After a year where police-community relations were heavily scrutinized, Dallas’ police watchdogs want residents to hear a simple message: They’re here to help.
Jesuorobo Enobakhare Jr., chairman of the Community Police Oversight Board, said members have struggled to get the word out about what they do. The board entered its new term Oct. 1, and he said that the community and city leaders still don’t include police oversight officials in conversations about policing.
The board is focused on changing that in the year ahead. It also wants more power for oversight and cultural changes among Dallas police.
“In the city of Dallas, there’s still a paradigm shift that has to happen,” Enobakhare said.
The 15-member oversight board, originally called the Citizen Review Board, reviews critical incidents and civilian complaints about policing, outlines policy recommendations and can call for independent investigations into grievances when it disagrees with the Dallas Police Department’s handling of a complaint.
The board was given more powers after the 2018 murder of Botham Jean by an off-duty Dallas police officer. Before the change, its powers were limited — it mainly could only request that police reinvestigate civilian complaints if it disagreed with the department’s initial investigation.
The City Council voted unanimously to overhaul that system in April 2019 and hired police oversight monitor Tonya McClary to lead a new Office of Community Police Oversight, which serves as a liaison between the police department and the board. The office investigates civilian complaints as recommended by the board.
But police oversight members said in a recent interview with The Dallas Morning News that communicating their relevance has proven difficult.
Few residents show up to most oversight town halls or events. Many people don’t know that they can file complaints about police directly to the oversight office, which is a significant change from the previous requirement that people had to go to police headquarters or a patrol station to file a report.
And, Enobakhare said, top police officials still make decisions without consulting McClary or other watchdogs. In September, McClary called for more transparency from police after a Dallas Morning News investigation revealed the secret dismissal of a criminal case against one officer.
McClary said she was kept in the dark throughout the police investigation into Sgt. Roger Rudloff, who shot a protester at close range with pepper balls during a May 2020 protest. She said the lack of transparency has made doing her job more difficult.
The police department and the oversight office are expected to exchange information about internal investigations that delve into shootings, excessive force and other misconduct. But the ordinance governing the oversight office lacks specifics on how information should be shared.
“I doubt it’s malicious intent,” Enobakhare said. “I think it’s just nobody’s remembering.”
Solutions for the year ahead
To fix those problems, oversight officials plan to sit down with City Council members to communicate what the board does.
Enobakhare said board members also want to discuss ways to change the city’s ordinance to increase their authority to ensure oversight officials aren’t left out of internal investigations and to decrease reliance on police.
Changing the ordinance requires at least eight City Council votes.
“The board is not subservient to the police chief,” Enobakhare said. “We should not be going to the police chief to get permission.”
The board’s problems persisted even during a year in which there was increased attention on policing after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Dallas saw an uptick in complaints filed after police carried out controversial tactics during downtown protests, including the use of less-lethal ammunition and tear gas.
More recently, Dallas officials came under scrutiny after they removed police information about crimes from the city’s Open Data portal without community or City Council input. Police Chief Eddie García has been in full support of the change, which has resulted in calls for more input from community members, the media and the City Council.
Left out of those calls, however, was any mention of the police oversight board or oversight office, Enobakhare said.
The problem, he said, is “when we’re in a quiet moment, which would be the perfect time to discuss reforms, it seems as though the attention is placed elsewhere.”
He said reform has to be an ongoing discussion, but crowds often only come to oversight board meetings or events after a shooting or something else bad happens.
“The oversight board needs teeth in order for this to work,” said Brandon Friedman, who represents District 14 on the board. “We don’t want a police department that people live in fear of.”
Friedman, who joined the board this term, said members hope to clamp down this year on cultural issues among Dallas police. He said the board has reviewed incidents that started with people being stopped for low-level offenses, such as speeding or skipping a stop sign, but ended with police using force as those pulled over complain or talk back during the encounter.
He said there needs to be more of a focus on de-escalation, adding that police hold all the responsibility to control those situations and prevent them from getting out of hand because they’re the authority figures.
There’s been some breakdown in communication, he said, because the board may view the actions of certain officers as unprofessional, but police may not see a problem if those actions didn’t violate a department policy.
“Everybody should want a professional, transparent police department that all citizens of Dallas are proud of,” Friedman said. “But our job is to be there when they fall short, and we intend to be.”
The Office of Community Police Oversight is also working on adding a section to its website that would allow residents to commend police officers who do good in the community. That way, the police watchdogs say, it isn’t all negative.
Friedman said that the board, the police chief and city manager T.C. Broadnax should be working toward the same goal of wanting a safe community with responsive, transparent police. It’s just a matter of whether police will be receptive when the oversight board says they need to do better, he said.
“People aren’t used to dealing with the board, people aren’t used to dealing with the office of police oversight, and that’s what we’re trying to change,” Friedman said. “We need to get in front of people and we need to be in people’s faces, because this is important.”