes at City Hall.

Such has been the rhetoric in Dallas, which began this weekend when the city's police association said it was discussing the possibility of asking City Council members critical of the department to stay away from the memorial service.

Use of Deadly Force

Chief Prince attributed Chase's death to severely critical remarks by council members about the police department and its use of deadly force. In the past two years, the Dallas police have come under heavy criticism because of the large numbers of shooting incidents, most notably the fatal shootings of a 70-year-old black woman in 1986 and an 81-year-old black man last year.

Chase's death almost immediately became a rallying point, with police asking for community support. The response was a parade Monday, organized by police wives, from the site of John F. Kennedy's assassination to City Hall. More than 3,000 bumper stickers were distributed that said "Back the Blue. Stop Crime." The Dallas Crime Commission gave $10,000 to Chase's widow. (The couple had no children.) American Airlines, billionaire H. Ross Perot and oilman Ray Hunt all offered planes for policemen to fly to Chase's burial site in Des Moines, Iowa.

As the investigation into the killing continued, police said that perhaps two persons in the crowd at the slaying had actually urged the 34-year-old street person to fire. Witnesses to the crime were being sought.

Drivers in this city of 1 million people turned on their headlights and tied black ribbons to their radio antennas. Those headlights stayed on Tuesday. Rare was the car that did not have lights shining.

Mayor Annette Strauss said that Chief Prince had only increased tension between police and the black community. On Tuesday, a dismayed Strauss said she did not understand why Prince kept talking. Despite that verbal slap, Prince said Tuesday he would not back down from his earlier statements.

"We can't keep having these stones thrown at us week after week, week after week," he said. "It poisons the atmosphere."

But Price said Prince's remarks over the last several days amounted to "racism, pure and simple."

"It's been bubbling underneath the surface, and it's coming up," Price said. "They are doing it in the name of a police officer."

He said it was illogical to take the act of a deranged man, one with a lengthy mental and criminal history, and apply it to an entire community. He also said the polarization of Dallas was nothing new.

"It's one of the most segregated cities in the dad-gum country," he said.

At the memorial service, the Marsh Lane Baptist Church filled quickly, and the overflow crowd watched on closed-circuit television. Noticeably absent were black council members Diane Ragsdale and Al Lipscomb, the two most vocal critics of the department.

The Rev. Dennis Henderson, a police chaplain and reservist on the force, delivered the eulogy. In it, he had words for both the police and the public.

"If officers feel anger, don't take it out on those you serve," he told them.

But he also defended the police force.

"This city needs to listen, to hear our police officers," he said. "Maybe it's time we ask them how they feel."

The police officers filed past Chase's flag-draped coffin--with a color portrait beside it--for more than an hour. Then they came into the bright morning sunshine and stood silently. All except for one policewoman, one of the last to emerge from the church. She cried softly while standing beside the hearse.

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