A deceptively quiet-looking Dallas City Hall. Photo by Kelsey Shoemaker.

Policy

After Botham Jean Shooting, Activists Push for Long-Overdue Reform of Police Oversight Board

The first major protests against police violence since July 2016 express a shared desire for meaningful change.

When the Dallas City Council returns from its lunch break this afternoon, the council chambers promise to be filled with activists and advocates urging the city to address police violence in Dallas in the wake of last week’s killing of Botham Jean.

The rally, the first since a Monday march that ended in police firing pepper balls at protesters, is set to begin at noon in the plaza outside City Hall. It is being organized, in part, by Dominique Alexander of the Next Generation Action Network, as well as several other local organizations that were involved in the many protests against police brutality between 2014 and 2016—before the police shooting during a march on July 7, 2016, all but silenced the groups. The killing of Jean has re-energized the movement, and they are now united around a single policy goal: an overhaul of the Citizen Police Review Board.

That you have probably never heard of the Citizen Police Review Board is a testament to how ineffectual it is. Comprised of Dallas residents appointed by the City Council, it is supposed to provide some measure of oversight of the Dallas Police Department. But lacking all but ceremonial power, it is viewed by citizens and the police as irrelevant.

“Police officers treat it with such open contempt that it is shocking to me,” says Councilman Philip Kingston, who is vice-chair of the Council’s Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee.

The idea of an overhaul of the board is not new. Yafeau Balogun, who is a leader of an activist group called Guerrilla Mainframe, says that conversations around giving the board more teeth began at least in 2011, after Tobias Mackey was shot and killed by a Dallas police officer in an Oak Cliff apartment complex. Since then, community activists have been pushing for a board that has subpoena power, as well as a budget to enable it to actually pursue investigations into police shootings.

“Now we have an opportunity to come back and push for a new civilian review board with subpoena power,” Balogun says. “That’s the ultimate goal at this particular time.”

Dominique Alexander says he would like to see a new Office of Police Civilian Oversight modeled after similar oversight agencies that exist in other cities. He pointed to the recent release of a video showing violent police behavior in Chicago as evidence of the effectiveness of this model.

“The video wasn’t released by the actual city of Chicago. It was released by their police civilian oversight board,” Alexander says. “They had their own investigators. Civilians can have a way to get information about what’s going on and certain things can be rectified.”

There have been efforts to move Dallas toward the kind of police oversight boards that exist in Chicago, as well as cities like Atlanta, Houston, and New York. Members of the Citizen Police Review Board have been working since 2013 on a potential overhaul. Last year, Dallas Police Chief U. Reneé Hall expressed her desire to expand the powers of the board. And earlier this year, Brian Williams, a surgeon and the president of the Citizen Police Review Board, wrote an op-ed in the Dallas Morning News in which he urged the city to take a lead in addressing better relations between the police department and communities in Dallas that feel over-policed.

“We currently rely on a model of police oversight developed during the Great Depression,” Williams wrote. “It is a model Dallas adopted in 1981, decades after it was abandoned by other comparable cities that deemed it ineffective. Improving police oversight and community relations is about partnership, trust and progress.”

The activists may get what they want, though what Dallas’ overhauled police oversight board will look like is not yet clear. Kingston says the board may have plans for proposed reforms ready by the end of the year but cautioned against rushing the process in response to recent events. Alexander says his group has spoken to five council members who have voiced their support for creating an independent board with subpoena power and the ability to conduct independent investigations. Balogun fears that any attempt to reform the board may ultimately end up “watered down.” I also reached out to southern Dallas council members Casey Thomas and Tennell Atkins to hear their thoughts on the reform but did not hear back.

Today, the Council will hear from dozens of protesters who are frustrated by decades of unaddressed police violence. They want to see some tangible action to begin to bridge divides of distrust. It is difficult to argue that the overhaul of the Citizen Review Board is not a good first step. But any overhaul must be meaningful. Without teeth, reform cannot restore trust.

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