It has been seven months since Botham Jean was killed in his apartment by an off-duty Dallas Police officer. At the time, the event turned up the volume of the voices in the city who have long been calling for an overhaul in the way Dallas checks the power of its police department. This Wednesday, the Dallas City Council will be briefed on a proposed reform of the Citizens Police Review Board, the latest attempt to address the issue.
The reform of the Citizens Police Review Board has been in the works for years. In 2010, after Dallas police shot and killed Tobias Mackey, activists began calling for more citizen oversight of the police department. In 2017, U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson commissioned a report that outlined best practices for reforming the Citizens Police Review Board. But it wasn’t until Jean’s killing that these efforts began to gain real political momentum. For residents in Dallas communities that feel they have been over-policed—a feeling underwritten by a well-documented history of police shootings and killings—those reforms are essential in restoring confidence in the Dallas Police Department.
The changes laid out in Wednesday’s briefing propose renaming the review board the “Community Police Oversight Board” as well as creating a new three-person department in City Hall called the Office of Police Oversight, or OPO. This new department would receive complaints about police behavior and serve as a mediator between the complainants and DPD.
The OPO would also monitor DPD’s internal investigations, observing officer interviews and interrogations, submitting questions, and requesting information as part of the internal investigations process. The Dallas police chief would continue to retain authority over those investigations, but the chief would submit a report of their conclusions to the Community Police Oversight Board. That board would retain its current right to conduct independent investigations of police behavior and make recommendations for improvements to DPD.
This new system is born out of compromise between activists and police officers, and neither side is 100 percent happy with the results. Dominique Alexander, who heads the Next Generation Action Network, is concerned about two aspects of the proposal. The first relates to the new OPO’s potential power to subpoena witnesses in investigations into police behavior, a key demand of activists seeking police reform. This new proposal retains a technical advisory committee made of up of non-Dallas police officers who would need to approve any subpoenas made by the OPO. Alexander also objects to the Dallas Police Association’s continued involvement in drafting the revisions to the oversight board and the creation of the OPO.
“The city believes the Dallas Police Association and the unions have to okay this,” Alexander says. “The unions should not have any involvement in police oversight. Regardless of whether or not an officer’s behavior is right or wrong, they have to represent them. The accountability is not there. So their involvement is very problematic. It seems like in the city of Dallas the police union’s voices are more important than the community’s voices.”
Dallas Police Association President Michael Mata believes it is only fair that the police have some say in shaping an organization that will oversee the work of the officers he represents. In particular, Mata wants to ensure that any newly constructed citizen review board won’t be able to circumvent the Dallas Police Department’s own internal investigations. He doesn’t want the new organizations to have subpoena power or the ability to interrogate witnesses.
“It could often result in a violation of due process,” Mata says. “It’s a slippery slope.”
Another disagreement between activists and police relates to the way the new OPO will be staffed and who will have ultimate oversight of the department. Alexander says he would like the OPO to be organized similarly to the Dallas Parks Department, with the head hired and directly reporting to the Community Police Oversight Board. Mata wants the OPO to be managed by the city manager.
Expect many of these disagreements to get a full airing at tomorrow’s briefing thanks to the inclusion of a public hearing on the council’s agenda. Council member Philip Kingston, who has been closely involved in the ongoing work in overhauling community policing oversight, is concerned that the only purpose of the public hearing is to kick-up dust around the reforms and slow the process down.
“It is blatantly an attempt to turn the thing into a piñata to weaken the proposals,” Kingston says. “Every minute that has lapsed since Botham Jean was killed has weakened the power to reform.”