The Dallas City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved strengthening the citizen’s police review board, a decision that will add a formal mediating agency to help process and investigate complaints brought against the department by the public. The decision will cost the city $500,000 annually beginning next year, largely to pay for three new oversight positions with the police department.
The discussion prior to the vote was largely ceremonial, tracing the history of the agenda item and the people that moved it forward: former Councilwoman Diane Ragsdale; Dr. Brian Williams, the Parkland ER doctor who chairs the existing review board; Walter “Changa” Higgins, the activist who first brought expanding the board’s powers to Mayor Pro Tem Casey Thomas.
This new “Community Police Oversight Board” is the result of more than a year of deliberations between the city, activists, and the police department. It is a compromise. The police unions signed on to what passed, as did Chief U. Reneé Hall. Before the meeting, members of the coalition to reform the board urged the City Council to understand that communities of color feel it necessary to increase public oversight of the department. The council later agreed with their votes.
Activists had long argued that the existing board, which was created in 1987 after a spike in officer-involved killings of people of color, had no teeth. They wanted the board to have subpoena power. What they got is an Office of Police Oversight, or OPO, within the department itself, three people who will monitor DPD’s internal investigations by keeping watch during officer interviews and interrogations. There was no mechanism by which the existing board could do that. The OPO can submit questions and request information during the investigations. Another new power. The police chief remains the authority in these investigations, but she must submit a report of conclusions to the oversight board. And unlike the current setup, the OPO can compel officers and employees to provide statements for the board to analyze.
After the chief submits her findings, the board can choose to conduct independent investigations of the incidences and make their own recommendations for improvements. The board can subpoena all witnesses except the involved officer. The board is now required to brief the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee regularly and the City Council will appoint the 15 members, just as they do other boards and commissions.
“I don’t want to delay this any longer,” said Councilman Adam McGough, the chair of the public safety committee who shepherded the item through to completion. “I remember the first meeting when I met with Changa Higgins and he came up with his number of positions and things he was fighting for and he had this look in his eye of experience and passion, but also this look of nothing is really gonna happen. This has been really one of the things I’m most proud of.”
The only complaints about the increase in oversight came from public speakers. They were older and mostly white women, who warned that police would flee the city and not come here to work.
The dissenters included Minnie Caruth, who helped create the DPD-affiliated Caruth Police Institute at UNT Dallas. She said there was already a mechanism by which citizens could voice complaints to the department—by going directly to police. Former County Commissioner Maureen Dickey added her voice to the naysayers, saying that funding it added “another layer of bureaucracy to the taxpayer” and said the previous board was made up of “citizens that obviously failed in what they did.” Others evoked Dominique Alexander, the activist who put his face and voice in front of expanding the board. He was arrested last week on suspicion of domestic violence for allegedly head-butting and strangling his longtime partner. An arrest warrant noted that he said “I know the chief of police and the D.A. Who are you going to call?”
But the supporters spoke with passion and emotion, evoking the name of Botham Jean, who was slain inside his own apartment by an off duty police officer last November. They spoke about the need to better understand and protect communities of color, and that the expansion was necessary. Williams, the chair, noted that the board is made up of “attorneys, real estate people, cybersecurity experts,” upstanding citizens who were appointed by the City Council.
“It should be unanimous, it should be without debate, and we should show the same degree of courage that Chief Hall has shown when she said she is for 21st century police and a world-class police department,” he said.
And that’s exactly what happened. The final vote was 14-0, with Casey Thomas absent. McGough, however, read a note from Thomas expressing his support.