What's Changed and What Hasn't in Dallas, One Year After the July 7 Police Ambush
A Dallas officer marked her badge in remembrance of July 7, 2016, at the May 17, 2017, memorial service.
On July 7, 2016, Dallas witnessed the deadliest attack on U.S. law enforcement since 9/11 when a gunman opened fire on police during a protest rally. Five officers died. Police cornered the gunman, entered a failed negotiation and sent in a bomb-disposal robot armed with explosives to kill him.
The eyes of the world focused on the city during the aftermath. Dallas became a talking point for national debates on community policing, race relations and gun control. Mayor Mike Rawlings called Dallas "a laboratory for the United States" on Face the Nation. Protest leaders gave high-profile interviews. Police Chief David Brown lamented how officers were "asked to do too much" by the communities they serve. The line made it to the stage of the vice-presidential debates.
Within a week, the national television crews left. The news cycle moved on to the upcoming Republican National Convention. Officers disassembled and preserved the makeshift public memorial that appeared outside DPD headquarters. Blue ribbons that residents tied on trees and mailboxes faded. And the issues, tensions and challenges facing the Dallas Police Department remained in place. The shooting changed the tenor of some of these debates, but others faced renewed rhetoric and inaction.
Police Station Insecurity
Less than a year before the shooting, James Boulware, angry over a custody dispute, parked an armored van outside of Jack Evans Police Headquarters and opened fire with a semiautomatic rifle. He didn't hit anyone. After chasing Boulware out of the parking lot, police eventually shot and killed him in the parking lot of a Jack in the Box in Hutchins. Leaders of the department’s police associations used the attack to hammer the need for improved security at its facilities.
Those calls only grew louder after July 7, 2016. Yet despite these high-profile incidents, the city still hasn’t funded the improvements cops say they need to secure DPD substations. The city spent $125,000 on a consultant in 2015 to learn what it could do to provide police more security, but has not acted further.
Bullet holes were scattered across the windows and facade of the Dallas Police headquarters after a gunman attacked in June 2015.
In February, things came to a head again after a shooter in a black sports car squeezed off nine shots at DPD’s south central substation. After that shooting, Fred Frazier, the Dallas Police Association’s first vice president, accused Rawlings and the City Council of failing to prioritize police. "They will build a bridge. They will build a park. They will build anything they want to build with their friends' money in their back pockets that builds all that crap, but they won't build anything for these substations," Frazier said. "They're building shit to make money and put it in their own goddamned pockets, but they won't build a fucking thing for police officers."
In April, Adan Salazar attempted to roll through a checkpoint at DPD’s southwest patrol division wearing the Guy Fawkes mask favored by groups affiliated with Anonymous, an international hacktivist group. When two officers guarding the building stopped him, they found two 9mm handguns and dozens of rounds of ammunition in his car. Salazar wanted to shoot up the building, he said, “to show that it could be done.”
Frazier said there’s no doubt that’s true.
"There is no security at these places. You have these officers sitting in marked cars that are just absolute targets," he said. "You might as well just put a big-ass bullseye on that squad car or that substation and say, 'Come by and light us up.'"
The next month, at Dallas’ annual memorial for officers killed in the line of duty, Ron Pinkston, DPA’s combative, longtime former president, said the city’s continued inability to beef up security at DPD facilities was one of the biggest vulnerabilities for the officers.
"These officers here, they are going to go out later, and they're going to continue to serve," Pinkston said. "We have more officers out on the street covering shifts, so we need more security at the stations. Fire departments have fences around their stations. That's all officers are asking for — security when they walk out at the end of the night."
During an interview with the Observer in June, Rawlings said there has to be a balance between security and accessibility. “This is a dangerous job. We can’t do stupid things, but we can’t spend money to build a place that is going to be impenetrable,” Rawlings said.
On the force, the feeling of being hunted persists.
"I reject the notion that there is a war on police, but many officers don’t," said Maj. Max Geron in an essay he wrote for the Observer. "Officer deaths have been on a downtrend over the last decade. However, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, officer deaths due to gunfire are up 21 percent in 2017, and line-of-duty deaths overall are up 27 percent this year."
A police car became a memorial site in front of Dallas police headquarters in July 2016.
Attention from Politicians
In the wake of the ambush, politicians in Dallas and around the state raced to make sure they were seen sticking up for Dallas’ police. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, despite suffering serious burns on his legs earlier in the week, hosted a joint press conference with Rawlings on July 8. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick went on Fox News, calling protesters “hypocrites” for expecting police to protect them from the sniper’s bullets and blaming Black Lives Matter for inciting the shooting.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas took more concrete steps, filing a bill that would’ve made killing a police officer a federal capital crime with a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years in prison. Cornyn’s bill, the Back the Blue Act, also would’ve allowed law enforcement officers to carry their guns in federal facilities and would have limited the potential recovery of civil damages by someone injured while committing a felony.
Cornyn’s bill didn’t make it out of committee, but several measures with more bipartisan support passed in the Texas House this year. The Legislature approved $25 million in funding to outfit every patrol officer in the state with a ballistic vest capable of stopping a high-powered rifle round, made killing a police officer a potential hate crime and passed a bill exempting spouses of first responders killed in the line of duty from property taxes. The last measure, pushed through by state Sen. Don Huffines of Dallas, will require a change to the Texas Constitution to go into effect.
Advocates for police accountability gained a few small victories as well. Texas residents with unpaid tickets or fines are no longer subject to jail time, and a bill by state Rep. Eric Johnson of Dallas establishes civil penalties for police departments that fail to properly document and share information about shootings by police officers.
Uneasy Allies of Protest
The past year has not been easy on the protest movement against police shootings in Dallas.
It’s been a year since the Reverend Jeff Hood briefly became a national figure, and target, after last year's shootings. As one of the organizers of the Black Lives Matters protest that day, the 33-year-old former Southern Baptist preacher ended his sermon by saying, “Goddamn white America!”
After enjoying a spate of publicity, Hood spent the last year mostly out of the spotlight. He says he was finishing up the terms of his probation that he received in March 2016 for crossing the yellow caution tape outside a state prison in Huntsville. He also wrote The Violence of Being, a collection of essays about his 2016 experience.
Dominique Alexander is the founder of Next Generation Action Network.
The same can be said for Dominique Alexander, founder of Next Generation Action Network, which helped draw more than 1,000 people to the march before the shooting. Alexander canceled a protest scheduled to coincide with the July 12 memorial for the officers because, as he said at the time, “everyone deserves the opportunity to mourn.” He canceled another march, scheduled for July 21, so Dallas police could travel to officer Lorne Ahrens' funeral.
By the time Next Generation Action Network finally convened for another demonstration Aug. 1, the wind seemed to have left its sails. That night, with about 75 members of the media on the ground at Main Street Garden Park, Alexander and company drew between 100 and 200 people to an uneventful demonstration.
On Aug. 10, Dallas police gave Alexander a criminal trespass warning and arrested him for $5,400 in unpaid traffic fines at Dallas City Hall. At a previously scheduled protest that evening, Alexander’s attorney Kim Cole told a crowd of fewer than two dozen people that the arrest was politically motivated.
Alexander, who was on probation for causing serious bodily injury to a child, was ordered to finish his sentence at a state prison. A judge backdated his sentence to begin the day he began serving probation, and he was released Sept. 23.
Since Alexander’s release his group has struggled to regain traction, besides a brief uptick in activity after the election of Donald Trump. The parents of Jordan Edwards, the unarmed teenager shot by Balch Springs police officer Roy Oliver as he was leaving a party in late April, asked Alexander to cancel a protest for their son. Edwards' family participated in a march and rally for their son coordinated by Mothers Against Police Brutality, not Next Generation Action Network, and Alexander was conspicuously absent from the press release.
Hood and Alexander suffered a falling out after the shootings, largely because of differences in the way they wanted to handle the intense media attention.
“I think he’s a good leader and doing good work,” Hood says of Alexander, “and if he can keep his shit together… .”
It took the shooting of Edwards, a black teenager, by a white officer to bring Hood and Alexander back together in front of the rally line. They hosted a meeting with the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office about its plans for Oliver, who'd been a Balch Springs police officer for six years when he shot and killed the 15-year-old Mesquite high school freshman. The pair have also jointly announced a rally to be held on July 6.
Hood says too much blame has been laid on anti-police protests for the violence aimed at police in Dallas and elsewhere.
“Anyone who damns the protestors that night doesn’t understand justice at all, and if they do it from a religious perspective, they don’t understand God at all,” Hood says. “They are marching for justice. They are marching for love. As time has gone on, I have been more and more convinced of that, and the only way to honor the sacrifice of these officers who were protecting justice and love is to keep on doing it.”
Brown's New Job
On Thursday, Sept. 6, Brown did something he almost never did during his six years as Dallas’ top cop: He showed up to work in a suit.
Throughout his time at the head of the department, Brown portrayed himself as a normal officer, sticking to the uniform he wore throughout his 33 years with DPD. His press conference that September morning, though, was about transition. Brown announced that he was quitting the department. The suit was a hint at what was to come.
Two months earlier, he’d been Dallas’ face as the city navigated the aftermath of the July 7 ambush. The night of the shooting, he ordered Micah Johnson killed with a DPD robot after Johnson killed four of his officers. (Johnson also killed a DART police officer.) In the days that followed, Brown called for those who’d protested before shots rang out to sign up to work for DPD and charmed the crowd at the official memorial service for the fallen officers at the Meyerson Symphony Center.
After months of criticism from Dallas’ police associations and City Council members before the shootings, Brown suddenly seemed like he could be chief for life. Brown wasn’t interested. Instead, as he made clear in September, he was going to go out on his own terms.
During his last press conference as head of DPD, Brown reinforced the narrative that sprung up around him during his time with the department. He wasn’t quitting because of the shooting, he said. He’d just come to the end of the line of decades of community policing.
Brown painted himself as a pioneer of community policing, a voice from law enforcement capable of speaking to both Blue Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter.
"The evidence is pretty clear that enforcement only and arresting your way out of crime has not worked in this country. Incarcerating a lot of people has not worked in this country as far as keeping us safer," Brown said. "Community policing has made us a lot safer. Presenting yourself as an occupying force [doesn't work]."
While Brown revealed nothing about his plans during the press conference, repeatedly telling reporters that it was “between me and my baby,” it was clear as he left the stage to the strains of Stevie Wonder’s “As” that he wasn’t leaving the bigger stage. Brown was seizing an opportunity, not riding off into the sunset.
On Oct. 5, Brown’s last day as chief, he got a shoutout during the vice-presidential debate between U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine and then-Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. The moderator, Elaine Quijano, quoted Brown saying that officers in the United States are being asked to do too much. Kaine and Pence both agreed, stressing the need for community policing and reinforcing Brown’s position as someone who should be listened to when it comes to policing in the United States.
In November, two weeks after Trump's election, ABC News hired Brown as a commentator on race and police in America. Soon after, Brown confirmed a deal with Ballantine Books for a memoir. During the run-up to the book release, Brown made commencement speeches at SMU and the University of Texas, his alma mater.
He also dipped his toe into the Dallas City Council election, endorsing District 14 candidate Matt Wood with a billboard on U.S. Highway 75. Wood’s opponent, incumbent Philip Kingston, frequently clashed with Brown over the chief’s opposition to cite-and-release policies for marijuana possession offenses. In opposing Kingston, Brown aligned himself with Mike Rawlings and the city’s old guard, but Kingston thumped Wood in May.
Brown and his ghostwriter quickly produced Brown’s book, Called to Rise, which hit store shelves during the first week of June. For the first time since the shooting, Brown placed himself fully in the public eye.
The chief took to his new role with gusto, making the New York media rounds to promote the book. He talked about his Christian faith and the futility of protest on Fox News, explained why some cops shouldn’t be cops on The View and, during an event put on by Random House, said that he would kill Johnson with that robot again.
Called to Rise sits at No. 8,532 on Amazon’s best-seller list, and it is the sixth-best-selling law enforcement memoir. With the memoir behind him, Brown continues in his role at ABC. He’s also picked up a job as managing director of investigations and disputes practice at Kroll, a large security consulting firm based in New York City.
A deputy's badge at the May 17, 2017, police memorial service
Finding and Keeping Cops
DPD is expected to hire only 200 officers this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, but there are more than 400 vacancies on the force. According to DPD’s projections, hiring will remain underwater for at least another year; in the next fiscal year, only 250 officers are expected to be hired, and 300 are expected to leave the department. Those projections show DPD next reaching full staffing levels in the 2029-30 fiscal year.
For a long time, Dallas’ pension package for police was one of the department’s biggest selling points. The department’s salaries, despite incremental raises approved last fall that will add up to 15 percent increases for new officers and 10 percent increases for veterans, are not competitive with other departments in North Texas. In years past, DPD recruiters could point to the chance to police a big city and the pension as reasons for new officers to come to Dallas. Now, that incentive is diminished.
As spring turned into summer in 2016, the crisis surrounding the Dallas Police and Fire Pension System went from a simmer to a boil. Years of mismanagement by previous boards and directors left the fund billions in the hole.
In Austin, state Rep. Dan Flynn, chairman of the Texas House Pensions Committee, filed a bill to fill the hole in the pension fund. It changed the composition of the fund's board, increased contributions from both the city of Dallas and members of the fund, and reduced benefits for police and firefighters.
Dallas’ current police officers and firefighters are paying for the lion’s share of the solution. Members of the fund accrue fewer benefits at a slower rate while contributing greater portions of each paycheck to the fund.
One Dallas cop — a more than nine-year veteran who wishes to remain anonymous because he's still on the force — is quitting this year because of changes made to the department’s early retirement rules. If he wants to start collecting his pension when he’s 45, he has to get out of the department before the new pension law takes effect Sept. 1.
According to Dallas Police projections made public by Dallas City Council member Scott Griggs earlier this year, DPD hiring isn't expected to return the department to its budgeted staffing level until the 2029-2030 fiscal year.
Data: Courtesy Dallas City Council member Scott Griggs
“I’ve got to leave before Sept. 1 because I can’t give up $100,000 and the chance to start drawing money when I’m young instead of when I’m an old asshole,” he says. For cops who haven’t already turned 45 by Sept. 1, the early retirement age will shift to 53.
He says he's not alone. The new pension law has placed an enormous stress on those in the middle — cops who’re still young enough to be effective on Dallas streets but have enough years under their belts to be affected by the changes to their benefits and contribution amounts.
“I was talking to a guy from central [patrol], and he asked me, ‘You still leaving in August?’ and I said, ‘yeah,’" the officer says. “He says, ‘I’m leaving, too, because of the pension.’ For the people that are over 55, they can hang on a few more years, but people in their mid-40s went, ‘Holy shit dude, really? I’ve been here 20 years, and you want me to spend 13 more years getting beat up and ragged out? I’ll take my money and go.’”
The department’s struggle to hire new officers compounds its attrition issues. DPD is expected to lose about 360 officers by the end of the fiscal year, almost double the fruits of its recruiting efforts.
"Every day that I get another retirement or resignation, it bothers me. We're at a point now where we really need to be concerned about the [staffing] levels," David Pughes, Dallas' interim police chief, said in April. "We're doing all we can to recruit, and I'm doing all I can to encourage the officers we have to stay with us."
The burden for solving the attrition riddle will fall on the next police chief, whom Dallas City Manager T.C. Broadnax is expected to hire later this summer. Brown’s plan to bring in protesters to work for DPD, glib as it may have been, won’t work, according to Nick Novello, a veteran Dallas officer.
“When Chief Brown said, ‘Come off the picket lines, and I’ll give you a job,’ he knew he couldn’t give them a job,” Novello told the Observer this spring. “These guys are largely criminalized. If you want to do something for the black community, stop criminalizing their kids for a joint.”
With reporting by Christian McPhate
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