Heavy is The Head: Based on assurances from Chief U. Reneé Hall, city council members told constituents that no tear gas was used by police against peaceful protesters. That wasn’t true. Elizabeth Lavin

Local Government

The Color of Complacency

Did Black leaders in Dallas give the police chief a pass?

Here’s how weird Dallas is: we have all Black top elected and appointed officials, but when the chief of police came out with what some say was a one-sided cover-up report on police behavior during the post-George Floyd disturbances at the end of May, only the White and Hispanic members of the City Council went after her for it. Black elected leadership was silent.

Since then, of course, the chief has resigned and the Dallas County district attorney has opened an investigation into police behavior during the May disturbances. Neither one of those events changes the weirdness, if you think it’s weird. Some people don’t agree. They say it’s just Dallas.

My argument would be that a certain fundamental assumption is implicit in the Black Lives Matter movement, that American policing and governments are too White. The assumption would be that if police and local governments were less monolithically White and more open to Black influence, horrors like the killing of Floyd would be less likely to happen.

You know all of this already, but allow me to count it out. The mayor of Dallas is Black. The city manager is Black. The police chief is Black. The district attorney is Black. The chairmen of the city’s two most influential business leadership groups, the Dallas Citizens Council and the Dallas Regional Chamber of Commerce, both are Black.

The particular moment in time on which I would like to focus is 1 p.m. August 18, when the City Council’s Public Safety Committee convened online. The topic of the day was a special report produced by Dallas Police Chief U. Reneé Hall, called an “after-action report,” intended to answer questions put to Hall in May by the City Council concerning police behavior on four nights when Dallas saw both looting and peaceful demonstrations.

Before the meeting even started, several council members were already steamed and loaded for bear, especially chagrined because, based on assurances from Hall, they had been telling their constituents that no tear gas was used by police on peaceful protesters in the four days of protest. Hall’s assurances about tear gas were part of a larger narrative from the chief characterizing her department’s response on those nights as professional, appropriate, and disciplined. Some of those assurances were false.

Almost from the beginning, the police chief’s version was belied by news footage and by what people who were there saw with their own eyes. On the first night, it looked as if gangs of cops were chasing fast-moving looters around downtown, always a jump behind, without doing much to stop them. On subsequent nights, especially the final night of June 1, when protests were entirely peaceful, it looked as if police took out their frustration by gassing and arresting people who hadn’t done anything wrong.

Chad West, who is White and former military, said Hall’s report seemed to illustrate a generally disorganized command structure.

In the council committee meeting 10 weeks later, the council members who went after the chief were not talking principally about the looting. They were angry about the tear gas question, and they were especially outraged over a story published in the Dallas Morning News shortly before the meeting. It documented a particularly egregious instance of wanton police brutality.

Councilman Adam Bazaldua, who is Hispanic, started off telling Hall her report was “too little, too late,” then characterized the report as one-sided, propagandistic, and self-serving. “The report highlighted a lot of threats that were made against police,” he said. “It lacked a lot of detail of many instances that have already been highlighted of force that was used against the public.”

He accused Hall of deliberately over-dramatizing attacks on cops. “Who in the department cherry-picked these photographs that you used in the report?” he asked. “They seem to only tell one side of the picture.”

When Hall answered that the purpose of the report was to give the police department’s side of things, Bazaldua pounced: “Excuse me, Chief. I am going to correct you there. If you are going to talk about how you are going to correct yourself, let’s be transparent with what you have to correct.”

Council members Adam Medrano and Omar Narvaez, both also Hispanic, piled on, too, but the attack on Hall was by no means a Hispanic cause.

More surprising (to me, anyway) was the response of White council members who typically defend the chief and the cops. I am not including Councilwoman Cara Mendelsohn here, even though she had a lot of really bad stuff to say about Hall. Mendelsohn has kind of an ongoing bias against Hall from before any of these events, so her attacks on the chief were not surprising. I’m not saying Mendelsohn’s criticisms were not important or legitimate or any of that stuff, just not surprising.

But take District 14 Councilman David Blewett, for example. Blewett, who is White, is typically a defender of the police department. He told Hall he was especially unhappy over her inaccurate assurance early on to the Council that no tear gas had been deployed against peaceful protesters. “There were news reports of tear gas that you said was not used,” Blewett said. “I can tell you from my perspective and other council members, we repeated that [to constituents]. That was problematic for us.”

District 1 Councilman Chad West, who is White and former military, said Hall’s report seemed to illustrate a generally disorganized command structure and a lack of respect for Hall by her own subordinates. “The No. 1 thing that jumped out to me,” West said, “was a general disregard for leadership. The way it read they [Hall’s subordinates] went rogue … almost like a mutiny.”

Let’s pause over that language for a moment. Disregard for leadership. Rogue. Mutiny. That’s all really bad. Right?

Public Safety Committee Chair Adam McGough, who is White and usually a defender of the police, told Hall, “After all this review, it is clear to me that we have indeed had a failure of leadership.”

The mayor of the city, Eric Johnson, who is Black, didn’t attend this meeting. He’s not a member of the Public Safety Committee, but that is entirely irrelevant. Almost from the moment of his election, Johnson has made a big point of his power to barge into and take over any committee meeting he feels like. It was clear before this meeting ever happened that it would be heated and important. So Johnson’s failure to attend was either a major statement or an act of political cowardice—probably both.

The only two Black council members who spoke during the meeting were District 3 member Casey Thomas and District 4 member Carolyn King Arnold. Thomas asked an obscure question about the routes through downtown taken by demonstrators, and he wondered why more couldn’t have been done to stop looting. Arnold asked softball questions designed to give Hall an opportunity to defend herself.

I want to go back to my original problem here. We had a contentious committee meeting over the George Floyd protests. At that meeting, only the Whites and the Hispanics on the Council took on the cops and took up for the people in the street. Meanwhile Black elected and appointed leaders either stayed away or sat on their hands. My question again: is that weird? Or is that just Dallas? Is that the same thing?

The Rev. Dr. Michael W. Waters of Abundant Life AME Church, a force in the Black community, tells me I’m never going to get it right by doing face counts. “I think it’s appropriate to acknowledge that the face and the power are two separate realities and not to conflate one with the other,” he says.

Waters suggests that on some issues the city’s Black elected leaders are always going to be much closer to the old White power base than they are to, well, me. “In this city,” he says, “while there are diverse expressions of leadership, the power base still is largely in the same spaces.”

The only top Black elected official who has taken on Hall and the police department directly on issues of policing and social equity is Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot. Creuzot suggests the answer may have less to do with philosophy than timidity. “I think some of it is courage,” he says. “In what I have seen of elected officials, regardless of party, color, sex, or those things, it takes courage to speak out, because what’s important is getting reelected.”

District 11 Councilman Lee Kleinman, who is White, says I am seeing Black faces where I should be seeing faces of people who represent elderly conservative voters worried about their own safety and security. “From the elected officials’ point of view,” he says, “Black lives may matter, but Black votes matter more. The people that vote in this city just aren’t the demographic that are out there protesting. Across the city, it’s typically homeowners. It’s typically older folks.”

I get all that. I really do. Promise. And I do understand the pitfall of starting out assuming people are going to do what they do and say what they say because of the color of their skin. Thank goodness that’s not true, because, among other things, life would be so boring.

But you’re not going to knock me off my basic perception that this is weird. The whole thing. The response. In a city where all of the top elected officials are Black, only the Whites and the Hispanics take up for the Black Lives Matter marchers against the cops. That’s just weird.

Last question. Is weird bad?


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