Scenes from a protest on May 29 in downtown Dallas. (Photo by Miles Hearne)

Local News

Council Sets a Date to Question Police Chief Over Violence Toward Protesters

The chair of the City Council's public safety commission vows "appropriate accountability" for a weekend filled with violence and tear gas.

On Tuesday, City Council member Adam McGough scheduled a special meeting for August 18 to grill the police chief about the actions of her department during the first week of protests earlier this summer. McGough, the chair of the council’s public safety committee, wrote in a memo that he is “deeply concerned about the inexplicable use of excessive force … and lack of requisite planning” after law enforcement unleashed on protesters in the form of pepper spray, “less lethal” sponge rounds, and mass arrests. What “less lethal” can actually mean? Losing an eye, as one protester is suing the department over.

The report culminated with the kettling of protesters on the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge on June 1, where they were surrounded on either side by police and sprayed with tear gas and shot with more of those sponge rounds. That was a big scene; 674 protesters were rounded up and charged that night, every second captured by news helicopters and reporters who were trapped alongside demonstrators. The charges were dropped, but we don’t know whether that decision was made by the police department or a district attorney’s office that wouldn’t pursue them.

We have a lot of questions. The Dallas Police Department has a draft of a “preliminary after action report” that attempts to explore what happened before, during, and after police got violent with protesters. The big news in that report is that either Police Chief U. Reneé Hall lied to the City Council or was lied to by her department leadership. A few days after the bridge incident, she told the Council unequivocally that no tear gas was used on protesters. The report contradicts her. It also says police chose to deploy gas and “less lethal” munitions only after protesters began throwing bricks and other objects at police on May 29.

Whether that happened or not, there were other incidents that weekend where police were violent toward protesters who were not threats. Missing from that report was the narrative behind a photo of a Dallas police officer firing a pepper ball round at close range into a woman’s chest. She was holding nothing but her cell phone; witnesses said she posed no threat to the officer. We know that background not because of the police department, but because of the Dallas Morning News, which identified the woman, interviewed her and the cop that shot her, and pieced together the scene.

It does not paint a picture of a stability in a time of crisis. That officer, Sgt. Roger Rudloff, told The News he fired upon her because “she wasn’t doing what we told her to.” Rudloff has been investigated 19 times in his over 20 years on the force, resulting in five violations. Also included in The News’ report is details on a department policy that states the gun “will not be used on subjects passively resisting or who are not posing a physical threat to persons.”

That incident happened on May 30, the same night that officers rounded up dozens of protesters and shuttled them to Lew Sterrett. They later dropped the charges. Why? We don’t know. The next night, the police department instituted a curfew. Police were filmed wrestling violators to the ground and shuttling them to jail. Their charges were also later dropped.

Chief Hall has not had to face tough questioning about the actions of her department since the June 5 City Council meeting. She was able to avoid most of that questioning because of a pending internal investigation. And now, as The News discovered, the initial draft report—which was sent to the City Council before being leaked to Central Track—didn’t even explore one significant incident. So how did the department choose what was investigated? How did the department not know about that incident, especially considering the photographer who took the image was arrested?

This also isn’t happening in a bubble. Last week, City Manager T.C. Broadnax revealed a budget for the next two fiscal years that does not defund the police department, as protesters called for. It does allocate money for more mental health services and to connect residents with resources like job training and housing. It also pays for infrastructure improvements in poor neighborhoods. But it is not as radical as a city like Austin, which today announced plans to take $150 million from its police department and put $21 million into community programs. Dallas’ budget town hall meetings begin today. Broadnax also expressed interest in overhauling the department’s training program. It would appear to be beneficial to know the full story of what happened—and what failed—before the City Council decides what it should and shouldn’t pay for.

McGough is requesting the police department finish its report by August 14 and release it publicly. The Public Safety Committee will meet on August 18 at 1 p.m. to discuss its findings and question the chief. Hopefully Hall will be able to answer what is asked of her.

“These actions must be further investigated,” McGough writes in his memo, “and there must be appropriate accountability.”

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