Two-and-a-half cheers for Dallas Police Chief David Brown

Chief David Brown (Dallas Police Department)
Chief David Brown (Dallas Police Department)

Over the last two years, Dallas police officers have shot 27 people—16 of them died. Included in those numbers are the shooting of an unarmed carjacking suspect last month and the fatal shooting of a schizophrenic man last October in which the officer’s account of the incident was contradicted by video. That same month, David Blair says he and his three-year-old son were met with a hail of gunfire from two Dallas cops patrolling the neighborhood for prostitutes, apparently because Blair’s screen door sometimes makes a “popping” sound, which the cops mistook for gunfire. The Blair incident is not included in the aforementioned statistics, because the cops managed to miss both Blair and his son.

In response to these incidents, Dallas Police Chief David Brown would like his officers to get more training when it comes to how and how often they use their guns. The response he has received so far is a fascinating look into how use-of-force policies aren’t determined by public safety assessments so much as by negotiations among various interested parties. It’s an illustration of the political realities that stand in the way of reform.

Unsurprisingly, Brown has encountered the most resistance from the police unions and advocacy organizations. More training means more guidelines. That means more second guessing. More surprising is the push-back Brown has received from the Dallas Morning News, which scolded him in a staff editorial for appearing “reactive,” and warned he may be “moving too quickly and with too little buy-in from rank-and-file officers.” It’s a puzzling criticism. We aren’t talking about overtime pay or pension plans, here. We’re talking about training cops about under what circumstances they’re permitted to kill people. The editorial also includes the head-scratching line, “Even if you accept that the outcome — officers shooting civilians — is a potential problem . . . ”  You’d hope most people would think a policy that results in cops killing citizens (civilians is the wrong word — cops are civilians, too) is at least potentially a problem.

(Brown also recently had a very public spat with a Morning News reporter over the granting of an exclusive story. Make of that what you will.)

A number of older and retired police officers and police trainers I’ve interviewed over the last few years say that lethal force training has undergone a decided shift in emphasis over the last decade or two. Where the training once emphasized deescalation and conflict resolution, it now tends to be more about how to justify an use of force incident after the fact. There’s also an emerging narrative from some law enforcement groups that cops are too hesitant, and aren’t killing people often enough. The cops and trainers I’ve spoken to are worried about this version of events.

That Brown seems to share those concerns about lethal force is a point in his favor. Brown also hasn’t hesitated to fire cops who show poor judgment. The cop who shot the unarmed carjacking suspect has been fired. In 2011, Brown fired a cop caught kicking and macing a handcuffed suspect. Brown then praised the supervisor who reported the incident, and warned any officers thinking of retaliating against him for piercing the Blue Wall of Silence. “One of the things that I really want to express about Officer Upshaw’s action is that we should not as a department ostracize him in any way. We should applaud him coming forward, him intervening,” Brown said.

There are other reasons for reformers to like Brown. In a profession where it can be exceedingly difficult to fire even egregiously bad cops, and where police department personnel files are typically shielded like national security secrets, Brown not only dispenses with problematic police officers, he posts their names and the reasons for their termination to Facebook and Twitter. In a bid for more transparency, the DPD is also test-piloting a program to outfit its cops with body cameras, a policy endorsed (with some caveats) by the ACLU. If all goes well, the policy could be implemented department-wide by the end of this year.

Dallas cops are also cutting way back on traffic tickets. The city issued 495,000 tickets in 2006-2007. It issued just under 212,000 in 2012-2013. Bucking complaints that the cut in traffic citations is costing the city revenue, Brown told the Morning News in 2012, “The purpose of traffic enforcement is to improve traffic safety, not to raise revenue. We don’t believe the citizens of Dallas want its police department writing citations to raise revenues.” Brown has reassigned traffic cops to what the Morning News calls “crime-fighting initiatives.” There’s been no discernible increase in traffic accidents or highway fatalities. Meanwhile, violent crime in the city has dropped for the last eight years.

But police chief is of course a job fraught with politics, and not all Brown’s decisions have moved DPD in the direction of transparency. After controversial incidents involving dash cam video, in the spring of 2011 Brown formed an internal unit to review dash cam video of police chases, emergency calls, and incidents involving some sort of confrontation. When the unit found numerous incidents of police officers disregarding speed limits, red lights, and other traffic laws, some cops were getting disciplined. LEO advocacy groups and police unions complained, and Brown suspended the unit.

More troubling was Brown’s reaction to the aforementioned incident in which the officers’ account of the shooting of a mentally ill man was later contradicted by surveillance video. After the video emerged, Brown quietly introduced a new policy allowing police officers to duck questioning for up to 72 hours after a shooting. Under the new policy, they’d also be permitted to view any known video footage of an incident before making a statement. (Other cities and states have similar policies, which are sometimes included in packages of protections called “officers’ bill of rights.”) A cynic might call it a policy that allows cops to settle on the least incriminating narrative that can’t be contradicted by video. Brown defended the policy by pointing to a “memory expert” (actually a law enforcement consultant) who said that police officers need proper rest before they can accurately remember traumatic events. But as criminal defense attorney Scott Greenfield points out, if that’s the case, it’s not clear why the same theory wouldn’t apply to those suspects or eyewitnesses who don’t wear badges.

Still, given Brown’s other efforts at reform and transparency, this seems more like a policy that’s well-intentioned but ill-advised, than a genuine effort to help cops cover up their mistakes. Reform-minded police chiefs can sometimes take a lot of abuse. Pushing change while retaining the authority and the respect of the officers can be a fine line to walk, one that requires picking battles carefully. One could quibble with the battles Brown has chosen, but he at least seems to be fighting on the right side.

By the way, Dallas also has a groundbreaking, reform-oriented district attorney.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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Radley Balko · January 16