In the 1970s, the Dallas Police Department was pressured to diversify after a white cop killed a 12-year-old Mexican-American boy in a game of Russian Roulette. A string of police killings in the 1980s, including that of an 81-year-old crime watch volunteer and a 70-year-old woman shot while standing on her south Dallas porch, led to the creation of Dallas’ Citizen Review Board, a group of 15 city council-appointed members tasked with hearing citizen complaints about the police.
Another outrageous police shooting this year, this time of a man in his own apartment, could soon lead to the overhaul of what critics call a toothless, decades-old system of police oversight in Dallas. Following officer Amber Guyger’s killing of Botham Jean in September, Dallas officials are set to consider the creation of a new, independent city office to monitor the police department as early as February. The oversight would investigate complaints of misconduct, review shootings and other serious incidents, and publicize its findings and policy recommendations.
While boosting public oversight is likely to face steep opposition from police groups, DPD Chief Reneé Hall appears to be on board with the idea. On November 30, after a grand jury took the rare step of indicting Guyger for murder, Hall acknowledged the need for reforms and pointed to ongoing efforts to repair the rift between law enforcement and the communities they serve. “We have developed the framework for policy change, have supported the restructuring of the Citizen Review Board, pushed to exceed the basic requirements of implicit bias training, and have relied on input from our employee advisory and community advisory boards,” Hall said in a statement following the indictment. “We have more work to do and we remain committed to improving our relationships throughout the city.”
The push for independent oversight predates Hall, who joined DPD last year after another tense period for the department. The reforms now being considered by city council largely stem from the work of a task force convened by Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, after a gunman ambushed an otherwise peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Dallas on July 7, 2016, killing five officers and putting the city on edge.
“The police were clearly the victims of that particular incident, but the general feeling I got after talking with people was that relationships between the community and the police had deteriorated greatly,” Johnson, who’s represented South Dallas in Congress since 1993, told the Observer.
Johnson tapped Collette Flanagan, whose son, Clinton Allen, was killed by a Dallas police officer in 2013, to chair the task force of community organizers, scholars and attorneys. Flanagan, who founded the group Mothers Against Police Brutality after her son’s death, says they quickly found Dallas’ current system of oversight to be ineffective. The city’s Citizen Review Board, for instance, had never issued any recommendations to improve policing.
“We realized that we needed to set up an infrastructure so that we’re not just sitting back and letting police investigate themselves whenever someone has a complaint or something awful happens,” Flanagan said. “We need something proactive, something that can spot problems in the department and sound the alarm ahead of time.”
In a February 2017 report, Johnson’s task force recommended that Dallas ditch its current system and join the growing number of cities that fund an independent city office empowered to launch its own investigations into police and issue its own reports, particularly whenever it disagrees with policies or the handling of a case. The task force’s report concluded that Dallas’ current system “has been generally ineffective in holding officers and departments accountable for discriminatory policing, use of excessive force, and particularly use of deadly force.”
Many of the report’s recommendations were folded into a draft proposal that a police oversight group working with Chief Hall submitted to the city in late October. The proposal, obtained by the Observer through a public records request, calls the city’s current citizen review board “largely ineffective as a vehicle to enhance procedural fairness, transparency, and public trust.” Town hall meetings to discuss the creation of the new police oversight office are slated to begin this month, and Dallas City Council could vote on the matter as soon as February.
It’s unclear the degree to which the chief or other city leaders support a new system of police oversight in Dallas — neither Hall nor Mayor Mike Rawlings would comment on the proposal or answer questions from the Observer about it last week. Officials will surely face mounting pressure from advocates clamoring for reform after Jean’s death, as well as from people like Mike Mata, president of the Dallas Police Association. Mata says his members feel like activists are exploiting a tragic accident to push radical reforms that could harm policing in the city.
“These boards and commissions that everyone wants to have such extreme power, what do you even need a chief for?” Mata said. He sees it as an issue of public education. “We do not have a use of force problem in this city, we have a communication problem,” Mata said. “The department should do a better job of communicating to the public what we do and why we do it. The public needs to understand that there are certain situations where an officer’s responsibility is to protect the public, and at some point, he might be forced to use a weapon that the city gives him and trains him for and empowers him to use.”
Jean’s surviving family, however, has attached a larger significance to his case. His mother, Allison Jean, spoke at a press conference after officials announced Guyger’s murder indictment, pointing to other young men killed by police. “I hope whatever comes out of Botham’s case, that it will be a signal to police officers all over the United States that they need to think first before pulling the trigger.”