District Attorney Craig Watkins' second town hall meeting on police violence following the killing of an unarmed black teenager in Missouri was much more subdued than the first, though the message was much the same: I'm one of you, and I understand where you're coming from, but things have changed.
"When I was growing up, we didn't call the police because we were afraid of them," Watkins told the mostly black group gathered at Friendship West Baptist Church on Thursday. "That's just a reality. But now? You have Chief Brown. You have me. You have Lupe. You can call the police today in 2014 and you'll be treated fairly."
Watkins was referring to Dallas police Chief David Brown and Sheriff Lupe Valdez, who both joined him at the meeting. Brown is Dallas' second black police chief. Valdez is Dallas County's first female and first Latina sheriff.
Although Thursday's meeting was calmer, some audience members were still not buying Watkins' assurances.
"Right about the same time Michael Brown was shot [in Ferguson, Missouri] the Dallas Police Department shot and killed an unarmed black man," claimed a man who said he has been a Dallas lawyer for 40 years. "The next time they shot and killed a Hispanic brother with a screwdriver, alleging that they were in fear for their lives. Within 24 hours, a white boy in North Dallas, shooting at the police, shooting at the fire department, y'all saved the white boy's life. You called in a SWAT team or something. You didn't kill him. You talked him down. My question, Chief, is, how come y'all didn't kill the white boy?"
This received a strong round of applause.
The man said he went to the courthouse nearly every day and didn't see many white people there as defendants. "Do y'all ever arrest white folks? We got more white folks here tonight than we ever see at the courthouse."
Brown replied that the two men Dallas police shot after the Ferguson case were, in fact, white. "But I get your point," he said. "Too many African Americans in the criminal justice system. I get your point."
Several family members, mostly mothers, of those shot by police asked to see available police video or just to sit down with Brown or Watkins one-on-one. Although videos can't be released while cases are still under grand jury review, Watkins and Brown said, they sent employees to get the questioners' contact information
One man asked if Dallas residents would be prosecuted for fighting back against the police.
"I'm sorry. I can't resist. I'm from Oak Cliff. Don't fight the police, bro," Brown said. "Fighting the police is not the best solution. Like DA Watkins said, we're moving quickly toward body cameras. The officers actions will be on camera. But my best advice to you, and really to everyone tonight, don't fight the police. I'm just being straight up."
Watkins said his office would provide $50,000 to police agencies for body cameras. Brown said he hopes to have a thousand body cameras soon.
"In fights, we're fighting for our lives," Brown said. "We can't lose a fight and lose our gun. If we lose a fight and lose our gun, we lose our lives. So even though you don't have a gun when you fight us, there is a gun in play in a fight. If we get incapacitated, our gun is exposed. We've had officers killed when they lose fights and get their guns taken from them."
Pastor Frederick Haynes, in summing up the evening, recognized the long road ahead.
"There is a problem as it relates to black people, brown people and police departments, and that's across the country," he said. "Unfortunately, it appears to be systemic so I recommend that every department, including this one, have racial-sensitivity training because racism is still a part of the fabric of this country. If we don't get that, then we're not getting to the root cause of what's going down. We have a history with police that ain't positive."
Walter Higgins, a spokesman for Dallas Communities Organizing for Change, said after the meeting the time for this kind of dialogue has come, and he hoped the meetings would continue. (Debbie Denmon, Watkins' spokesperson, said there is another one coming.) Higgins also thought that some of the answers provided gave the image that things in Dallas aren't as bad as they are. "It downplays the crisis we're going through here," he said.
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