The biggest challenge that police agencies across the country face is the need to identify those people who shouldn’t be police officers and protect the public and their colleagues from those individuals. I think, of all of the challenges facing police forces, this is by far the most difficult because for years those individuals have been protected by laws, by police associations and by their colleagues.
Nothing illustrates this need more than the Dallas Police Department. As police critic Radley Balko points out in a column on Friday, “one particularly unfortunate aspect of the murder of five Dallas police officers Thursday night is that the city’s police department is a national model for community policing.”
Writes Mr. Balko, “Chief David Brown, who took office in 2010, has implemented a host of policies to improve the department’s relationship with the people it serves, often sticking out his own neck and reputation in the process.”
One thing that Chief Brown did was, after a series of officer-involved shootings in 2013, he “overhauled the department’s lethal-force policies, including a requirement that officers undergo training every two months instead of every two years.”
According to Mr. Balko, these changes have worked, “After hitting a high in 2012, officer-involved shootings in the city dropped in each ensuing year.”
Chief Brown isn’t perfect. For instance, in 2013, he “introduced a policy that allows police officers to wait 72 hours before answering questions about a shooting.”
He has also “fired more than 70 Dallas cops since taking office. But he doesn’t just fire bad cops, he also announces the firings — and the reasons for them — on social media. It’s a bold sort of transparency for which, again, he’s been criticized by police groups.”
Chief Brown has also “implemented a policy of collecting and releasing data on all use-of-force incidents. Brown has also implemented a body camera policy that’s mostly consistent with the model policy recommended by the American Civil Liberties Union. He also regularly makes himself available to the media.”
In a 2014 op-ed shortly after Ferguson erupted,” Brown stressed the importance of transparency, disclosure and honesty in the hours after a police shooting.”
In another interview, he stressed the importance of staying connected to and in touch with the community, even when tensions are high: “I would much rather have a couple of hundred folks shouting at me in a church than on a protest line after a police shooting because ‘I never talked to them,’ or ‘I never listened to them,’ ‘I never had a meeting with them.’”
Under Chief Brown, Dallas “has also emphasized and publicized the fact that citizens have a First Amendment right to record police officers (although the agency’s actual written policy could definitely be improved).”
Mr. Balko focuses some of his piece on the fact that the tragedies will make it less likely for these policies to be implemented elsewhere. Indeed, he writes, “I’ve already seen some criticism on social media suggesting that Brown’s permissive approach to policing protests may be partly to blame for what happened last night. Even given how little information we have right now, this is absurd.”
But there is a secondary point that needs to be made here. The policies of Dallas police are not what led this troubled young man to go on a shooting rampage. I’m willing to bet that this young man had no idea what the Dallas Police policies were on things like use of force or transparency.
Mr. Balko argues, “It’s true that guns make such attacks easier. But guns also aren’t necessary, as we saw with the Boston Marathon bombing. Attacks like this one won’t be prevented with more aggressive policing, less police transparency, more tolerance of police brutality or more permissive use-of-force policies. To truly eliminate the risk of such attacks would require massive shifts of power and authority that would fundamentally alter our concept of what makes a free society free.”
Or, to make the point more broadly, what the shooter in this case was reacting to is a national problem of policing. It seems like he had been planning this for some time and the recent shootings gave him a moment of opportunity and an excuse to carry out the plan.
But I think a more important point is this: the bad policing tactics that we saw certainly in Minnesota and probably Baton Rouge as well, coupled with what has happened in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Baltimore, New York, Ferguson, South Carolina, Chicago, San Francisco, Oakland and many other places creates the backdrop for this tragedy.
The bottom line is that police may be in more danger in Dallas because of the bad actors in other communities and cities across the country. Good police officers are endangered by the actions of bad police officers.
If we want to change that, we need to crack down on the bad apples so that the majority of good officers do not have to carry their burden. That is a tall task, but that is the lesson I glean out of Dallas.
—David M. Greenwald reporting