DEADLY FORCE. Dallas gropes for ways to lower the rising incidence of police shootings
Dallas — Last October a Dallas police officer responding to a burglary report in the city's predominately black south side shot and killed an elderly black woman. There were other police shootings in Dallas last year - many more. For all of 1986, Dallas police killed or wounded 29 civilians, tying the department's record for 1983, when the city led the nation in police killings. But it was the shooting of Etta Collins - a woman of poor vision and hearing who stood armed at her front door when police arrived to investigate her fears of a nearby break-in - that has renewed questions about the Dallas police department's use of deadly force.
The incident has set police-minority relations here on edge, and led to questions about the predominately white police force's approach to a growing minority population. As a direct result of the Collins shooting, a congressional subcommittee is expected to investigate the entire issue of police use of deadly force in Dallas.
The Dallas controversy comes against a national backdrop of greatly reduced police shootings of civilians. Since the early 1970s the number of people killed by police in major cities each year has fallen by half. Most urban-affairs analysts attribute the drop to changed attitudes and policies in police departments, improved training, and growth in the number of minority officers on urban police forces.
But the number of police shootings in Dallas rose from 18 in 1985 and 20 the year before.
Much of the police department's focus in the wake of the controversy is on better training. A ``shoot-don't-shoot'' program for training police in responding to potentially violent situations has been suspended until what the department calls a ``national expert'' is found to review the department's entire deadly-force training.
Still, there is acknowledgment here that training is not the only issue needing to be examined. Police attitudes, especially toward people unlike themselves, are a major concern of some minority leaders here as well as of police officials.
``We look to training to correct whatever problems we may have. It's supposed to be the key to efficiency and effectiveness,'' says Don Stafford, Dallas assistant police chief in charge of training. ``But 60 to 80 hours of training are not going to overcome the system of values [the recruit] has built up over 20 to 25 years.''
John Wiley Price, a Dallas County commissioner and one of the black community's more outspoken critics of the police department's shooting record, says attitude is the major problem. ``We still have people on this force who say `nigger,' `spic,' `chink' - and who on top of that think they're Quick-draw McGraw.''
But others see the shootings as a symptom of major demographic shifts in the Dallas population. ``The real issue is the change in ethnic and racial makeup of the city,'' says Lawrence Redlinger, associate dean at the School of Social Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas.
Pointing to a 50,000 drop in white population in Dallas between 1970-80, and a corresponding rise of nearly 100,000 for blacks and Hispanics, Dr. Redlinger says there is a ``new tension'' in Dallas between minorities and whites ``who want to hang on to what they have.'' He adds, ``When those tensions build up, the police become the focal point.''
Redlinger, who has studied police departments across the US, believes no amount of training or ``cultural sensitivity programs'' will solve the problem until the city population stabilizes. But he says experience has shown that some steps, such as better minority representation on the police force, can make a difference.
The Dallas police force is 12 percent black and 6 percent Mexican-American, although those two groups make up about 45 percent of the city's population. Perhaps more crucial, according to Mr. Price, is the fact that less than 2 percent of police administration is black.
Bringing those numbers in line with the general population will not be easy. ``You can't just push a button and have it happen,'' says Mayor Starke Taylor, who has advocated increasing minority numbers on the force during his four-year tenure. The most recent class of recruits included 21 blacks and Hispanics, ``but that doesn't have much impact'' on a police force of 2,300, he adds.
Mr. Taylor also recommends incentives to help retain more experienced officers. A number of publicized shooting cases, including the Collins killing, involved relatively inexperienced officers.
The city now awaits the hearing by the House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, expected some time in late April or May, that local representatives in Washington promised the city's black community after Etta Collins was killed. Some here say it will further divide Dallas, and only lead to bad press. But others, including Mayor Taylor, believe an outside assessment of the issue may be warranted.
But Price says there is a need for a mediator to help resolve ``a very real problem between the minority communities and the city.'' He says charges that the hearing will be divisive ``sound like what they said about federal troops to safeguard desegregation. I don't understand the fear.''