City Hall

Over the Weekend, a Tense, Angry, Cabaret-Referencing Forum on Violence in South Dallas

The shooting death in late July of felon and suspected drug dealer James Harper by Officer Brian Rowden during a foot chase at a South Dallas drug house has re-opened some barely closed wounds, touching off a painful debate about crime, enforcement, and police presence in low-income black and Latino neighborhoods.

That much was evident at a community forum on violence at St. Luke's Community United Methodist Church this Saturday, where a panel that included Police Chief David Brown essentially called for more neighborhood cooperation with police. But several members of the audience, including some of Harper's relatives, accused police of discrimination and unnecessary force.

"Why did you shoot and kill my brother?" one of Harper's sisters shouted at Brown from the back of the room during one particularly tense moment. "That's what I want to know." A police officer approached and spoke to her in a low voice. She left through a back door, seemingly in tears.

The event was organized by state Representative Eric Johnson, with opening remarks delivered by Mayor Mike Rawlings. The mayor for the most part spoke generally, never mentioning Harper by name. He said that although he's proud of what he said is a 9-year steady decrease in crime, "We're talking about the death of a man today. When someone dies, there's heartbreak, and a feeling that we've all failed. It doesn't matter if he was shot in the front, side or back, they died."

Rawlings said he understood that police shootings can trigger a lack of trust in the police. "The police were an arm of terrible racism in this country. In the '60s, I didn't trust the police, and I was white." But, he said, "I've gotten over the fact that I got pulled over for speeding and they were rude to me. ... As mayor, I'm starting to trust individuals in the police department." A bit later, he added, "I know Chief Brown. I trust this man."

The mayor also referenced his Grow South initiative, which has promised to help better the economy in the southern part of the city. He said he understood that young men sometimes deal drugs due to a lack of other opportunities. "As that song in Cabaret says, money makes the world go round."

Besides Chief Brown, the other panelists included a South Dallas business owner, James Mitchell, the president of the Dolphin Heights neighborhood association, Anna Hill, and Beautiful Dillard, a high school student. All of them called for residents to get more involved with neighborhood crime watch groups and work more closely with the police to build trust and reduce crime.

But audience members didn't necessarily agree. "I'm sorry Mr. Harper's dead," Hill said at one point. "But you have to look at what Mr. Harper was doing." That touched off angry muttering in the crowd, with one woman shouting, "What justifies a shooting?"

Things got tense again minutes later, when Brown said the police had seized $400,000 in cash from Dixon Circle drug-dealing operations, the neighborhood where Harper was killed, over the last 10 years. Brown said that was probably "one percent" of all the drug money in the area.

"Speculation!" someone cried angrily, to loud agreement from the crowd.

Tabitha Harper, a first cousin of James Harper's mother, told Representative Johnson that the panel "doesn't represent the neighborhood." She said she's a business owner in the area who has five felony convictions and has directly experienced police harassment many times.

"We're not asked for a license and insurance when we're pulled over," she said. "It's just, 'Get out of the vehicle.'" She said over the years, the demographics of the police seem to have shifted toward an increasing number of younger white officers who she said were too confrontational with residents.

"When we see the police, all we know is harassment," another woman told Brown. "It's not a healthy relationship." Brown promised that he would take disciplinary action if the women would speak with him privately and offer specific information about bullying officers.

Someone asked Brown if he believed there was a "racial component" in the officer-involved shootings that have taken place.

"I don't believe so," he said. In response, two activists unrolled a large sheet of paper displaying the names of 144 people who have been shot by police over the past decade, which they obtained from the police department through an open records request. The document shows that of that number, about 100 are classified as "deadly force" incidents. More than 90 percent of those 100 people killed are listed as black or Latino.

As the panel sputtered to a close, interrupted every few minutes with angry protests from the crowd, another woman who said she was a relative of Harper's got up to speak.

"He wasn't a bad person," she told Brown. She said Keenan Johnson, who made the bogus 911 call that led officers to the drug house, had long been a friend of Harper's, before a recent argument. "They was all friends. Y'all need to see what goes on in the [police department's] Southeast Division. Those are the bad ones." Brown promised again to hold officers accountable.

"Can you please talk to us?" the woman replied. "It's James Harper's family who needs it."

"I'll agree to meet with any of your family members," Brown said.

A few minutes later, with the room was still fractured by angry conversations and many people already streaming out the door, Reverend Gerald Britt got up to deliver the closing prayer.

"Heavenly Father," he began. "We've got a lot of work to do."

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Anna Merlan
Contact: Anna Merlan