As I pointed out in today’s morning links, one particularly unfortunate aspect of the murder of five Dallas police officers Thursday night is that the city’s police department is a national model for community policing. Chief David Brown, who took office in 2010, has implemented a host of policies to improve the department’s relationship with the people it serves, often sticking out his own neck and reputation in the process. At risk of stating the obvious, no sane person would argue that these murders would have been okay if they had occurred in a city with a less community-oriented police department. Nor am I suggesting that the killer or killers represent any legitimate faction of the police reform or racial justice movements. But because Dallas is grieving right now, and the rest of us with it, it’s worth pointing out that in its police department, the city has much for which to be proud. Here are some of the areas where Brown and his administration have made changes:
Use of force
After a series of officer-involved shootings in late 2013, Brown overhauled the department’s lethal-force policies, including a requirement that officers undergo training every two months instead of every two years. The new policies won him a lot of public criticism from police groups and police advocates. He was even criticized by the Dallas Morning News, which accused him of being “reactive” and “moving too quickly.” Brown significantly expanded the data the department gathers on shootings by police, and has set up a team to regularly review that data to identify trends and potential problems. The Dallas PD’s lethal-force policy includes a statement that “protection of human life” is the agency’s primary goal, emphasizes that deadly force should be used with “great restraint,” only “as a last resort,” and requires officers to use all reasonable alternatives before resorting to lethal means. After an incident in which Dallas officers shot and killed a schizophrenic man, the department teamed with the National Alliance on Mental Illness to provide better training for intervening when someone is having a mental health crisis. Moreover, all of the data on the city’s officer-involved shootings is not only available to the public, there’s also a prominent link to the data on the department’s homepage. Brown also seems to understand the important distinction between the cop as warrior and the cop as guardian. And his top aides also seem to understand that when it comes to the harms caused by police militarization, imagery is as important as the gear and how it’s used.
Has it worked? It would appear so. After hitting a high in 2012, officer-involved shootings in the city dropped in each ensuing year. I don’t completely agree with everything Brown has done. In 2013, for example, Brown quietly introduced a policy that allows police officers to wait 72 hours before answering questions about a shooting. I find the research suggesting that a wait time improves an officer’s memory to be lacking. And I’ve seen too many incidents of cops corroborating on a narrative to believe that isn’t how such a wait time would primarily be utilized. But that’s one issue. On the whole, Brown’s record demonstrates that he takes officer-involved shootings very seriously and is implementing policies designed to reduce them — and at times has taken quite a bit of heat for it.
Brown has fired more than 70 Dallas cops since taking office. But he doesn’t just fire bad cops, he also announces the firings — and the reasons for them — on social media. It’s a bold sort of transparency for which, again, he’s been criticized by police groups. Shortly after taking office, Brown fired a police officer who had kicked and maced a handcuffed suspect. But he not only fired the cop, he publicly praised the officer who turned that cop in, an implicit acknowledgment and criticism of the notorious Blue Wall. “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.
In addition to publicly announcing the termination of bad cops and making the data on police shootings publicly available, Brown has implemented a policy of collecting and releasing data on all use-of-force incidents. Brown has also implemented a body camera policy that’s mostly consistent with the model policy recommended by the American Civil Liberties Union. He also regularly makes himself available to the media. In a 2014 op-ed shortly after Ferguson erupted, Brown stressed the importance of transparency, disclosure and honesty in the hours after a police shooting. In another interview, he stressed the importance of staying connected to and in touch with the community, even when tensions are high: “I would much rather have a couple of hundred folks shouting at me in a church than on a protest line after a police shooting because ‘I never talked to them,’ or ‘I never listened to them,’ ‘I never had a meeting with them.’” DPD has also emphasized and publicized the fact that citizens have a First Amendment right to record police officers (although the agency’s actual written policy could definitely be improved).
Since the Ferguson protests in 2014, there has been a lot of reporting about the devastating effects on the poor that come from the aggressive enforcement of traffic infractions and other petty crimes. Brown was ahead of the curve here, too. Between fiscal 2007 and fiscal 2013, the number of traffic tickets issued in Dallas dropped from 495,000 to under 212,000. That’s a massive cut. Brown reassigned traffic patrols to beats he felt were more conducive to public safety. In the past few years, we’ve seen appalling examples of cities stepping up enforcement of petty laws — often at the expense of policing for violent and property crimes — to help make up for budget shortfalls. Brown rejected that approach. “The purpose of traffic enforcement is to improve traffic safety, not to raise revenue,” Brown told the Morning News. “We don’t believe the citizens of Dallas want its police department writing citations to raise revenues.” The drop in citations did not cause a noticeable change in accidents or roadway fatalities.
In the hours leading up to Thursday night’s attacks, the Dallas Police Department’s Twitter feed was posting photos of officers posing with Black Lives Matter protesters. That isn’t surprising. This is a police department that understands the importance of free expression. One of Brown’s top aides is Maj. Max Geron, about whom I’ve written here at The Watch. Geron is a security studies scholar who wrote his master’s thesis on the police response to Occupy protests across the country. In an interview with me, Geron emphasized how important it is that police be seen as facilitators of speech and protest, not a force sent to keep protesters at bay. From that interview:
“The ideal police response to a protest is no response at all,” Geron says. … “You want to let people exercise their constitutional rights without interference.”
Barring that, Geron says, it’s important for police to communicate with protesters to establish expectations. “The technical term is negotiated management. What that means is that you want to come to an agreement about what’s expected, what’s allowed, and most important, you want to reach an agreement about what won’t be allowed.”
But Geron cautions against setting arbitrary expectations, such as mandatory dispersal times. “Most protesters will meet, protest, and go home when they feel they’ve made their point. If they aren’t breaking any laws, they can be left to express themselves.” Establishing a dispersal time then gives protesters something to rebel against. “When you establish arbitrary rules that have no basis in law, the police then feel they have to enforce those rules or they look illegitimate. They can set these rules with the best of intentions, but they just end up creating more problems for themselves.”
Geron also stresses fluidity and the ability to adjust on the fly. Police organizations are fond of protocol and standard operating procedures. But protests can be unpredictable. “The standard or by the book response may not be the best response,” he says.
Geron stressed that he was expressing his own opinions here, and not necessarily the position of Dallas PD. But it’s telling that Brown would have a high-ranking adviser with such views, and those views are certainly consistent with Brown’s previous comments about protest and free expression.
Of course, a police agency’s primary responsibility is to protect the rights and safety of the people the department serves. Even the most well-intentioned policies won’t matter if they fail to promote public safety. It’s always dicey to credit a particular policy, public official or even set of policies for statistical trends that are likely driven by a broad range of variables. What we can say is that during Brown’s tenure, the trends that matter are mostly moving in the right direction. After his first few years on the job, crime in Dallas dropped more than under the leadership of any of the city’s previous 27 police chiefs. In 2014, murders in the city hit a 50-year low. At the same time, both use of force and citizen complaints about excessive force dropped dramatically.
But crimes rates do waver. After that 50-year low, homicides in Dallas ticked up last year. After a particularly violent spring this year, including 10 murders in a single week (the city had 136 murders all last year), the critics came out in full force. Crime is also an easy thing to demagogue. Much of the public instinctively believes — incorrectly — that the only real way to fight crime is with more force, more aggression and less respect for basic rights and freedoms. When crime rates are falling, there’s some tolerance for policies that emphasize restraint. But at the slightest hint of an increase, those policies are pretty easily scapegoated. Hence the calls for Brown’s resignation earlier this year. The police advocacy groups and critics calling for Brown’s head would never credit his policies for the steady drop in crime to a 50-year low (and again, I’m not certain how much credit his policies should get for that either), but they were quick to blame them for a short-term spike punctuated by a anomalous rash of murders over the course of a week.
Changing a culture that has been honed and ingrained for decades can be extremely difficult. Brown has not only faced criticism from police groups, but he’s also faced a significant loss in personnel. His critics blame the personnel shortage on low morale driven by Brown’s policies. There may be some truth to that. But if officers are leaving because they can’t handle policies that emphasize restraint, transparency, community involvement and accountability, perhaps Dallas is better off without them. In any case, the personnel shortage also seems also to be driven by low pay, which isn’t really Brown’s fault. (I suppose someone could argue that the decrease in revenue from traffic fines could be affecting the city’s ability to pay better salaries, but I’m not familiar enough with how the city operates to know if there’s a real connection there.)
But we’ve seen similar backlashes against community-minded police chiefs, in Cincinnati, Salt Lake City, Denver and Nashville. The backlashes demonstrate the ratchet effect of crime policy. When crime is up, we give police and prosecutors broader and more authoritative powers. We pass laws and lengthen prison sentences. But after a decades-long drop in crime across the country, few if any of those laws and policies were revoked. What modest progress has been made is a quick and easy target of blame at the first sign that crime is up. If rates continue to rise, we tighten the ratchet again, even if rates are still far, far below their previous highs. (Dallas’s murder rate was 10.7 per 100,000 last year. That was 17 percent up from 2014. It was still half of what it was in 2004.)
I’ve already seen some criticism on social media suggesting that Brown’s permissive approach to policing protests may be partly to blame for what happened last night. Even given how little information we have right now, this is absurd. We live in a free and open society. The simple fact of the matter is that anyone who is determined enough can inflict a lot of carnage in a short period of time. It’s true that guns make such attacks easier. But guns also aren’t necessary, as we saw with the Boston Marathon bombing. Attacks like this one won’t be prevented with more aggressive policing, less police transparency, more tolerance of police brutality or more permissive use-of-force policies. To truly eliminate the risk of such attacks would require massive shifts of power and authority that would fundamentally alter our concept of what makes a free society free.
One might also potentially argue that fewer cops would have died if they had all been wearing riot gear, or policing the rally in armored trucks. Possibly. But this wasn’t a protest that got out of hand. The protest was peaceful, and was winding down when the shooting began. This was clearly a planned, premeditated attack. If the shooter or shooters’ intent here was to kill a lot of cops in a short period of time, they could have picked any event with a large law enforcement presence. Unless we’re prepared to have cops permanently outfitted with heavily armored vehicles and full riot gear at every public event, it’s unclear how the Dallas shootings demand that protests in particular require a militarized response. As discussed here earlier this week, there’s lots of evidence that such responses actually foment violence by giving troublemakers and peaceful protesters a common enemy.
Early information suggests that the Dallas shooter was motivated by the recent police shootings in Minnesota and Louisiana. That he chose a police department whose leadership “gets it” on so many of these issues makes the attack all the more tragic — it’s tragic for the sheer nature of the crime and loss of life, it’s tragic because DPD was doing things right, and it’s tragic because it has the potential to make Brown’s push for reforms a hell of a lot more difficult.
Again at the risk of stating the obvious, there is no “right” police target on which it would be anything less than abhorrent to unleash violence in some delusional protest against police brutality. It’s just that Dallas Police Department is a particularly wrong one.