Excessive force forum on police training, hiring and shootings

Lethal Force Chief Answers
Lethal Force Chief Answers

The Dallas Examiner

Nationwide, while fewer Blacks are killed by police than Whites, more die in a percentage that is disproportionately large to the population than of any other race. This prompted a community conversation called “Lethal Force: A Last Resort” that was held in Dallas City Council chambers, April 6.

The meeting brought together members of the Dallas Police Department and community advocates from around the city, as well as drew an engaged audience who raised their collective voices to question authority when it came to use of force by local police.

The program, a collaboration between the Dallas Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., the Dallas Police Department and Mayor Pro Tem Casey Thomas, featured DPD Chief Rene Hall, who offered her decades of law enforcement experience in addressing questions put forth by panelists and the public.

Panelists included Cheryl Wattley, attorney and UNT Law professor; Sara Mokuria, associate director for leadership initiatives with the Institute for Urban Policy Research at UTD – who also lost her father in an officer-involved shooting incident when she was a child; and Dr. Frederick Haynes III of Friendship West Baptist Church. Police panelists included Sgt. Jennifer Wells, Sgt. Anthony Greer, Senior Cpl. Bobby Parrott and Sgt. Raymario Sanchez.

One issue that panelists questioned was the recruiting criteria used by the DPD for the Dallas Police Basic Training Academy.

Police hire recruits as young as at 19 and a half years of age, and graduates often leave the academy at 20 or 21, according to Parrott and the chief. When panelists wondered about the recruiting of former members of the military, Haynes spoke on his fears about officers who may deal with PTSD.

Hall confirmed that the department recruits from the military due to their life experience but acknowledge that the community and other law enforcement professionals have voiced concerns about such action.

“They come out of combat in some instances,” the chief detailed. “To be able to transfer from a combat status to a community engagement status – because law enforcement today is more community engaged, at least under my leadership than it has been in previous years ago – so although we are actively recruiting our military individuals, we make sure they are screened to ensure that they have the deescalation … the community engagement, and that they are prepared to work in a law agency and not in the mindset of a military or a combat [agency].”

In terms of PTSD and officers in an environment of what Haynes called “the underbelly of the ugly side of life, which is traumatic,” Hall described the efforts taken by the force to reduce such a factor in those who serve.

“When we talk about our military individuals, every single one of them has to go through a psychological evaluation,” she said about police testing.

“As we see the actions of our officers each and every day, we have the ability to refer them to services if we feel the need, but … we also have a website – our association, the department, has services that are ongoing,” she continued, in reference to a site that provides help to anonymous officers who feel they need it.

There is also a resiliency program being developed by the DPD and Dallas Fire/Rescue.

“It’s focused on the stress and all of those things that go in line with being a police officer: the long hours, family issues, all of the things we recognize over the years that law enforcement officers have – the highest rate of divorce, alcoholism, substance abuse, as well as suicide,” she admitted, sharing that what is in place is not enough. “So we recognize that there are challenges within our profession, and we are creating programs.”

A variety of queries by the panel were in regard to how the police deal with the public, from the language they use when approaching someone with mental health or other disabilities, implicit bias training (it has moved from just the academy to now include officers and the commanding ranks), or how residents could best identify their Neighborhood Police Officer Team – calling 311 is one way; calling the Office of Community Affairs at 214-671-4045 is another.

It was also noted during the forum that teens, new drivers and officers will soon be taught what to do during a police traffic stop as part of driver’s education curriculum. Senate Bill 30, authored by Royce West, was passed by state lawmakers in 2017 and is going through the process to become part of Dallas ISD school curriculum.

That revelation, as well as the requirement that mentally ill individuals had to comply with police “as best as they can while they’re in their crisis,” according to Wells, caused some division among the panel.

“But we can’t live in a zero-sum game where it’s comply or die,” Mokuria insisted as she articulated her anger at the 2014 death of Jason Harrison. That situation occurred when Harrison, a mentally ill individual, moved toward officers that were called to the scene, and was shot after refusing to drop a screwdriver when ordered.

In that instance, the officers did not have the chance to assess what Harrison needed in his crisis, so training had to take over, Wells stated. “A citizen will look at it one way: He did not have a weapon. An officer looks at it as a screwdriver will prevent me from going home to see my child.”

The chief tried to calm the building emotional passion.

“We are focusing more on making sure that we are doing what we need to do to properly assess that situation and to make sure that we are backing up, deescalating, so that we’re not running in hands-on and instigating,” she called out as she spoke of a shift in training.

Mokuria and Haynes remained bothered about the concept that citizens had to be educated on how not to be harmed by police. “It’s proven. We’ve seen it on video. You can act right, and stuff still goes wrong,” Haynes pointed out.

“I’m getting to the point where, do we even have these kinds conversations, where we’re talking about how to try to act right around police? We’re the ones getting killed.”

The associate director highlighted that the police were trained professionals and, if they could not deal with what came with the job, should seek other employment.

Wattley, who generally supported the other panelists on the issues, countered these objections. She not only conveyed her anxiety that, as a law professor, she might one day face an angry student carrying a handgun into her office, but also reminded those assembled that as a former prosecutor she was often physically threatened by defendants, although less than what police officers are confronted with.

“I think that, yes, we have an absolute right. These individuals chose to become police officers. We have expectations. I think they have a right to have expectations from us as citizens,” she said. “The police and the citizens, we have got to figure out how to make it safe for all of us.”

Before the close of the event, Thomas mentioned a plan to continue the conversation by having a public safety meeting in May, with the assistance of Mokuria.

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