On Thursday, a Dallas community organization will file a formal complaint with the Department of Justice against Dallas and its police department for fostering what the group sees as an environment in which police officers can kill blacks and Hispanics without fear of consequences. The complaint is the product of months of work from members of Dallas Communities Organizing for Change and its lawyer, Shayan Elahi.
"I started working on this around March," Elahi wrote in an email, "and it took shape over summer." Before starting work on the complaint, the group had filed open-records requests with the Dallas Police Department and received information on all police shootings since 2002. Based on that information, the group wrote a report showing that minorities are much more likely to be victims of police shootings here, which mirrors a national trend. Elahi said the group waited until now to file because members had hoped the City Council would meet and discuss their report and possible solutions. However, Elahi wrote, "except for Councilman Adam Medrano, no one else agreed to meet with us. So the best course was to go directly to DOJ."
"There is a real and imminent necessity that the Department of Justice investigate the systematic police violence and misconduct that continues to plague the African American and Hispanic communities in Dallas," reads a draft of the complaint. "Without an investigation, the safety, well-being, and welfare of these communities will continue to be put in jeopardy."
Between 2002 and mid-2013, there were 185 incidents in which a Dallas police officer fired a gun, according to the complaint. This resulted in 58 people who were killed, including 36 who were unarmed. Of the 58, 33 were black and 10 were Hispanic.
"The City of Dallas and DPD refuse to acknowledge that a pattern exists, regardless of the data presented or the years-long ongoing outcry from the community," the complaint reads.
In September, the National Bar Association, an organization of black lawyers and judges, requested information on police shootings from the department in Dallas, as well as other city departments that have a history of police abuse. It, too, wants the DOJ to step in.
Once the complaint is filed, the DOJ will send Elahi and the DCOC a letter or email acknowledging it, the lawyer wrote in an email. "How long they take to review, investigate or act upon a complaint is discretionary and on [a] case by case basis," he said. "We are encouraged by the appointment of Vanita Gupta to head the DOJ Civil Rights [Division]," the wing of the department that would handle the complaint because it's against a law enforcement body.
Gupta is known for her role in the Tulia scandal in 2000. As was first reported in the Texas Observer, a rogue undercover cop falsely accused 35 members of the 5,000-person town's black community of dealing crack cocaine. Gupta was part of the group of lawyers, working pro bono, who exonerated them. Until she was picked to run the DOJ's Civil Rights Division, she was the deputy legal director of the ACLU. Elahi believes she'll take the group's complaint "more seriously."
DCOC wants the DOJ to "withhold federal funding from the City of Dallas Police Department until a written agreement is in place," reads the complaint. Part of that agreement, the group hopes, would include training on how to deal respectfully with minority communities, which Chief David Brown has said he's working on; training on how to deal with people who have disabilities to avoid incidents such as Jason Harrison's shooting; and getting rid of the policy that allows officers to wait three days before giving a statement after firing their weapons. Studies have shown waiting impairs a person's ability to recall events accurately.
The group also wants DPD to put on its website statistics on police shootings, including what type of force was used and the person's race, age and location. Chief Brown has said a site devoted to police shootings is coming soon.
Since its inception six years ago, DCOC has worked to bring attention to police brutality in Dallas. The group organized a protest at District Attorney Craig Watkins' house, and members were present during the recent march downtown to protest police brutality. DCOC member Stephen Benavides was in Washington on Tuesday to deliver copies of the complaint to Dallas representatives Marc Veasey and Eddie Bernice Johnson before Thursday's filing.
It also lent a copy of its report to another group of activists. The Huey P. Newton Gun Club, a gun-rights group that has walked through the city with rifles slung over their shoulders, delivered a copy to North Texas' U.S. attorney in October.
Another reason for filing now, Elahi said, was because police shootings have been in the news a lot this year, locally and nationwide. Dallas officers fired at and usually killed suspects during a string of such incidents over the summer, and, of course, the killing of Michael Brown, the teenager in Ferguson, Missouri who was unarmed when shot by a police officer, received much attention.
Watkins and Brown hosted town hall meetings after the incident that were meant to allay the black community's concerns -- "We're not Missouri," Watkins said at the first one.
But the meetings mainly served as an opportunity for community members and family of police victims to vent their frustration. A man in the audience of the second meeting asked Watkins and Brown, "Do y'all ever arrest white folks?" Watkins promised more meetings but hasn't followed through yet, and it's even more unlikely the community will have an opportunity to speak its mind now that he won't be in office come January.
Walter Higgins, a DCOC member, attended both town hall meetings and came away with mixed feelings. He thought Watkins' and Brown's attempts at a dialogue with the community was good, but he also thought the language they used downplayed the "crisis" in Dallas. He's hoping the complaint might change that.
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