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In Texas, Dallas County and these 6 cities just began their work rethinking police

Dallas Morning News logo Dallas Morning News 7/2/2020 By Nic Garcia, The Dallas Morning News
a group of people walking in front of a building: Protesters march in downtown Dallas on June 20, 2020. Dallas County is responding to the protests by hosting a countywide conversation about rethinking police and budget priorities. © Vernon Bryant/Dallas Morning News/TNS Protesters march in downtown Dallas on June 20, 2020. Dallas County is responding to the protests by hosting a countywide conversation about rethinking police and budget priorities.

DALLAS — As cities across the country begin to answer protesters’ calls for dramatic changes to police and poverty, Dallas County is attempting a unique regional approach that includes both the city of Dallas and its suburbs.

If county officials pull it off, it could be a model for other large urban areas.

The countywide discussion to rethink public safety started Wednesday when a group of activists, faith leaders and officials from six cities met privately to find both immediate and lasting solutions to the longstanding problem of overpolicing. The committee includes city officials from Balch Springs, Dallas, DeSoto, Irving, Lancaster and Mesquite.

The 14-member working group, facilitated by Dallas County Administrator Darryl Martin, is meant to serve as a catalyst for racial justice at a time when the nation is ripe for drastic changes to policing after the death of George Floyd.

Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, was killed when a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly eight minutes on May 25 in Minneapolis. His death, caught on tape, triggered a wave of ongoing protests across the U.S., including in Dallas and its suburbs.

Since then, several cities and states have taken varying levels of actions.

The two specific goals for the committee, according to its first agenda provided to The Dallas Morning News, is to find alternatives to police as first responders and identify “basic human needs,” such as housing, health care and the arts for the participating cities to invest in during the next budget cycle.

“There is an urgency for all of us,” said Martin, who runs the county’s daily operation.

Martin and the city managers on the committee are responsible for drafting their respective government’s budget, which must be approved by their governing bodies by the end of September. Any proposed shift in policy or tax dollars that may find consensus among this committee would still face several votes before becoming reality.

“We’re working a little upstream to influence what those managers take to the table,” said John Fullinwider, a committee member and co-founder of Mothers Against Police Brutality. “It’s generally a good sign they want to talk.”

Fiscal years aside, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, the county’s chief executive, said it is important for the committee to act quickly before the political will for titanic change is lost.

“I want an honest conversation and tangible results that move reforming the police and civil rights forward,” he said.

The Rev. Frederick D. Haynes, senior pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas and a member of the committee, echoed Jenkins.

“I think we have an opportunity to do something that can be pace-setting,” he said. “These are powerful days of America looking in the mirror. And I’m excited because it gives us a chance to exercise moral imagination and moral courage to birth something (that) should have been from the jump.”

Haynes is one of the authors of a policy memo dubbed 10 New Directions for Public Safety and Positive Community Change. It was written after a two-hour digital town hall between activists, Jenkins and other elected officials during the early days of protests.

Among the recommendations for local governments: hire platoons of therapists and counselors to respond to mental health emergencies, bench police officers after they use excessive force until after an investigation is completed and develop better relationships with historically underserved communities.

Brandon Wright, DeSoto’s city manager, said he was excited to learn more about the community’s ideas, especially identifying a different strategy to respond to emergencies.

“To me, it’s not so much are we taking money away from police but making sure the services we have align with the mission we’re trying to achieve,” he said. “Sending a police officer is not the best tool for mental health.”

The regional approach is novel, said Timothy Bray, a criminologist at the University of Texas at Dallas. If successful, it could provide a model for other large urban centers that have multiple jurisdictions and police departments. There are more than 30 different police departments in Dallas County, Bray said.

“A county, in theory, can set up a body of standards,” he said, such as prosecuting policies for certain offenses including excessive use of force by police officers. “If one city changes how it does policing but the neighboring cities don’t, I don’t know if we’d have as much of an effect as a regional approach.”

Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot will represent the county on the committee. Early in his tenure, he set out a series of policy changes including a prohibition on prosecuting individuals accused of stealing “necessary items” valued below $750.

Creuzot was not available for an interview, his spokeswoman said.

Dallas County commissioners last month also approved a resolution that called on all law enforcement agencies in their jurisdiction to adopt cite-and-release policies that focus more on ticketing low-level offenders than jailing them.

Brittany White, a member of the working group and an organizer at Faith in Action, a national nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform including ending mass incarcerations, said she was in favor of the countywide approach.

“It does no service to my nieces and nephews if I only bring about change in the city of Dallas,” she said, pointing to her family’s home on the border of Duncanville, Grand Prairie and Cedar Hill.

The memo initially asked for Jenkins and Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson to establish a joint committee to tackle the issue of police brutality and reallocating money from public safety to fund programs to end poverty.

Johnson declined to participate, citing two existing committees to handle the work. However, Dallas’ City Manager T.C. Broadnax is participating.

“It’s shortsighted to say we already have enough committees,” Haynes said, noting that what makes this committee different is the expertise of community activists who have been pushing for major overhauls for years. “For me it’s much different because you have people who are doing the hard work and heavy lifting fighting for transformation. They’ve been doing this for years. And this time they’re not on the outside looking in.”

White said the structure of this committee will allow for the voices of people affected by the systems including those formerly incarcerated to be heard.

“I don’t want to be a gatekeeper,” she said. “I’m going to be advocating for their needs. This is not a self-serving opportunity. This is about being of service to the people in the community.”

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©2020 The Dallas Morning News

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