The Dallas Police Department is promising reform in the wake of a new city audit, which uncovered widespread faults in the department's processes for investigating and addressing misconduct complaints.
Last year, auditors found hundreds of inexplicably missing records in an internal database that tracks misconduct complaints. Internal Affairs Division officials told the auditors that in some instances, police officers had deleted incident records before they could be investigated.
Of the more than 21,000 incidents stored in the database, nearly 250 were missing.
As for how many of those were complaints, "I can't tell you one way or the other," said city auditor Mark Swann. The database also stores other incidents, like uses of force, car chases and firearm discharges.
Only 10% of the database is made up of complaints, but because the entire complaint process is siloed within a single division, "Dallas Police Department cannot ensure all complaints are accounted for," the auditors wrote.
The report highlights the department's lax security systems. Of the nearly 50 people who had access to the system, auditors found that seven no longer worked at the force. DPD revoked their credentials in response to the auditor's findings. Auditors also found that four people not affiliated with Internal Affairs had access to a locked room where departmental records were kept. Three had their access revoked in the wake of the audit.
The report also criticized the department for allowing sergeants wide latitude in deciding whether to investigate, or even document, a complaint. Anonymous or third-party complaints were ignored, a practice that has been criticized by the Department of Justice.
The audit was launched in August 2018, just before the murder of Botham Jean in his home by an off-duty cop reinvigorated a contentious public debate over how to overhaul oversight of the city's cops.
In response, the City Council voted to overhaul the Citizens Police Review Board and create a new office to collect and investigate complaints.
Jesuorobo Enobakhare, chair of the overhauled board, said he was concerned by the report's findings. "Officers were trying to investigate there on the spot, as opposed to taking a complaint," Enobakhare said. "That's extremely troubling because you're in a situation where the complainant could be intimidated."
City officials promised to work with the new Office of Community Police Oversight to make the complaint process simpler and more transparent, which Enobakhare called "a step in the right direction."
"City Management and the Dallas Police Department believe it is crucial for the complaint process to be accessible, transparent, consistent, and ensure officer accountability," wrote City Manager T.C. Broadnax in a memo accompanying the auditor's final report.
He had made improving the "already strong complaint process a priority," he wrote.
At the time of publication, DPD had acknowledged but had not responded to questions about the audit's findings and the department's plan to resolve the issues.
Over the last decade, the number of misconduct complaints received by DPD has dropped from a high of nearly 500 in 2009 to fewer than 244 in 2018.
But DPD hasn't made leaving complaints easy. Last year, the Observer reported that instructions posted on the department's website were incorrect. The DPD website was subsequently fixed, and the Office of Community Police Oversight has since created its own website with detailed instructions on how to file a complaint.
According to the auditor's report, however, there were further issues. Information about the complaint process was not posted at police stations. Furthermore, complaint forms weren't available or staff gave incomplete or incorrect instructions at many of the stations.
In response to the auditor's findings, DPD promised to distribute complaint forms in English and Spanish to all patrol stations and post videos on its website explaining how to fill them out. The city manager also will train 311 operators to refer callers wishing to make a complaint to the appropriate department.
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At the advice of the auditors, DPD will create a 24-hour hotline in conjunction with the Office of Community Police Oversight, which Enobakhare said was a welcome improvement.
"If you can only make a complaint between 8 and 5, that doesn't make sense to me," he said.
Enobakhare said he hopes DPD will follow through on its promises.
"Talk is only so much," he said. "It's actions that count."