A Different Beat
On the heels of tragedy, community policing in Dallas remains as valuable as ever.
On a sizzling afternoon in late July, I rode through southeast Dallas, one of the city’s poorest, most crime-ridden areas, with Joshua Shipp and Michael Stampley. Shipp, who is 31, has been with the police department for nine years, Stampley, who is 30, for seven. For most of their careers, they had been assigned to patrol divisions, chasing after lawbreakers and making routine arrests. But now they are members of the Neighborhood Police Team. Their job is to get to know residents and help them address problems. “We want them to understand that we’re here to make their lives better,” Shipp told me. “We’re here to do some good.”
Shipp, who is white, and Stampley, who is black, headed to a modest frame home, owned by an elderly woman who had called 911 to complain about a neighbor’s dying pecan tree, whose limbs were hanging over her backyard. The two officers next met with a lady who had reported that her new neighbors had no running water and were urinating off the front porch. They drove to another area to check on a dilapidated house that was suspected of being used for drug buys because the residents never pulled back their curtains.
Then Shipp and Stampley rolled up to a small, cash-only grocery store, where some young men were hanging out underneath a huge “No Loitering” sign. The officers guessed they were likely members of the 357 Dixon Circle Crips, a local gang, and a couple of them quickly walked away, their hands in their pockets. A few others glared at the officers. “What you want?” one of them asked.
“We just wanted to drop by, make sure everything is okay,” Stampley replied.
“You what?” the young man said. Laughing, he too walked away.
The Neighborhood Police Team, which is made up of approximately eighty officers spread throughout the city, was created by police chief David Brown after he was appointed to run the department, in 2010. Most Americans—let alone Texans—knew little about Brown, a striking, muscular 55-year-old who shaves his head and wears thick, black-rimmed glasses, until the evening of July 7. That’s when Micah Johnson, a mentally unstable veteran who had become enraged over the police shootings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota, killed four Dallas police officers and one Dallas Area Rapid Transit officer as a peaceful Black Lives Matter march was coming to an end.
For Dallas, it was a stunning spasm of violence that fed into a larger narrative, which had been playing out across the country. But it was also confounding. Under Brown’s tenure, initiatives such as the Neighborhood Police Team were designed to improve relations between residents and police.
In the aftermath of those murders, Brown, who is black, projected a calm, steady demeanor that helped ease tensions and unify the city. At memorial services and vigils for the fallen officers, he delivered heartrending speeches that captivated people around the country. MSNBC anchor Brian Williams, among others, was so impressed that he suggested the chief would make a good presidential candidate, and an unofficial Twitter campaign on Brown’s behalf soon followed.
The media were also captivated by Brown’s personal story. Raised in South Dallas, he attended the University of Texas at Austin with the help of an academic scholarship but dropped out in 1983 so that he could join the Dallas Police Department. He had dealt with tragedy himself: His brother had been killed by drug dealers in Phoenix; his former partner had been killed in the line of duty; and only weeks after he was named chief, his 27-year-old son, who was bipolar, killed a police officer and another man in the nearby town of Lancaster and was subsequently killed by police.
As Dallas’s top cop, Brown has been a passionate advocate of a law enforcement technique known as community policing. Compared with traditional police practices, in which officers in high-crime neighborhoods race up and down streets in their squad cars, responding to 911 calls, community policing requires officers to get out of their cars and develop relationships with residents in hopes of finding ways to stop crime before it starts. It is costly, requiring additional manpower. And it doesn’t immediately lead to quantifiable results. Yet Brown has long been convinced that community policing is the best way to defuse the smoldering racial tensions between minority residents and cops that have exploded in cities like Ferguson, Baltimore, and Baton Rouge. (Indeed, a scathing report just issued by the Justice Department concluded that officers in Baltimore had systematically harassed black residents.) Community policing, Brown has declared, is what modern-day police departments need to look like. “I think it should be the way we do business, a way that includes the public.”
Years ago, when Brown’s friends asked him why he left UT to become a police officer, he told them he wanted to help end the crack cocaine epidemic and subsequent violence that was destroying his neighborhood. (Brown, a private man who generally shuns the media, did not respond to requests for an interview.) But he was no cookie-cutter cop. According to former Dallas police chief David Kunkle, Brown did not hesitate to “challenge the status quo in a big way.” He often argued, for instance, that a police department could never arrest its way to success in a high-crime neighborhood. “He would say that the citizens in those neighborhoods had to be part of the solution,” said Major Max Geron, a 24-year veteran of the department. “And to make that happen, those citizens had to see police officers as a force for good.”
That, of course, is easier said than done. For decades in the city’s poorer minority communities, the police had been regarded as the enemy, brutal and abusive. During his own childhood, Brown had been warned by his parents and grandparents to keep his distance from police officers. (He once said that his neighborhood’s mantra was “You get the police, you get in trouble.”) Officer-involved shootings of citizens only added to the suspicion. In 1986 he watched South Dallas erupt in protests after a fellow police officer shot and killed Etta Collins, a beloved black Sunday school teacher who had called police because she thought she heard a burglar.
Brown never forgot those incidents, and when he took over the department, he vowed that the relationship between police officers and residents would improve. One of the first tasks he set for himself was to go after police misconduct. In 2011 Brown fired an officer who had beaten a man with a flashlight after he had been restrained, and he publicly praised the cop who had broken the “blue wall of silence” by reporting the attack. In 2012, after an officer shot and killed an unarmed black man whom the officer had chased out of a South Dallas drug house, Brown instituted more reforms. He ordered his officers to participate in deadly-force training sessions every few months instead of every couple of years—officers were taught to use Tasers before resorting to a gun—and he revamped the rules for foot chases, allowing his officers to pursue suspects in only the most serious instances.
At the same time, he set about winning over the trust of minority residents. Besides moving officers out of patrol divisions and putting them on the Neighborhood Police Team, he ordered other officers to conduct foot patrols in high-crime areas. He also created the Youth Outreach Unit, assigning thirty officers to work with at-risk kids from the poorer neighborhoods. The officers coached basketball, soccer, and boxing leagues. They supervised gardening and robotics camps, college prep and financial education classes. One officer even taught guitar lessons.
Needless to say, plenty of Dallas cops have rolled their eyes at Brown’s ideas. In fact, earlier this year, the leaders of one patrol officers’ union called for Brown’s resignation, claiming that he was not using officers appropriately. “Listen, I’m all for having some officers throw a football around with kids,” one veteran patrol officer told me. “And it’s fine with me that we’ve got officers who go around and talk with people who’ve got complaints. But our number one job is to chase the bad guys and get them off the streets before they commit another crime. In the end, that’s what the public wants.”
Brown, however, has stayed the course. Explaining the Youth Outreach Unit to a committee of city council members, he said, “Some may ask, ‘What does this have to do with crime fighting?’ Everything. This is front-end work. An arrest is the back end. We want to work with youths so they don’t become the criminals we arrest.” He also has been equally passionate about defending his Neighborhood Police Team, claiming that it’s the best way he knows for distrustful residents to develop a level of comfort with police officers. Brown has even gone out to those neighborhoods to hold what he calls “Chief on the Beat” meetings, where he updates residents on police policies and activities.
The results appear to be promising. Police department statistics show that excessive-force complaints have fallen 80 percent between 2009 and 2015; officer-involved shootings have also decreased. What’s more, according to Brown, overall crime rates in Dallas are at a fifty-year low. Although it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why there’s less crime in Dallas, Brown has no doubt that his budding community-policing programs should receive at least partial credit.
Neighborhood police officers Shipp and Stampley couldn’t agree more. “What you see us doing might not look very dramatic,” Shipp told me during our ride through southeast Dallas. “We’re not turning on our lights and sirens. But in our own way, we’re making an impact. When citizens realize that we are genuinely here to help them with their problems, no matter how small, then many of them, in turn, start helping us. They start giving us tips about illegal activities that they know are taking place. They tell us about gang activity and prostitution and gambling and the locations of drug houses. They give us a chance to clean up their neighborhoods so that they can feel safer.”
Shipp and Stampley cruised past an empty, ramshackle house where they had been the previous day to talk to some kids who, according to a citizen’s complaint, had been gathering there to throw rocks at cars. On this day, the kids were gone. “We’ll come back around again tomorrow, and then the day after that, just to make sure the kids are gone for good,” said Shipp.
They drove on, pulling up to a stoplight. On the corner was a man smoking a cigarette. For a moment, he seemed to scowl at the officers. Then, apparently recognizing Shipp and Stampley, he raised his hand and waved. The officers waved back. The light changed, and they drove on.