This morning, the Dallas City Council voted to approve the budget for the next fiscal year. It was an action that, outside of a few wonky details surrounding housing, civil service benefits, and arcane state rules about what exactly constitutes a tax increase, shouldn’t draw much outside interest. But it was the inclusion of a pay increase for Dallas police officers, as well as the executive staff of the Dallas Police Department, that promised another round anti-police brutality protests like the one that shut down last week’s council meeting.
Yesterday evening, word began to appear on social media that some kind of action or protest was being planned for today’s meeting. Last night, the mayor chose to change the agenda, moving what was supposed to be an afternoon budget discussion to the morning, before the much-anticipated briefing on the Fair Park privatization plan. As park board members and community advocates streamed in this morning to talk about Fair Park, they were confused to find not only heightened police presence at City Hall, but a council that was hashing out the minutia of budgetary concerns. Council is still in session and so the mayor couldn’t be reached to explain the rationale for changing the timing of the agenda.
His spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to an inquiry. (UPDATE: According to the mayor’s spokesperson, the mayor changed the agenda in order to get the action items out of the way before what is expected to be a long Fair Park discussion)
At issue wasn’t so much the police pay increase in general, but its timing. Protesters questioned whether it was appropriate to give Dallas Police Chief Reneé Hall a pay raise while there are still loads of questions about the handling of the recent killing of Botham Jean by an off-duty Dallas police officer who either mistakenly entered or broke into Jean’s apartment before shooting him. There is also the question of whether an across the board pay raise would mean that Amber Guyger, the officer who killed Jean and is now on paid administrative leave, would effectively be receiving a pay raise. Protesters have called for Guyger to be immediately fired.
Stephen Benavides, a leader of the group Dallas Communities Organizing for Change, said he caught wind of the council’s schedule change late last night, and so he was able to attend the budget vote this morning. But many of the members of his organization as well as other community advocates, he said, were unable to adjust their schedules to attend the morning meeting.
Dominique Alexander, whose Next Generation Action Network has been behind many of the recent protests, also attended this morning’s briefing. I caught him in the City Hall elevator on his way to Arlington, where he hoped to greet the release of the nine protesters that were arrested at this past Sunday’s funeral procession protest at AT&T Stadium. Alexander said that the change in the briefing agenda is symptomatic of the kind of administrative games that deepen distrust in local leadership for community members who feel like their ability to have their voices heard is unfairly limited.
City Hall appeared ready for a protest. Outside on the plaza, there were between 10 and 12 off-duty police officer vehicles. Off-duty officers appeared to be floating around the briefing room and the Flag Room, which was broadcasting the meeting for the overflow crowd. Earlier in the morning, a police paddy wagon was also at City Hall. But there would be no civil disobedience and no arrests. Council approved the pay raises for the officers, with the loudest descent coming from Lee Kleinman, who has long tangled with the Dallas Police Association.
Frustration Over Investigation, Chief Hall
At a downtown Dallas luncheon last Friday, Mayor Mike Rawlings attempted to express a balanced position in the wake of increasing anger and protests, one that empathized with the anger around the killing of Botham Jean while shoring up his support of the Dallas Police Department. To the anonymous officers who leaked information about the investigation to the media, Rawlings said, bluntly, “shame on you.” But the mayor also chastised those who have criticized Chief Reneé Hall’s handling of the investigation, somewhat obtusely associating criticism of the chief with her race and the fact that she is the city’s first female African-American chief.
“She has courageously made the right decisions and we should all stand with her,” the mayor said. “Whether it’s smearing the ethical credibility of black elected officials that happened in our city horseshoe a couple of weeks ago or by attacking our first African-American female chief or dishonoring the life of Bo, it seems to be an insidious habit by some of being overly critical of black individuals with notoriety.”
Critics of Chief Hall have questioned why Guyger was not arrested until days after the shooting; why Jean’s apartment was searched but not Guyger’s; why Hall elected to turn over the investigation to the Texas Rangers; and why the city did not pursue an initial charge of murder instead of manslaughter. At a “public performance review” of Chief Hall’s tenure that was staged this past Saturday at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center in South Dallas, many simply wondered why Chief Hall has not yet addressed a community that is still, clearly, in mourning.
Hosted by Dallas Communities Organizing for Change, the event felt less like a protest and more like a group counseling session. About 25 people attended, and speaker after speaker came to a microphone to express their frustration, anger, dejection, and fear, both about the recent killing of Jean as well as police violence throughout their communities. The speakers often broke down in tears and spoke about the way police violence affects their own day-to-day lives. One woman, a U.S. Army veteran, says she is afraid every time her 17-year-old son leaves her home. Another man spoke about how his son wanted to dress up like a police officer for Halloween, but he wouldn’t let him.
When Dr. Melvin Perkins introduced himself to the small crowd, he started by explaining that he was not a civil rights protester. He was a management consultant with decades of experience working in corporate HR. “I came here today because I’m sad and angry and afraid,” Perkins said. “This was the camel straw for me.”
Perkins says he wants the facts to play out in the Jean case, but, he added, he felt like if the tables were turned and if he was the one being accused of shooting Jean, he’d be in jail without bond. It’s that discrepancy that is enraging the community. And while it has already sparked numerous protests, Perkins fears what may still lie ahead.
“I don’t want to demonize Chief Hall,” he said. “But if the facts come out and [Guyger] doesn’t go to jail, all hell will break loose.”