Police brutality in the city isn’t simple nor is it solved
by MATTHEW GAULT
Just before 9:00 p.m. on July 7, Micah Xavier Johnson fired on police officers officiating a Black Lives Matter rally as it wound through the heart of the downtown Dallas. Police chased him through the city, cornered him in the parking lot of El Centro College and negotiated for hours before sending in an explosives laden robot to end the standoff.
He killed four Dallas Police officers, one DART officer and wounded nine others. Johnson is dead, and in the long weeks that unfold after this tragedy we’ll learn more about him, his motivations, his plans and his possible accomplices.
But right now, in the raw aftermath of the worst loss of life of American law enforcement since 9/11, people just want to know why.
Lasylvia Knight, a 27 year old sitting outside of a courthouse near downtown spoke to the Dallas Morning News. Someone in the crowd asked why someone would shoot the police. Knight pointed to Dealey Plaza. “Why did they kill JFK at Dealey Plaza?” she said. “It’s Dallas. It doesn’t have to make sense.”
Thursday’s Black Live Matter rally looked like a model of cooperation between the police and protesters. Community leaders coordinated with Dallas Police, planned out a route and walked the streets of downtown in peace until the shooting began.
The Dallas Police official Twitter account posted pictures of protesters and cops working in concert. Everything was orderly and peaceful. The police were in control and the protesters felt heard.
Despite the absolute brutal horror of everything that happened on July 7, Dallas was looking good. The nation mourned and some media outlets reported that the tragedy was more horrific because Dallas P.D. was one of the good departments.
The truth is more complicated. Many black and Hispanic Dallasites do not trust the police, and despite a lot of bridge building by the department in the last five years, the distrust derives from a real history — and ongoing encounters — with the police.
Big D is still a pretty segregated city. Not officially, of course, but old habits die hard, especially in the South. North Dallas and its affluent suburbs are mostly white and cosmopolitan. This is where I live.
Despite the white majority, it’s a pretty diverse area. I live down the street from an Isma’ili community center and up the road from Chinese and Korean restaurants whose menus don’t contain a word of English.
Dallas is also an insecure city. It’s a town built in the middle of nothing, worked over by cattle-barons and bankers, cultivated by mercantile interests and spread fat and lazy across the North Texas flood plain. It’s also the center of the fourth-largest metropolitan area in the country.
Former Dallas Times Herald columnist Molly Ivins observed that Dallas elites like to feel important, but are painfully aware of how overshadowed their city is by Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. So keep this in mind, and be skeptical, when you hear Dallas officials promote the city’s success.
Because the experience of living in Dallas varies considerably — particularly when it involves interactions with the police. West Dallas is solidly Hispanic, and South and East Dallas are solidly black. Police approach these areas differently, and longtime residents often don’t trust them. These gaps extend into the suburbs, such as the poorer city of Mesquite east of Dallas, where Johnson lived.
“You can walk around and at any point in time you can see someone get jumped on, somebody getting robbed, somebody breaking into somebody’s car,” South Dallas resident Stacie Berry told the local NBC affiliate in April.
“[The police] wasn’t around as much as they were supposed to be around.”
To understand the tension between Dallas residents and the police tasked with protecting them, I need to take you back to 1973.
In 1973, Santos Rodriguez was 12 years old and his brother David was 13. The pair had a minor criminal record for shoplifting, so when someone robbed a local gas station’s soda machine, officers figured the boys might be responsible.
Officer Darrell L. Cain and his partner came to the Rodriguez house and pulled the boys out of bed. They cuffed them both, not allowing them to put on their shoes. They tossed them in the back of their squad car and drove to the busted vending machine.
Cain asked the boys what they knew about the incident and both denied their involvement. Cain then pulled his .357 magnum from its holster, dumped five of its six round onto the seat next to him, spun the chamber and put the gun next to Santos’ head.
He asked the boy if he’d busted into the vending machine and stolen eight dollars from it. Santos said no. Cain pulled the trigger and the hammer fell on an empty chamber. Cain told Santos there was another bullet in the chamber.
“I am innocent,” Santos said, according to Cain’s later testimony. The cop pulled the trigger on his .357, the hammer found a bullet and the bullet found Santos. Blood pooled in the backseat and washed over David’s bare feet.
Cain claimed the shooting was an accident. He thought he’d taken all the bullets out of his gun. A jury convicted Cain of murder with malice and sentenced him to five years in jail. He served two and a half. Fingerprint evidence proved neither boy had ever touched the machine.
Forty years on and the memory of Santos Rodriguez still reverberates through the city. Dallas Police still don’t go to some high crime neighborhoods until they have to, and when they do, heavy state and county reinforcements follow.
But on paper and in the press, Dallas Police are doing a stellar job. Officer-involved shootings, brutality complaints and arrests are down. Way down. It looks great, but read between the lines, study the stats a little harder and the Dallas policing situation isn’t so rosy.
Dallas Police Chief David Brown seems like a good cop trying to do the best with a bad situation. And he has a tragic personal history. In 2010, a mere seven weeks after taking office, Brown’s son shot and killed a police officer in the Dallas suburb of Lancaster.
Brown has overseen an unprecedented change in the way Dallas cops handle violence and community interaction. He spearheaded a campaign that sought to open up crime statistics to the public, and he’s given the community sweeping access to that information.
The front page of the Dallas Police Department website links to a detailed graph of officer-involved shootings.
“The city has … seen a decline in officer-involved shootings,” Albert Samaha wrote in BuzzFeed. “From 2010 to 2014, Dallas officers fatally shot 34 people — more than half of whom were black — a higher per capita rate than Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City.”
Indeed, officer-involved shootings have declined in Dallas. But readers should also note they’re on the decline after spiking dramatically from 12 in 2011 to 23 in 2012.
DPD did not kill anyone in 2016 until July 7. But 2016 is only half over, and looking back at the data, most officer-involved shootings occur during the summer months and December. The jury is still out on 2016.
“In 2009, the department received 147 excessive force complaints and made 74,000 arrests,” Samaha continued.
“Within three years, arrests were down to 61,000, and within five years excessive force complaints were down to 53. As the number of excessive force complaints and arrests declined, so did the city’s murder rate, which reached its lowest point in more than 80 years in 2014, before ticking back upward in 2015.”
But according to the most recent stats, murder is up 40 percent in 2016. Now, it’s not fair to blame cops for an uptick in the murder rate. Murder is the most unpredictable crime in the catalog, and the motivations behind it are varied.
However, Brown and others claim those numbers have decreased because the police changed the way they interact with the community. To a certain extent, and in certain communities, that is likely true.
Here’s the problem. Crime is still up across the city in 2016. Violent crime, especially burglaries and robberies is up in the predominantly black South Dallas. In District 4 of South Dallas, burglaries are up 35 percent compared to last year.
Looking at those numbers, declining arrests seems like a problem rather than an indicator of a happy, healthy police force. Of course, it’s hard to police a city when you can’t keep officers.
That’s another dirty little secret of the Dallas police department — morale is in the toilet and cops are fleeing for jobs in the surrounding suburbs. Brown addressed the issue during a recent city council meetings. He blamed pay.
“Our officers are not being retained, and they are leaving because in the area salaries […] others are paying much more,” he explained. It’s true that DPD pays terribly compared to the surrounding suburbs, where cops stand to make $10,000 to $15,000 more annually … but it’s also not the only reason cops are fleeing Dallas.
Local news affiliate WFAA interviewed one of the leavers, who said he was actually taking a pay cut to get out of Dallas. He put the blame on Chief Brown.
“I’m gonna go to a city that respects his officers,” he explained. “I’m gonna go to a city that will appreciate me and my skill set … the big joke is that we talk about how many years you have left in the department. It’s like a prison sentence … that kind of thing just wears on you … It’s been a mass exodus.”
It’s so bad that the H.R. department can’t keep up with the paperwork. According to WFAA’s sources, the personnel department at DPD told outgoing officers they have to wait to quit.
Dwindling excessive force complaints must be a good thing, though, right? Well … talk to anyone who lives in South Dallas what they think about that and you’ll hear some interesting answers.
“It has not gotten better,” one black Dallas resident told me on condition of anonymity. She explained that police brutality still happens, but now it happens in jail after processing and before the trial.
“Dallas has a huge number of angry anti-police brutality groups,” she told me. “You talk to them and realize that 60 percent of them have personal experience with it.”
One of the groups, Dallas Communities Organizing for Change, filed a federal civil rights complaint against DPD back in 2014. The group wants the Justice Department to investigate police abuses in the city.
“We’ve filed detailed reports, detailing Dallas police use-of-force. We’ve sent them to every City Council member,” group leader Kooper Caraway told KERA news at the time.
“We’ve attempted to meet with City Council members to discuss these reports, to discuss these ethics complaints. And all except Adam Medrano, we’ve only been met with doors in the face.”
According to Caraway, Dallas Police shot and killed 58 people between 2004 and 2014. More than half were Hispanic or black and 36 were unarmed.
Cops don’t deserve to die and people don’t deserve to feel like they can’t drive a car after the sun goes down. These aren’t mutually exclusive concerns. Dallas Police handled the events of July 7 well, and when they mourn their fallen officers they should know that America mourns with them.
But that doesn’t mean we stop trying to do better. Right now, Dallas looks good. But presenting an image of success is what Dallas does — even in the midst of a decades-old nightmare.