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Dallas PD's uncertain example on race and policing

How others see it

After Thursday's mass shooting, Dallas Police Chief David Brown has been lauded for the remarkable progress of the department during his tenure. But black Dallas activists say the praise ignores problems that remain.

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    Dallas Police Chief David Brown collects himself while talking about Thursday night's shooting during a news conference on Friday in Dallas. Snipers opened fire on police officers in the heart of Dallas Thursday night, during protests over two recent fatal police shootings of black men.
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In the aftermath of a week of racial tension, a number of leaders have pointed to the need for a deeper mutual understanding between police departments and the black community in particular.

This series explores efforts to address the issue in the very places where tension has erupted into violence and anger – St. Paul, Minn., and Dallas – and why those tensions stubbornly endure.

Part 2 of a three-part series.

DALLAS – Cherelle Blazer is not a fan of Dallas Police Chief David Brown or his now-celebrated community policing programs.

Like other Dallas residents, she’s still stunned and grieved by the shooting that left five police officers dead last week – one of the deadliest incidents in United States policing history. And this week has brought a swirl of difficult emotions, both for her and her husband, Changa Higgins, who have been actively protesting the Dallas Police Department the past few years.

They’re middle-aged professionals with two teenage sons in private schools. They drive a white BMW and buy organic food. But like more than 40 percent of black Americans surveyed by a New York Times/CBS News poll released on Thursday, they still feel more anxious than safe sometimes around the police who serve them.

Which has put them in a very ambivalent emotional place this week, as some of the slain officers are laid to rest. It also places them at stark odds with the wide margins of whites and Hispanics around the country who said their police forces make them feel safer, the survey found.

“It was really difficult to take part in all this reconciliation, knowing that the reason why those 2,000 people showed up to protest down there last week has not been addressed at all,” says Ms. Blazer, a Yale-educated environmental policy expert with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “From the perspective of justice, for the many other people who have lost their lives to police brutality, there was no mission accomplished at all.”

After the murders, Chief Brown’s quiet dignity and poise, as well as an emotional vulnerability borne publicly with pitch-perfect eloquence, made him the national figure for a nation in mourning. His leadership has been widely praised by President Obama and other leaders, as well as fellow police chiefs across the country.

And his grace under pressure has brought attention to some of the remarkable progress of the Dallas Police Department during his nearly seven-year tenure as chief. A champion of community policing methods, which have been promoted by the Obama administration, Brown has increased the department’s transparency, embracing President Obama’s Police Data Initiative, an effort to build community trust and strengthen accountability.

But some black Dallas residents point out that Brown instituted the new transparency policy only after local activists called for a federal investigation into police shootings of civilians. And they say a rule Brown instituted in 2013, allowing police to refuse to answer questions for 72 hours after a shooting, undermines that transparency.

Still Brown has fired more than 70 officers since taking office, announcing the reasons, either personal or professional, on social media. He’s dramatically increased officer training, emphasizing methods to de-escalate tense encounters. Excessive-force complaints have dropped 64 percent, which Brown has called “transformative.”

“There’s clearly been more of a presence in the community,” says Terry Flowers, the executive director and headmaster of St. Philip’s School and Community Center in South Dallas. “We now see police officers on bicycles rolling through the community, which was definitely uncommon in this part of Dallas in the past.”

Dr. Flowers notes, too, that when people talk about interactions with police, there is a perception among many black people that Dallas officers are now less aggressive than many of their suburban counterparts.

Still, for the past three decades, Dallas police officers have shot and killed more citizens, per capita, than most any other major city in the US. And from 2010 to 2014, the first four years of Brown’s time as chief, Dallas ranked third in the nation in per capita fatal police shootings, a rate higher than Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, according to the Illinois watchdog group, the Better Government Association.

• • •

Blazer’s husband, Mr. Higgins, a tech worker who assesses user experiences with business software, became a dedicated community activist right around the time Brown was hired as chief.

And he and his sons Sowande and Esubiyi were among the thousands protesting the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile last Thursday when they heard the shots ring out. In the chaos, he was separated from his sons – and his cell phone battery died.

As a leader in the Dallas Action Coalition, one of the organizers of the march, he scrambled to help other marchers take cover. Unknown to him at the time, his sons had taken cover in the basement of the Omni Hotel. (The boys were able to contact their mother to let her know they were OK.) When he looked for them near his parked BMW, he found police officers behind it, using it for cover.

Now, as he joins others to mourn the lives of the slain officers, he’s also angry at how the shooter has upended the movement at what he thought was a critical moment.

“It felt spiritual in a way, you could feel something shifting after Alton and Philando were shot, and that protest, it was just beautiful,” he says. “And I’ve been doing this work for seven years,” he continues, citing the names of the local unarmed black men shot and killed by police. “Everybody was saying, 'I don’t know what it is, but this is different. Something feels different now.’ ”

That energy, however, quickly turned to a numbing sense of bewilderment.

“It’s definitely deflating,” says Flowers. “It’s like a strain on your lungs, it’s kinda hard to breathe.”

Before the tragedy, many believed Brown’s tenure could be coming to an end. Despite the progress, activist critics had been applying more pressure, and the police union, too, was calling for the chief’s resignation after he reassigned hundreds of desk officers to begin patrolling the streets.

The department has also been plagued by low morale and low pay, with new recruits making just $43,000 a year. The department has had trouble recruiting officers, and police academy classes are frequently canceled because of too few students.

This may be one reason Brown said, “We’re hiring,” after a reporter asked him on Monday what advice he’d give young black men. “Get off that protest line and put an application in, and we’ll put you in your neighborhood, and we will help you resolve some of the problems you’re protesting about.”

With local Texas leaders seeking tax cuts, the department’s funding issues, ironically enough, are part of the larger problems that contribute to the black communities tension with police.

“When you see the protests that we’ve been seeing, they’re not related solely to the police,” Flowers says. “It’s also a response to people feeling that there is a kind of socially engineered inequity and inequality, whether it’s trash pick up, repairing broken lights and things like that. When all of those things go neglected, it just happens that the incidents with the police get more attention, but it’s really reflective of a lot of smaller conditions and areas of continued neglect.”  

But activists have also questioned many of the accomplishments of Brown’s tenure, including the dramatic drop in complaints.

“The way the process works here, it’s overly complex, there’s no transparency to it – I call it a black hole – information goes in, but it doesn’t come out,” says Higgins, who has helped people make complaints through his organization. According to the department’s website, complaints are first handled by the department’s Internal Affairs Division, and if a citizen isn’t satisfied, he or she can appeal – to a supervisor in the same division. If they still aren’t satisfied, they can then appeal to the Citizen's Police Review Board – another layer of a bureaucratic process few pursue.

“It’s kind of like Dallas – you have a nice bright and shiny exterior, but the underbelly of it, you still have all these systemic issues,” he says.

• • •

Before Brown joined the Obama administration's  Police Data Initiative, a group of activists with Dallas Communities for Change asked for all data on police shootings from 1987 to 2013 – data that had never been made public. Both activists and police reform scholars have long pointed out that many local police departments across the country do not submit such data, nor are they required to do so.  

In 2013, after the department released the data, the group released a report that found that nearly six in ten of those shot and killed by police were black. The group and a coalition of lawyers and judges demanded a federal investigation into Dallas’s near nation-leading rate of shootings. As part of this pressure and the issue becoming part of a larger national discussion, Brown instituted the new transparency policy and began posting police shooting data on the department's website.

The community policing reforms appear to have had an impact. The city's crime rate is at a 50-year low, and police shootings have declined every year since reaching an apex in 2012. In 2014, Dallas police officers were involved in 20 shootings, and shot and killed 10 people. In 2015, there were 11 shootings and five fatalities. So far in 2016, there had been only one shoot-and-miss incident – until the killing of shooter Micah Johnson with a remote-control robot bomb.

Activists, however, remain angry at Brown for quietly introducing a policy that allows police officers to wait 72 hours before answering questions about a shooting. They are also given the opportunity to watch any available video evidence before they give a statement.

“Nothing can really happen until they repeal the 72-hour rule,” says Blazer. “This is part of the lack of accountability and constant way police officers are shielded from being indicted.”

True community policing won’t happen until the system creates outside agencies to investigate the kinds of officer-involved shootings that have become so visible across the country, Higgins says.

But both he and Blazer are willing to give Brown some credit, too.

“Hands down, when it comes to community engagement, Chief Brown has been the best in Dallas, ever,” Higgins says. And after such an emotional week, more progress could happen.

“What happened this week could open the door to a lot of things,” says Blazer. “We’re at a crossroads, where Chief Brown can make good on some of things he says.”

•  •  •

Part 1: Beyond protests, St. Paul shows how police and community can find solutions
Part 2: Dallas PD's uncertain example on race and policing
Part 3: Behind racial tensions, a deeper problem: segregation

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