A proposal by Dallas police to ask victims of a handful of nonviolent crimes to file reports online rather than have officers come to the calls popped up online and was quickly disavowed over the weekend after drawing complaints, including one from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
A draft memo regarding the recommended but unapproved changes to how the police respond to 911 calls was leaked by an unknown source and subsequently shared to Facebook on Saturday in a handful of posts aiming to stir anger about the proposal. The plan to have 911 center operators ask callers to fill out some crime reports online could improve 911 response times by freeing patrol officers from collecting paperwork.
The memo's surprise release set off a chain reaction inside City Hall that resulted in an email being sent by Dallas Interim Police Chief Lonzo Anderson to City Council later that afternoon acknowledging that the memo had been sent accidentally on Jan. 1 to 911 call center staff.
“That was a premature memo that should not have come out. We are still in evaluation mode. [These policies] are not going to happen starting January 4,” Dallas interim police Chief Lonzo Anderson said in a call with the Dallas Observer just after he let City Council members know the memo had been sent in error.
Accident or not, the memo's appearance over the holiday weekend didn't sit well with Mayor Eric Johnson, who fired off his own memo about City Hall's general decision-making process.
"Far too frequently, this is how things go at City Hall. Someone in the bureaucracy makes a major decision, behind closed doors, that affects your lives. And the decision-makers don't notify or consult with the City Council in an open meeting," wrote Johnson.
The offenses mentioned in the memo include burglary of a motor vehicle, attempted car theft, criminal mischief, reckless damage, graffiti and child custody interference. The proposed changes stemmed from a consulting project conducted by KPMG regarding resource allocation within the department. Exceptions would apply for a number of reasons, including imminent distress, inability to access the online portal and impairment or disability that prevents access.
These recommendations come after years of failure of the Dallas Police Department to keep 911 call times low
Anderson did not say how or why the memo was sent prematurely but he said he would be looking into the source of the leak.
The intent behind the leak of the proposed memo is unclear, but the intent of the original Facebook posts are a bit easier to discern.
“If you’re concerned about crime in Dallas things are about to get a whole lot worse. Waiting to see answers from those who want to do away with petty crime enforcement once it is their car being burglarized,” conservative commentator Christopher Suprun wrote in a post on Facebook sharing the leaked memo to his thousands of followers on the morning of January 2.
Conservative talk show host Mark Davis tweeted that Dallas police “would no longer respond to stolen cars, criminal mischief, reckless damage, runaway kids and child custody offenses, among other offenses.” Davis’ claims were then retweeted by Abbott, who cast the unadopted measure as a move to defund the police.
The memo states an officer would be dispatched if there is ongoing disturbance or distress. If a crime is underway that poses a safety issue, the call would likely fall under an exception. Offenses reported online would still be investigated as much as they ever were.
Far more likely, the memo would redirect the burden of data collection of nonurgent criminal reports to the Dallas Online Reporting System (DORS) that was launched in mid-2019. Since its launch, thousands of nonviolent offenses have been reported online.
The onset of the pandemic further encouraged online reporting. In April, DPD staff urged residents to use the online reporting system, pledging that crimes would be investigated but that the change would reduce risk of spreading the virus.
DPD's communications division has been ravaged by COVID-19 cases and quarantines. At least 37 employees have been affected, leaving the 911 call center seriously understaffed and failing to hit its goal to pick up 90 percent of calls within 10 seconds.
A related problem is the time it takes for officers to respond to a call. For several years, Dallas Police have struggled with hitting their goals for response times, particularly in Southeast Dallas.
“The more online reporting we can do, it leaves room for our operators to deal with active calls and makes officers available for patrol,” City Council member Lee Kleinman said.
An analysis of 911 data across eight cities released by the Center for American Progress and Law Enforcement Action Partnership this October suggested that “a significant portion of police calls for service could be handled by administrative alternatives without sending an armed officer to the scene.”
Such alternatives include online forms, telephone reporting units and diverting calls to other departments that can send community responders to collect information when an official presence is needed. Police departments across the country have adopted such practices to reduce the burden on 911 centers and sworn police officers, allowing them to focus more on urgent and violent crimes.
Though many crimes have been reported online, the police command staff reported they were behind their goal of diverting 11% of calls to the online system in a November 2020 briefing to the public safety committee.
“We can’t continue having sworn officers acting as data collection clerks,” Kleinman said.