If we feel like it, we can spend all our time getting in each other’s faces about abolishing the police in Dallas. But there are way more interesting conversations going on.
As the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis has receded in our collective rear-view mirror, the cause of police reform has not faded from view, at least not in Dallas. Serious conversations between top officials and grassroots leaders in Dallas are continuing to take place and gain momentum. In those conversations, early battle cries from the street to defund or abolish the police are evolving into calls for larger social reform. If anything, some of these discussions are moving toward not blaming the cops for every single thing that goes wrong in the community and toward the community instead taking a much tougher look at itself in that rear-view mirror.
A telling moment took place last week in a virtual meeting of a group called New Directions for Public Safety and Positive Community Change. An activist clergyman and the county’s district attorney agreed on something that might seem counterintuitive: the real underlying police issue, they both said, is not so much that police are failing to do what they’re supposed to do. The real problem, they said, is more that police are doing exactly what the community wants them to do.
The Rev. Dr. Michael W. Waters, senior pastor of Joy Tabernacle African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, told the group: “I’m not so sure that things are working the way they are because they are failing but because they are working as they are designed.
“There is a reason why Black and Brown bodies are ensnarled in the criminal justice system, and this is largely because the system has been designed to ensnarl those bodies. That’s not necessarily a failure. That’s a system working as it was designed to work.”
Waters pointed to drug law enforcement: “Let’s be very clear. When it relates to drug usage in America, we know that statistically White communities do drugs at a higher rate than Black communities, and we see a disparity when it relates to arrests within the criminal justice system.”
Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot already had provided the meeting with statistics on Dallas County marijuana arrests between 2015 and 2019 that made Waters’ point for him. In a period when Census figures put the county’s White population at just over 28 percent of the total, White marijuana arrests diminished from 9 percent in 2015 to 6 percent of the total in 2019.
Creuzot said the numbers show that Dallas has “two policing systems.” He said, “I think Pastor Waters is correct. The system is working as intended. In the city of Dallas, there are two different policing systems in reference to marijuana, one for people of color and one for everyone else.”
None of this is news for Creuzot. In fact he has been preaching this same gospel in Dallas since he was a state district judge in the 1990s winning national awards for his innovative drug diversion program.
Last week Creuzot told me about a conversation he had with a White Dallas chief of police in the 1990s. He had taken the chief a transcript from his court of a Dallas police officer testifying that he had explicit orders to look for, stop, and arrest motorists on penny-ante traffic violations along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in South Dallas, a black neighborhood.
Creuzot told me, “The chief said to me, ‘You don’t understand. That’s a high crime area. There’s zero tolerance.’ I said, ‘Let me pose a hypothetical to you. What if we take the intersection of Northwest Highway and Hillcrest (in White North Dallas) and we make a reasonable circumference around that and we do the same law enforcement things there that you do in the southern sector. Would you not find marijuana and drugs and guns and this and that? And, if you did, if you policed it the same way, wouldn’t it turn into a high crime area?’
“He didn’t answer. I said, ‘Chief, I know why you’re not answering. There’s a big problem here.’ He said, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘If you policed those areas [north] like you do that area [south], you’d lose your job.’”
This is not to say that what’s going on in these meetings is all doom and gloom about the past or even about what a terrible community we are. In fact, some of the meetings make us look like a really smart community working on pragmatic, doable, real-world repairs to make the criminal justice system in Dallas more fair and more just.
Last month during a virtual meeting put on by Social Venture Partners, Dallas Police Chief U. Reneé Hall said she has either already implemented or is working on implementing a set of new policies designed to more comprehensively and quickly track individual police officers with bad records. Some of those changes, she said, have been suggested to her by community groups.
“We have groups like Mothers Against Police Brutality who have come very early on and asked for general order changes that are right within my purview and autonomy to do,” Hall said. “They said, ‘You test individuals for alcohol and or drugs when they are in a car accident. Why don’t you do it when someone is in an officer-involved shooting critical incident?’”
So she did.
“Simple ask,” she said. “Easy. We put into our general orders that officers will be drug tested and or alcohol tested when they are in a critical in incident.”
Byron Sanders, CEO of the nonprofit youth advocacy group Big Thought, told the same meeting that it can be a mistake to view the issues of racism too personally. “If we go to Dallas and San Antonio, Seattle, Baltimore, in every single one of these cities,” Sanders said, “if you go to the places that are the lowest income, that are the most disinvested, that have the highest crime reporting, that have the lowest positive health outcomes, there’s a reason why they are predominantly communities of color.”
Sanders pointed to federal government policies called red lining in the 1930s and ’40s that powerfully steered private investment away from minority neighborhoods and businesses, and he talked about the skewing of GI Bill benefits away from persons of color after World War II.
“What we have to acknowledge,” he said, “is that racism doesn’t exist interpersonally only. It’s not just about using the n-word. It’s not just about acts of racism against one singular individual. It’s the system and structures that have been created.”
That sounds horrible. Because it is horrible. But Sanders’ view also offers an upside. Deliberate policies and practices can be changed just as deliberately and intentionally as they were created.
That’s the kind of thing I hear people talking about in Dallas. I don’t hear anybody serious talking seriously about doing away with the cops. But I guess the idea of abolishing the police can make for some lively verbal fisticuffs, if that’s what you were looking for anyway.