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Local Government

What Did We Learn This Week About the Dallas Police Chief Candidates?

Most of the candidates spoke about improved community engagement and police reform. Now the decision rests with the city manager.
Outgoing Police Chief U. Reneé Hall walks with protesters through the Cedars on June 5. Miles Hearne

Before Christmas, the city will learn who the next chief of the Dallas Police Department will be. This week, the City Council, mayor, community stakeholders, and the public got a glimpse of the seven candidates vying for the position. On Tuesday, dozens of community groups participated in private group panels with the candidates. Yesterday the finalists fielded questions posed by City Council candidates during a three-hour-plus livestream. While the decision is City Manager T.C. Broadnax’s alone, the candidates spent hours introducing themselves to the people they’ll be working for. 

The seven candidates are close in their thinking about how to manage a police department, stem rising violent crime, and implement reforms to meet the challenges of community distrust and historical racism that all large American cities have had to confront in the wake of the George Floyd protests. 

John Fullinwider, a longtime civil rights activist and co-founder of Mothers Against Police Brutality, sat on one of the community panels on Tuesday. He said all seven candidates seemed to understand that building community trust and combating violent crime both required rethinking the ways police departments operate — and what the cops can and cannot control.

“I was surprised how open the candidates were to defunding and reallocating resources, more so than most elected officials,” Fullinwider said. “On crime reduction, it was basically hot-spot or ‘cops on dots’ policing for the short term and investments in ‘root causes’ long term. None supported saturation patrol, like last year’s state troopers, because of how it alienates residents. All were aware that street crime has its origin in poverty and lack of opportunity. How much they would advocate that their new boss in Dallas seriously address inequality on the necessary scale is anyone’s guess.”

The candidates’ messaging didn’t change on Wednesday, when the panel was opened to the public. Four are present or former high-ranking Dallas cops: Maj. Malik Aziz, Assistant Chief Avery Moore, Deputy Chief Reuben Ramirez, and former Deputy Chief Albert Martinez. (Martinez is now the head of security for the Catholic Diocese of Dallas.) The out-of-towners included Irving Police Chief Jeff Spivey, outgoing San Jose Police Chief Eddie Garcia, and Charlottesville, Virginia, Chief RaShall Brackney.

Mostly council members didn’t want to speculate when reached for comment. Some spoke on background, saying they thought Wednesday’s panel was helpful to see how the candidates responded to questioning. A few singled out Aziz as an internal candidate and Garcia as external. Most people reached by D Magazine, both on Council and those in community groups, were impressed with Brackney’s academic understanding of police reform but were wary due to the size of Charlottesville (population 48,117) and the department she runs (100 officers). 

Aziz and Garcia were among the most polished in the interviewees. Aziz, who was a finalist for the job in 2017 and was demoted by U. Reneé Hall when she was hired, demonstrated both a deep understanding of the Dallas Police Department’s culture and history, and laid out a clear vision for reorganizing the department’s administrative structure and reimagining DPD’s relationship with Dallas’ diverse communities. Garcia demonstrated a solid command of policing procedures and a self-effacing willingness to admit that he has learned from policing “mistakes” at his department. 

Charlottesville Police Chief Brackney spoke directly to the ways in which the drivers of violent crime often lie outside the purview of the police department and are rooted in ways governments and institutions have already failed those communities most affected by crime. 

“What there is often a failure to do is really understand what those drivers of violence and crime are,” she said. “Social disorganization theory tells us years ago — as early as the 1960s — that if you don’t have institutional support in communities — resources, economies, educational systems, social services — the likely outgrowth is going to be violence. And typically, in minority communities and Black communities, the cities will remove those resources. They don’t believe they have the option or opportunity to put those in and be effective.”

The other chiefs all appeared to agree that effective policing requires a broader appreciation of how social conditions contribute to root causes of crime. Moore emphasized the role the community’s distrust in the police department plays in the rise in crime. Ramirez spoke about targeting drug houses, which he says were responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime. Spivey spoke about poverty, lack of educational opportunities, and mental health. “Those aren’t police issues,” he said. “But we’ve been given the task of solving them.”

The council members who agreed to speak on the record about their reaction to yesterday’s interviews stressed that, ultimately, the decision lies in the city manager’s hands, and, while they plan to discuss the interviews with Broadnax, they trust him to make the right choice on the hire.

“The biggest takeaway since the Council does not make the decision but holds the manager responsible for the decision is that we feel confident in the process and that the candidates are qualified,” said Jennifer Gates, chair of the council’s Public Safety Committee. “It is T.C. who I hold accountable for the choice, and I am hopeful that the opportunity for me to see the interviews will help me understand the choice.” 

Even Mayor Eric Johnson, who has been vocal in his criticism of the police chief search process, appeared pleased by the way the week played out. In a newsletter sent to supporters, he gave himself credit for applying public pressure that helped make the hiring process “far more open than it has been in the past.” Johnson also invited readers of his newsletter to solicit their feedback from yesterday’s panels and promised to share that with the city manager. 

Which way Broadnax may be leaning heading into today’s interviews isn’t clear. Fullinwider said his panel met with the city manager for 15 minutes after their conversation with the candidates, and Broadnax was careful not to tip his hand. With many of the candidates seeming to line up along broad philosophical lines, the question for the city manager may boil down to whether to hire an internal candidate or bring in a new perspective from the outside. Last time, Broadnax chose the out-of-towner in outgoing Chief Hall, who appeared to struggle during her tenure to earn the respect of her officers and establish command over the department’s administrative apparatus. 

Hiring internally creates its own complications, as the new chief will have to find ways to work with some of the officers currently competing for the job. “I understand the dynamics,” said Aziz, when questioned about how he would handle internal department politics if he was offered the job. “I’ve personally went through those dynamics, and I’ve been on the other side of those dynamics. But the important thing is that I came to work the very next day. I held my head up. I can say I lived this and continued to contribute to the men and women who can attest to that in the Northeast Division.”

Broadnax may also be basing his decision on the candidates’ ability to communicate with the two major constituencies they must answer to — and to whom they spoke to this week: the general public and the City Council. This week’s interview process made it clear that, in many ways, the top candidates for police chief are more open to new approaches to department funding, community outreach, and personal training and discipline than many members of the public and even some members of the Council. The next chief will need the political savvy to bring the city — and the men and women serving in the police department — along on any path to reform he or she seeks to pursue. 

And there won’t be much room for learning on the job. Chief Hall steps down at the end of this year. The new chief is slated to start in January. On day one, he or she will be tasked with rising to the challenge of a city in the grips of a violent crime wave that predates the pandemic, a community on edge after years of over-policing, and conflicting pressures from a public whose sense of trust in the Dallas Police Department is evenly divided

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