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In Ferguson's Wake, Dallas' Law Enforcement Leaders Faced an Angry Crowd Last Night

DA Craig Watkins talks to families of victims of police shootings after his town hall meeting Monday night.
DA Craig Watkins talks to families of victims of police shootings after his town hall meeting Monday night.
Sky Chadde

Zion Hayes, 14, stopped wanting to become a police officer last month. Until then, he had so much enthusiasm that he had his mom, Audrey Hayes, threw him a police-themed birthday party. But a run-in with a real Dallas officer changed Zion's career goals. Following a noise complaint at the house where he lives with his mom and two younger brothers-- Hayes says her sons had friends over who where playing loudly -- Zion says two white officers knocked on the door, and one younger brother let them in.

The officers walked to the back room, where Zion sat. He says he turned away from them, but the female officer tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention. When Zion turned back, he says, "I had a very, very strict face on." But, "I was careful not to ball my fists," because, he says, "if I ball my fists then you feel like I'm threatening you." Zion kept his arms down and his palms open.

"As soon as I stood up," Zion says, "[the male officer] said, 'Oh, you want to ball with me?' and flipped me." Zion was now on the ground, with his mom and brothers watching. The male officer, Hayes says, was about six-two, 180 to 200 pounds. Zion is 5-2, about 120. The room went quiet. Hayes says she felt helpless and believes the officer used excessive force.

The man put Zion in handcuffs and escorted him to the squad car. "They wanted to take me to the juvenile detention center," he says, "when there was no fight." After a car ride to a detention center, Zion says, was released because no charges were filed against him.

Hayes told this story at a town hall meeting with Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, Police Chief David Brown and Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez at downtown's St. Paul United Methodist, the city's oldest black church, last night.

See also: - Tonight in Dallas, Craig Watkins Will Discuss His Plan to Investigate all Police Shootings

"I have three sons, and they're young, African American males," Hayes said, "and I wanted (Watkins and Brown) to be able to hear directly from them what their experience has been like with the police department." One of her younger sons had been flipped and handcuffed on a playground about four years ago, when he was 9.

As the meeting began Monday night, Hayes settled into a pew on the far stage-left side of the small church, her view of the two men, who sat at a table beneath a large wooden cross, partially obscured by a cameraman. The pews were full, with many looking on from the second-floor balcony. The crowd mostly black, with a few white faces sprinkled throughout. There was respectful silence as the pastor said a prayer, then Watkins started things off: "Dallas is a great place," he said. "We're not Missouri."

The three law enforcement officials each gave a short speech, focusing on restoring the public's trust in the very institutions they represent. The crowd applauded when each finished. Then, people lined up to ask the officials questions. Hayes joined them, flanked by her three sons.

The respectful silence turned to loud frustration as the questioners routinely talked past the two-minute time limit, with no question included. Debbie Denmon, Watkins' media relations director, tried to calm the audience each time, invoking the sanctity of the church.

About halfway through the meeting, a man asked, "When are we going to indict an officer (who shot a suspect) to send a message out?"

Watkins, leaning forward with his elbows on the table, spoke into his microphone. "I really do appreciate your passion," he said, "but over the last year we've indicted three police officers for shootings."

The crowd rumbled. They seemed to be questioning when the officers would face justice.

"They're still under investigation," Brown said, sounding exasperated.

The crowd whooped.

"Let me ask you this," the district attorney said. "I think it's a little disingenuous that you would laugh because the job we have to do is very difficult and we have to change the culture that we're dealing with at the DA's office."

The crowd's collective voice began to rise again.

"Can I finish?" Watkins asked. "Can I finish? So, you didn't laugh when we exonerated 33 men since I've been district attorney."

A woman in line to ask a question began speaking into the microphone before her, angry at Watkins' response.

"It doesn't help that you're angry at me," he said. "It doesn't make sense that you come to my house and picket. Are you saying that I'm not doing my job?"

A loud "No" erupted from some in the crowd. The woman at the mic shouted that Watkins hadn't sentenced any cops, and Watkins had to explain that he couldn't bypass the jury system. Assistant DA Heath Harris grabbed the mic and told the woman they would have to escort her out if she didn't calm down. The crowd was quelled, and another person expressed anger over the police "killing our innocent young men."

"I understand the frustration," Watkins said. "And I understand that children have been lost. I really do respect the passion that is in this room, but you are basically attacking the person that's going to make the difference. Can you let me do the job?"

The crowd clapped and cheered.

"Let me do my job."

The night continued in this vein, with new anger arising with every new question and the officials calming the room. The last question was from a 17-year-old black man, who said his trust in the police was rattled after being followed home one day.

"Let me point out the obvious," Watkins answered. "Chief Brown and I are African American males who grew up in Dallas. We've both experienced the same things that you've experienced. We bring those experiences to the positions we're in right now."

When the last question was asked, Hayes was several people back from the microphone. Not having an opportunity to have her boys' stories told, she shouted above the din. But her voice wasn't heard. Instead, Zion took center stage.

"Excuse me!" he shouted, cutting through the noise. "Excuse me!" The church fell to silence. "We didn't come here to stand. We came here to be heard." The crowd clapped. "I want to speak."

Hayes took over, declaring that she be allowed to speak.

Denmon, the DA's spokeswoman, spoke over her. "We are having a separate meeting, ma'am. I know you stood in line, but this will not be the last town hall meeting. I am sorry that everybody did not get to talk. I know there's a lot of pain in this room. Do you think this is easy to sit up here and be accused that they don't care? They do care, otherwise they wouldn't be here."

She handed the pastor the mic, and he settled down the crowd. ADA Harris wondered into the pews to find Hayes. He told her there would be another town hall meeting and he'd ensure she got to speak, Hayes said. He handed over his contact info and promised to pass on that of Watkins and Brown. They're more accessible than people think, she says he told her. As everyone stood and the pastor gave the ending prayer, Harris held Hayes' hand.

Send your story tips to the author, Sky Chadde.


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