A majority of the Dallas City Council on Tuesday expressed frustration with the police department’s investigation into what went wrong in the first four days of protests following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The Council’s Public Safety Committee convened a special meeting to question Chief U. Reneé Hall and her department leaders about a long weekend of demonstrations that ended in mass arrests, looting, and police violence.
The question at the core of the meeting was whether the forceful response of the department was necessary—and whether Chief Hall has the trust and support of her subordinates in the face of failures in communication and leadership. She says she does.
That after-action report, which was made public Friday, almost 12 weeks after the incidents, still includes details that some on Council contest. Council seems concerned about the state of the department after unprecedented marches flung its operations into chaos. Two council members—Omar Narvaez, of West Dallas, and Adam Medrano, of Deep Ellum—outright said they had lost trust in the chief. In total, seven vocalized their displeasure with the way the chief had handled things. Two mentioned the possibility of a “cover-up,” given inconsistencies in the report.
“Over and over again, the evidence shows an unacceptable lack of strategy and planning,” said Councilman Adam McGough, who chairs the Public Safety Committee. “It shows misplaced trust and a lack of clarity for our officers and for our protesters.”
The report itself isn’t rosy. It highlights leadership failures that likely confused the response on the ground. There were no clear rules of engagement, which would have informed how officers made arrests. Most of the charges—like rioting—have since been dropped. Communication was poor, and the command structure was unclear. Chief Hall’s whereabouts are a mystery in the report. “I was everywhere,” she said during the meeting. In being everywhere, it sounds like she was nowhere. Orders were not clearly passed down to those who would be carrying them out, leading some to take on responsibilities they were not prepared for. Department leaders “appeared unsure as to the best tactics during officer/protester encounters.”
It sounds like a mess.
“The report, to me, was for its length underwhelming,” said Councilman Adam Bazaldua, who represents Fair Park and South Dallas. “It highlighted a lot of threats that were made against police and lacked a lot of detail against many instances … of force that were used against the public.”
The report focuses on Friday, May 29 through Monday, June 1. On Friday police clashed with protesters at the edge of downtown before the group splintered off. Some headed down Main and Commerce streets, damaging businesses and looting. This went on for hours until police got control of the situation, around 3 a.m.
Each day has a triggering event, according to the report. On Friday, protesters veered off the approved path in the Cedars to march by the Dallas Police Association headquarters, on Griffin Street. They encircled an unmarked, black SUV occupied by a few Dallas County Sheriff’s deputies. Another group of marchers splintered off and headed downtown, where they found DPD officers stationed. That’s when Hall says bricks were thrown and police cruisers were damaged, triggering the SWAT unit to respond and fire tear gas, sponge rounds, and pepper balls to disperse the crowd. Soon after, looting began on Commerce and Main streets.
On Saturday, when the clashes began in the afternoon, police moved in to protect a man in a gas mask and a long gun who appeared to be surrounded by protesters near City Hall Plaza. After the man got out, the police were surrounded. The report says protesters began to damage a squad car, and police again deployed gas and less lethal munitions. Hall says one lieutenant was stabbed in the neck with an umbrella. He’s OK. On Sunday, when hundreds were arrested for violating curfew, it seems not all officers were on the same page about how to engage with those violating it. Video footage caught protesters being flung to the concrete and zip tied before being shuttled to Lew Sterrett.
The most dramatic event happened Monday evening, after hundreds of protesters marched on the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge and were fired upon with pepper balls and gas. Police maintain that protesters were warned about walking onto the bridge. In the end, 674 people were detained. (The department did not file charges.)
The report says the ramp was blocked by four squad cars. Numerous council members disputed that. Whether police adequately blocked the ramp is a key fact used to defend the department’s response. The department appears to treat the entire group of about 800 protesters as a single entity, that telling those at the front not to proceed farther should have been sufficient to communicate the order to those in the rear. In reality, it was a confused situation; we still don’t know the intent of the organizers in marching up the ramp, but it seems like police didn’t do enough to stop them. And then, once protesters were there, they were met with tear gas and pepper balls and had nowhere to go. The department says about 150 people left the bridge before the violence started. Hall defended the police, saying protesters “broke a law.”
“The protest was peaceful until they broke a law,” she said, referring to walking onto the bridge. “You cannot simultaneously use the word ‘peaceful’ and breaking a law. … They were not riotous, but they were clearly breaking a law and violating the rules.”
“Over and over again the evidence shows an unacceptable lack of strategy and planning.”Council member Adam McGough
Police say frozen water bottles were thrown at officers, which precipitated police firing pepper ball rounds and tear gas. Councilman Bazaldua, who was on the bridge, said nobody threw anything at officers, and if the metric for mass arrests was breaking a law, the protesters should have been rounded up on Riverfront as they made their way toward the bridge.
It is these disputes that seem to be eroding trust, and there is much that needs ironing out. And despite being 85 pages, the report mostly resides above the action. We don’t learn which commanders performed poorly or who needs training. It admits that officers fired tear gas on the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge but provides a third narrative since the incident. Chief Hall had previously told the Council that gas was not used there and that she had ordered officers not to use it. Now she says it was used prior to her directive and not afterward. And yet one of her assistant chiefs told her it wasn’t used in the first place. She also did not publicly correct the record until this report, beyond sending a notice to the city manager. This frustrated numerous council members, who said Tuesday that they had taken her at her word and dictated it to their constituents.
The tear gas matter triggered Narvaez’s declaration that he no longer trusts the chief. “Chief Hall, you are our top cop, and I have lost the trust because I have been told one thing and then it changed on me and now it’s changed again,” he said. “So I read cover-ups in this report, and I hate saying it like this, but I have 500-plus people up on that bridge in my district getting tear gassed after I was told that they weren’t; having pepper bullets shot at them after I was told this didn’t happen.”
The report doesn’t reveal which cop shot out a protester’s eye or even the severity of the incident. It merely says, “[A]n individual sustained injury to his eye.” It also doesn’t mention the incident with 25-year veteran Sgt. Roger Rudloff, who shot a protester in her breast at point blank range with a pepper ball. Chief Hall said the department was still gathering information, but she learned of the incident through the Dallas Morning News report — not through her department’s internal investigation.
Hall defended the report as a transparent analysis of ways the department could improve in the future. “Transparency is the key to change,” she said. “If we continue to make an effort to our community to show who we are and work alongside of them to make the necessary adjustments, we will be the better police department that our community wants to see.”
But the framing and the language of the report can feel slanted. Take this: “It is significant to note that after four days and thousands of interactions between officers and individuals, only two significant injuries to civilians were reported and six officers needed immediate medical attention.” The next paragraph notes that 50 use-of-force complaints have been filed against the department.
There are lines that credit “a commitment to service and professionalism” in overcoming a trying situation. Another portion refers to George Floyd having “physically resisted” prior to being killed while begging for his life with a knee on his neck. It also alludes to outside agitators and bogeymen like antifa, which are used to defend the police actions. It notes the burglary of two firearm stores miles from downtown but does not make clear whether these acts were related to the protests or the looting. (In the meeting, Maj. Jim Lewis said this was an “excellent example of individuals using civil unrest to their advantage and attempt to create harm and wreak havoc.”)
Councilman Chad West, of North Oak Cliff, took the chief to task for this language. “I just really felt like the tone of this after-action report was a little offensive,” said West, an Army veteran who alluded to his own past training in drafting after-action reports. “When I started reading the report, it felt like it was already in the defensive posture.”
“You are our top cop and I have lost the trust because I have been told one thing and then it changed on me.”Council member Omar Narvaez
It also includes at least one inaccuracy, in trying to pin the announcement of Sunday’s curfew on the mayor. The report says Mayor Eric Johnson announced the curfew before the department’s media relations unit knew about it, which confused the officers who would be enforcing it. In fact, that press conference announcing the curfew was delivered by the police chief. It’s a little thing, but it would have been an easy thing to check. In the call, Maj. Lewis took the blame for the mistake and apologized. We learned nothing about why police were so violent with curfew violators that night.
Officers were indeed faced with a tense, unprecedented scene—$5 million in total property damage, 58 damaged squad cars, six injured officers, and one injured police horse—but the report raises the question of whether such a heavy presence of armed police made things worse:
“The standard operating procedure of creating a highly visible officer presence for managing crowd control incited the emotions of the protests. As the protests continued, the Incident Commander reduced the physical presence of uniformed officers. Response teams were positioned out of sight, but still in position to provide a rapid response if needed. This lessened the opportunities for protestors to confront officers and seemed to create a calmer environment among the groups.”
Councilwoman Cara Mendelsohn, of Far North Dallas, said the communication problems were an enormous concern. Here is the report, attributing the recollection to a sergeant: “The communication was terrible. During detail, officers were given clear communication about what was expected. When the protesters moved and went on the bridge, the communication went out the window.”
“I just think it’s one of the most embarrassing paragraphs to read, and we are truly lucky that no protesters or officers died,” Mendelsohn said.
The protests have continued peacefully for about 80 consecutive days, albeit in far smaller numbers. Hall told the Dallas Morning News last week that the department will “acknowledge it, fix it, and move forward.” The “fix it” part will be the trickiest, but now a majority on Council don’t believe the acknowledgment is complete.
“We must have the rest of the information and hold those officers accountable who went too far, who did not de-escalate, who committed evil or harmful acts,” McGough said. “That must be part of this. I have said many times that we can’t have reform without accountability, and this goes both ways.”