That same year, around 340 miles north of Los Angeles, Edgardo “Eddie” Garcia took his oath as an officer at the San Jose Police Department. Throughout the next three decades, Garcia would climb the ranks until he eventually became police chief.
Last year, he left San Jose, packed his bags and relocated to Dallas, where he has taken over the police department after former Chief U. Reneé Hall’s departure.
Sitting on the light brown leather couch in his office, Garcia recalled the 1992 riots with a degree of sympathy. “If you look at it,” he said, “the riots were obviously a big issue, but it was the tip of the iceberg of a community that had felt disenfranchised for years.”
Now at the helm of the Dallas PD, Garcia often rides along with patrol officers, visiting neighborhoods and businesses in underserved parts of the city. He says people sometimes tell him, “Chief, don’t forget us out here.”
Those words “invigorate” him, he said, and they should do the same for his command staff. “It should invigorate our officers to know to separate what we’ve been hearing in these last years from what the reality is in our neighborhoods. Two things can be true.
“As a profession in American law enforcement, we need to be better. There’s no question about it, but our communities still want us and need us. Both of those things can be true, and I’ve found that they are true.”
With some three decades of police work under his belt, Garcia has been Dallas’ top cop for about four months now. Throughout his career, he said, tactics have changed, but the main goal has stayed the same: keep communities and officers safe.
Garcia’s story began in Puerto Rico. As a boy, he moved to San Jose and learned to speak English. He eventually earned a bachelor’s degree from Union Institute and University.
After he became a San Jose police officer in 1992, he worked in patrol, narcotics, special operations and the department’s mobile emergency response group and equipment (M.E.R.G.E) unit. Garcia was also a patrol sergeant, detective and homicide investigator, and he commanded the community services division and the special investigations unit.
During his time with the San Jose department, he led initiatives to foster better community relations, increase transparency and conduct fair, impartial and constitutional policing. His department implemented basic Spanish in the police academy. They also launched a Spanish-language Facebook page and increased minority recruiting under his watch.
But joining Dallas PD in February, he inherited some baggage. Homicides keep piling up in the city. Violent crime is up by some measures, response times need improvement and morale is down at the department. Relationships between communities, particularly those of color, and police continue to sour. The way he sees it, part of his job as the chief in Dallas, and as a member of law enforcement in general, is mending that relationship. To do so, cops first need to recognize the role they played in tarnishing it, he said.
Despite the bad blood, he said the words “chief don’t forget us” will always ring true. “I have yet to meet a true neighborhood of residents, regardless of race, economic status or language spoken, that has asked for less policing in their neighborhoods,” he said. “They want fair policing, but I have not once been asked for less. I think that’s a testament to the work that the men and women do here.”
A little more than a year ago, protests erupted after a Minneapolis police officer murdered a Black man named George Floyd and then rippled across the country. Demonstrators were injured, and internal investigations into alleged incidents of excessive force remain open. While Dallas City Council grilled Hall over the department’s response to demonstrations here, Garcia received similar treatment in San Jose.
Here in Dallas, when a report documenting the police response to the protests came out, Dallas City Council member Adam McGough said it showed a failure of leadership. The report seemed to indicate a general disregard of the department's leaders and their decision-making, council member Chad West said, describing what took place in DPD's command structure as a mutiny.
In San Jose at the time, Garcia admitted mistakes were made but defended his department’s tactics to city officials. “What happened in San Jose, I hadn’t seen in the 30 years that I’d been there,” Garcia said. “Were we perfect? We absolutely were not perfect. … There’s not a chief in America that had to deal with that that couldn’t say there weren’t different things they could have done differently, but those are the things you learn from moving forward.”
Garcia's retirement following the protests was welcomed by some activists in the community. According to the San Jose Spotlight, the Rev. Jeff Moore, president of the San Jose/Silicon Valley NAACP, called for Garcia's resignation at a rally to reimagine public safety. “The way these officers were acting for the last year or so showed they no longer respected him,” Moore said. “Eddie Garcia was a good man, a good person, but the troops were not respecting him, and it’s a good time for him to step aside and for this community to search for a new leader — a strong leader — who is going to come in there and put a good structure in place.”
Hall’s and Garcia’s respective departments deployed tear gas on protesters during the summer demonstrations. In Dallas, several days of protests hit a fever pitch when police forces kettled demonstrators on the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge. Tear gas filled the air. People screamed. Rubber batons were fired at protesters until they were boxed in. Police detained hundreds of demonstrators, but they were later released without any charges.
Still, Garcia won’t rule out the possibility of using tear gas in Dallas in a similar situation. “You can’t say never, and you can’t say always,” he said. “Each situation calls for a different type of tactic. The irony is the use of a chemical agent is probably the least amount of physical force you’d have to use. Although, it doesn’t look good in American cities to use that, and I understand that … so you have to be judicious when you use it.”
Deciding whether to use a chemical agent or send in baton-wielding officers, Garcia said, isn’t an easy task.
According to Forbes, studies show that high concentrations of tear gas can kill lung tissue causing pulmonary edema (dangerous buildup of fluid in lungs with bleeding) and apnea (breathing stops), which can be fatal. It can also trigger asthma, causing hospitalization or even death.
Garcia said the department has gone through training, and he’s met with his command staff to discuss what they would do differently in the event of protests like the ones seen in the aftermath of Floyd's killing. When it comes to those protests, however, he said he thinks there’s some blame to go around.
“One thing also that I’ll tell you that gets lost is I really wish the protests were peaceful,” he said. “I really wish they were.”
He said demonstrators threw rocks at officers and shot fireworks their way. “There was an ugly side,” he said. “I’m not saying we were perfect. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying there’s a lot of peaceful protesters across this country that probably could have been dealt with in a different fashion."
"One thing also that I’ll tell you that gets lost is I really wish the protests were peaceful." - Eddie Garcia, DPD chief
Garcia then repeated a line many officers say: “No one hates a bad cop more than a good cop.” What happened to Floyd appalled good cops, he said. “So, when the crowds started marching, I know in San Jose and I imagine here, we were with them. We understood the frustration. We understood that that took us back.”
No doubt, police have a variety of tactics to prevent some of the abuses during those protests. But Garcia said another big part of keeping everyone safe during these marches is dialogue. “I had community conversations before the verdict recently,” he said. “No one was placing blame, but we didn’t want to have what happened last year again. We wanted to try to mitigate that as best as possible, so having that communication is important.”
The district attorney is still looking for some of the bad apples on the force who may have injured protesters last summer. Garcia wants to keep them from ever entering his department in the first place. “We have to strengthen our hiring practices. We really have to strengthen how we’re plucking them from the tree so to speak,” he said. “We need to find better ways to root out racism at those beginning stages. I’ve often said, ‘We can have all the policies in the world about force, but if you don’t have a good heart, it doesn’t matter the policies we have. It doesn’t matter.”
In the meantime, he wants the good apples to turn on the bad apples because “they’re tarnishing our badge.” He said this happens in Dallas, but because of policies regarding internal affairs investigations, people often don’t hear about it until the officer is placed on leave, fired or arrested.
On a recent patrol, he visited a neighborhood in South Dallas where he saw a dozen street lights out on one block. It just didn’t sit right with him, he recalled. “There are areas in the city that those street lights would not have been out for more than two minutes before they got replaced,” he said. “No. 1, I felt bad they were out for as long as they were. And then No. 2, that people thought it was OK to live like that. That’s the part that got me, and we need to change those perceptions.”
The issues didn’t get here overnight and they won’t go away overnight. “Having said that, there are people dying and being victimized today that we need to do something about,” he said.
Jesuorobo Enobakhare Jr., chair of the community police oversight board, interviewed Garcia when he was up for the job. Since Garcia joined the force, Enobakhare has met with him several times. In these meetings, they’d often discuss the ramifications of arrests for less than 2 ounces of weed and other low-level offenses. At Garcia’s direction, the department has since changed its policy on low-level marijuana possession arrests. Now, if officers don’t see evidence of intent to distribute, it won’t result in an arrest.
“The chief has an understanding of the history of policing and oppression and injustice included in that history when it comes to people of color, primarily African Americans,” Enobakhare Jr. said. “He agrees with the importance of changing the perception of policing to improve the relationship between civilians and police in communities of color. I believe him to be sincere in this.”
In one of their meetings, Enobakhare Jr. showed Garcia a video that was going around of an officer being rude to someone they pulled over for making a wide turn. “To my surprise, the chief had seen the video and had already taken action,” Enobakhare Jr. said.
Others are more skeptical. Shenita Cleveland, a community leader and activist, is still on the fence when it comes to Garcia and his plans for the city.
The chief recently rolled out his violent crime plan for Dallas, which focuses deterring violent people and improving communities. The plan zeroes in so-called "hot spot" areas across South Dallas, and Cleveland fears that it "can easily afflict Black communities and turn into aggressive police tactics against anyone living in the grid."
Mike Mata, president of the Dallas Police Association, said he thinks Garcia is doing a much better job than his predecessor. For one, Garcia already has a plan. Mata says it took nearly a year and a half for former Chief Hall's crime plan to be unveiled. Mata also feels that Garcia is more receptive to ideas from his command staff.
"When people who are sitting around the table where decisions are made have an active role in helping to create those solutions, I think you have a more proactive and productive leadership group, and that trickles down to the rank-and-file," Mata said.
“I’m sure there’s going to be situations in the future that maybe we don’t see eye to eye on and don’t agree on," he added, "but there is no doubt in my mind that the officers here are ethical and motivated. We just have to keep them that way.”
The city often tasks the police chief with lowering crime and rates by whatever metric they want. When the chief inevitably doesn’t meet that bar, the council scolds them. But Garcia insisted he won't define his success in Dallas based on percentage points.
Since the pandemic hit early last year, one headline after another has sounded the alarm on rising crime around the country. But Garcia said crime was already on the uptick before COVID-19 shut down cities nationwide. Whether he can tamp down on crime will be his ultimate test in Dallas.
Asked how he will do that, he said success means reversing that trend and having fewer victims. He said, “What I tell my rank-and-file is, ‘We’ve got to win the day. If you win the day on less victims, you’ll win the week. If you win the weeks, you’ll win the months, and if you win the months, we’ll start seeing change in this city.”