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Is the Dallas Police Department a Model for Reform? Depends on Which Part of Dallas You're From

The department’s efforts have drawn praise nationwide, but the city’s black and Latino communities don’t necessarily see a difference.

A man holds a sign at Dallas Police Headquarters following the shooting of 12 police officers in Dallas, Texas. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Dehvon Davies remembers the mood of last Thursday’s protest in Dallas, right before shots rang out that would lead to the deaths of five police officers.

“Most of the people who kind of seemed like citizens, like your regular person who came to join, were very calm,” says Davies, who identifies as multiracial and grew up in a suburb of Dallas. The speakers, on the other hand, “were very passionate, and they shared personal experiences, which they were angry about and you could see that.”

While some protesters posed for photos with police that day, about 20 to 30 participants marched through downtown with AR-15s and other military-grade rifles in the open-carry state of Texas. Dallas, like many U.S. urban centers, is extremely segregated, and so too is residents’ trust in the local police and their department’s reform agenda.

Davies’s recollection of the simultaneous calm and anger at the march points to the wide variety of experiences locals have had with the Dallas Police Department. For Dallas residents, which feelings the police provoke largely depend on what part of the city they grew up in.

In the aftermath of last week’s attack, during which 12 officers were shot during a rally against police brutality, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Buzzfeed, and Slate have all lauded Dallas Police Chief David Brown for his reform efforts, citing increased efforts at transparency around officer-involved shootings, community-relations initiatives, increased de-escalation training for officers, and the recent roll-out out of a body-camera program. But for some in Dallas, such glowing portraits don’t exactly match up with their lived experiences.

“Everyone outside is asking ‘how this could happen?’” says Stephen Benavides, an organizer with Dallas Communities Organizing for Change, a local group that advocates for police reform. “Well, when you have decades of systemic racism and police brutality in and around the city of Dallas, and so little justice for the families… the answer is right in front of you. Training and body cameras run parallel to, but are not solutions to, the core issue of systemic racism.”

In 2013, Benavides’s group filed public-records requests for Dallas Police Department data and found some familiar patterns. For example, the total population of Dallas is roughly 25 percent black, according to 2010 Census numbers, but DPD data showed that, between the years 1991 and 2012, black residents accounted for roughly 69 percent of all police-custody deaths.

The data also showed that, between the years 2003 and 2012, about 74 percent of all victims of fatal officer-involved shootings in Dallas and about 90 percent of all victims of non-fatal officer-involved shootings were black or Latino.

In November 2014, Dallas Communities Organizing for Change filed a federal civil rights complaint against the department, citing the data’s clear pattern of disproportionate excessive force against minorities. Despite local media attention and outreach efforts, Benavides says, local politicians stayed out of the fray and the Department of Justice did not pursue the matter.

One thing the failed federal complaint may have helped to produce is a more militant, anti-police brutality activist community in Dallas. This includes organizations like the Huey P. Newton Gun Club, a so-called community defense organization that made national headlines for its armed patrols throughout South Dallas’s black neighborhoods.

The Dallas Police Department also did adopt a series of reforms around this time. But critics say their efforts still fail to address the disproportionate police aggression that the city’s minorities experience on a daily basis.

“The problem with the nature of most of the Dallas police reforms being discussed,” says Alex Vitale, an associate professor of Sociology at Brooklyn College and a senior adviser to the Police Reform Organizing Project, a New York-based advocacy organization, is that it is “an attempt to build trust with better public relations without actually addressing the problem of over-policing in communities of color.”

A history of segregation and inequality

Interstate 30 roughly cuts Dallas in half—rich and poor neighborhoods, white and non-white neighborhoods. Nearly all of the majority upper-income household tracts are in North Dallas and the surrounding suburbs, made up mostly of white residents. Nearly all of the majority lower-income household tracts lie below, in the majority-Latino neighborhoods of West Oak Cliff and Pleasant Grove and the majority-black neighborhoods of East Oak Cliff and South Dallas.

The city’s stark racial and economic segregation has long been reflected in law enforcement outcomes, and not just the higher-profile cases of officer-involved shootings or in-custody deaths.

According to department arrest data spanning June 2014 to April 2016, African Americans accounted for nearly 48 percent of all drug-related arrests in Dallas in that timeframe. Whites, who make up 50 percent of the population of Dallas, accounted for just over 25 percent.

A location-based examination of drug arrests shows how this plays out geographically: far more arrests occur in the traditionally black and Latino neighborhoods of South Dallas and Oak Cliff, as well as in the poorer (and majority-Latino) pockets of North Dallas.

(Tanvi Misra and George Joseph for CityLab/City of Dallas)

The same dynamic can be seen in the department’s traffic-stop data. In 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, white drivers accounted for only about 27 percent of those stopped and 22 percent of those subsequently searched by police. Black drivers, meanwhile, accounted for 36 percent of those stopped and 43 percent of those searched. Dallas Police Chief David Brown has been praised for overseeing a dramatic overall decline in traffic ticketing, but it’s not clear if those reforms have led to changes in who is stopped to begin with. The Dallas Police Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding its drug and traffic enforcement data.

“One of the things that has really bothered me is the mainstream media’s narrative that the Dallas police are ‘the good ones,’ and have fixed all their problems,” says Pete Kraska, a professor of criminology at Eastern Kentucky University’s School of Justice Studies. “These reforms are the same types of reforms that went on in the ‘60s and ‘70s, centering on community policing. But this does nothing to get at the fundamental dynamic at play, in which police are extracting revenue from poor black communities.”

At the same time, life in Dallas’s poorer, mostly minority neighborhoods has become increasingly desperate. From 2000 to 2012, the city’s share of residents living below the poverty line rose by 41 percent. Among U.S. cities with over one million residents, Dallas has the highest child poverty rate.

And the situation is further exacerbated by the fact that only about one-fifth of Dallas police officers live in the city itself, a reality that can create a perception that police are an occupying force in the neighborhoods they patrol, rather than a trustworthy source of assistance.

“The whole dynamic is the same,” as in Ferguson and Baltimore, says Yafeuh Balogun, an organizer with South Dallas’s Huey P. Newton Gun Club. And so long as that dynamic remains, Balogun insists, the black and Latino communities of Dallas will have to continue to make do on their own.

“The government is supposed to be an avenue where the people can freely engage, not feel that hopelessness of having to deal with the power structure,” says Balogun. “When people feel hopeless, that creates the emotion and the atmosphere of what then happened” here in Dallas.

About the Author

  • George Joseph
    George Joseph is an editorial fellow at CityLab, originally from Denton, Texas. He covers policing, surveillance, and criminal justice systems.