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Watchdog Group Files DOJ Complaint Against Dallas Police, Alleging Racial Pattern of Excessive Force

The group claims Dallas police have participated in a pattern of excessive deadly force against Black and Latino people.

Dallas resident Collette Flanagan holds up a photo of her son, Clinton Allen, who was unarmed when he was shot by Dallas Officer Clark Staller in March 2013, during a public hearing on the impacts of police violence in Dallas on November 7, 2014.

Dallas Communities Organizing for Change, a grassroots, Dallas-based police accountability group, has filed an administrative complaint with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division alleging that the Dallas Police Department (DPD) has participated in a pattern and practice of excessive use of force against Black and Latino people, echoing a national trend.

According to the complaint, between July 2002 and July 2013, there were 185 police-perpetrated shootings reported by the DPD, with 58 resulting in a fatality. Black and Latino fatalities accounted for 43, or 74 percent, of all lethal police-perpetrated shootings. Thirty-six of the 185 police shooting victims were unarmed.

Within that 10-year period, 33 Black people were killed, accounting for nearly 57 percent of all fatalities committed by Dallas police officers, a rate more than twice the population density of Black people as recorded by the 2010 U.S. Census. An additional 10 Latinos were killed in police shootings during the same period — a combined rate 48 percent higher than police-perpetrated fatal shootings of whites.

“I think Dallas is pretty rife for [federal] intervention, because [the police department] is not listening, and one of the problems we have is, we have leaders who have their ears covered,” said civil rights attorney Shayan Elahi, who is counsel for Dallas Communities.

The group submitted an open records request for data on every police shooting from January 1, 1987, to August 11, 2013, and statistically analyzed the (albeit incomplete) responsive data they received from the department in a report released in November 2013. The report provides much of the basis upon which the group’s Justice Department complaint is built.

Since the report was issued, the group has attempted to meet with local city leaders, but every Dallas City Council member except Councilman Adam Medrano has been unresponsive to the group’s efforts to spotlight their research into DPD’s excessive use of force against people of color. “Once they refused to even meet with us, we went ahead and filed with the [Justice Department],” Elahi told Truthout.

The Justice Department is expected to send a response to Elahi and Dallas Communities acknowledging the complaint, but the time it takes to review the complaint varies on a case-by-case basis. The group hopes the Justice Department will be more responsive than city leaders, especially since Vanita Gupta’s appointment to the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Gupta was the former deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, something Dallas Communities hopes will prove promising.

The complaint calls for the Justice Department to withhold federal funding from DPD until the police department agrees to some of the group’s other recommendations, including amending the DPD’s deadly use-of-force policy to emphasize shooting to disable, rather than shooting to kill; to retrain all Dallas officers regarding use of force; to require body-worn cameras are recording while officers are on duty; to abolish the 72-hour review policy by which officers may remain silent and review evidence after a police-perpetrated shooting for up to three days before making an official statement; among other reforms.

DPD Chief David Brown says the department has already made a number of changes regarding its use-of-force policy as well as police shootings.

“Throughout my 32-year career as a Dallas police officer, the citizens of Dallas have shown great trust and confidence in the Dallas Police Department. I understand that this trust is hard to earn, but easy to lose. My pledge is that we will continue to work as hard to maintain and improve citizens’ trust as we did to earn it. In an effort to increase transparency, officer accountability and improve officer safety, I have directed the implementation of numerous policy changes and initiatives. A number of these changes came after an officer-involved shooting in 2012,” Brown said in a statement.

Under pressure from Dallas police accountability organizations like Dallas Communities and Mothers Against Police Brutality, DPD has recently rolled out various changes, including the launch of a new website documenting the details of 12 years worth of police-perpetrated shootings. The website shows both the officers’ and suspects’ race along with whether the suspect was armed.

But another policy change, in November 2013, was the controversial 72-hour review policy, which did, indeed, come after the Dallas district attorney’s Public Integrity Unit secured the indictment of former officer Cardan Spencer for the non-lethal shooting of Bobby Gerald Bennett, which was caught on video.

Organizers with Dallas Communities disagree that the Dallas residents greatly trust the police department. “The City of Dallas and DPD refuse to acknowledge that a pattern exists, regardless of the data presented or the years-long ongoing outcry from the community,” the group’s Justice Department complaint states.

This is not the first time communities in Dallas have called for federal intervention. In the 1970s and 1980s, a similar public outcry over Dallas police violence resulted in national hearings on the police department’s use of deadly force policies by the House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, and a subsequent independent report was submitted to the city in October 1987 outlining several recommendations for the reform of DPD’s deadly use-of-force policy. According to the complaint, “To date, many of the most important recommendations have not been implemented.”

This year has seen 19 police-perpetrated shootings by Dallas officers in which 10 people have been killed and five others were wounded. The district attorney’s Public Integrity Unit has secured the indictments of four Dallas cops this year. In the previous 40 years, not a single Dallas officer had been indicted for shooting civilians.

“I hope [the complaint] will certainly get the attention of the Justice Department, the policies and procedures of deadly force, the use of deadly force in certain zip codes where our children are being hunted in, those things are in there,” said Dallas resident Collette Flanagan, who lost her son Clinton Allen, a 25-year-old who was unarmed, to a Dallas officer, Clark Staller, in March 2013. “I am very optimistic,” she said.

Flanagan founded Mothers Against Police Brutality to be a voice for the families of police-perpetrated shooting victims who have felt isolated by the criminal legal system. She recently joined a delegation of mothers who have lost children to police-perpetrated killings to meet elected officials and push for police reforms in Washington, D.C.

According to the complaint, of eight patrol divisions, nearly 53 percent of incidents in which Dallas police reported force was used, between 2010 and 2012, occurred in the southeast and south-central patrol divisions — zip codes comprising an overwhelmingly majority of Black residents.

Flanagan said she hopes the national spotlight created on police accountability issues by the situation still unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri, after a grand jury decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown, has created a context in which federal authorities will take the Dallas Communities’ complaint more seriously.

“Ferguson is training the world to look at police brutality with a different set of eyes,” she said. “I think Ferguson is showing the world that there are more than a few ‘bad apples.’ We’re past bushels even. We’re into orchards of bad apples.”

Flanagan says Mothers Against Brutality is set to meet with Susan Hawk, who recently beat out former Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins in a close race, in the coming weeks. Flanagan hopes Hawk will continue and broaden Watkins’s work in forming a new civil rights unit to independently investigate police shootings of civilians in Dallas County.

The new unit secured its first indictment of a Dallas officer in November, but many community organizers told Truthout in September that they’re concerned the new unit would be too closely aligned with the DPD for comfort.

Shutting Down the Streets

The day after the St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch announced that a St. Louis County grand jury composed of nine white and three Black jurors declined to bring criminal charges against Wilson, more than 200 people rallied outside the Jack Evans Dallas Police Department headquarters in solidarity with protesters in Ferguson.

Dallas resident Virginia Bradford speaks out during a Ferguson solidarity protest on November 25, 2014, at the Jack Evans Dallas Police Department headquarters about how Dallas officer Bryan Burgess ran over her son, Fred Bradford, with his patrol car in 2013, killing him. Burgess was recently indicted for manslaughter by a Dallas County grand jury.

During the rally at Dallas police headquarters, many relatives of Dallas police-perpetrated shooting victims spoke about the need for action and accountability, not just around cases that garnered national attention, like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, but also lesser-known Dallas cases, like James Harper and Fred Bradford.

“I, at 10 years old, watched two Dallas police officers kill my father. I can’t take those pictures out of my brain,” Sara Mokuria shouted to the crowd during the rally at the Dallas police headquarters. “We’re in Dallas. I’m happy we’re all here talking about Mike Brown, but you need to learn Jason Harrison’s name. You need to learn Clinton Allen’s name.” Mokuria lost her father, Tesfaie Mokuria, to DPD officers in October 1992.

“The federal complaint is a vehicle and a tool for helping us achieve [police reforms], but I think that also, moments like this, where people are showing pressure, my hope is that it’s sustained in the way that Ferguson is because that’s when we really start seeing change,” Mokuria told Truthout.

Protesters left Dallas police headquarters shortly after speeches were finished and marched down Commerce Street near Dealey Plaza and onto Interstate 35E near downtown, bringing traffic to a stop in both directions for more than two hours. Dozens of patrol cars greeted protesters on the highway, forming a barricade of police vehicles, which halted protesters from marching further and prevented others from re-entering the highway.

Police initially turned up the sirens on their patrol cars as loud as they possibly could to intimidate the protesters and persuade them to leave the highway. But the sirens may have had the opposite effect as protesters formed a sit-in on the streets only minutes later.

After a police line was formed, a short standoff between protesters and Dallas police ensued. After dozens of additional patrol vehicles arrived, police began forcing protesters off the highway. Several scuffles broke out as police shoved protesters up against a barrier dividing an off-ramp from the highway. Several people were pushed over the barrier.

Dallas police officers formed a barricade of patrol cars and a police line on Interstate 35E during a Ferguson solidarity protest in Dallas during which protesters shut down the highway for more than two hours on November 25, 2014.

By the end of the night seven protesters were arrested and charged with obstruction of a highway, a Class B misdemeanor.

Statistics Reflect Real Trauma

The families of victims of Dallas police recently told their stories of lingering trauma during a public hearing in early November at the St. Luke United Methodist Church in Dallas.

Mokuria reflected on the scene she witnessed as a 10-year-old child, seeing her father in a pool of his own blood after two white Dallas police officers shot him in what she says was a misunderstanding — partly because her father was Ethiopian and the officers didn’t understand him.

She described how she was no longer able to stand living in the same house where her father had been killed because of the pain of her memories, and how, even today, she still finds herself triggered and startled easily. She worries for her little sister, who was even younger — a toddler — when she witnessed the shooting.

“Sometimes I see little girls with their dads, and I wonder about what that would have been like, to have that relationship,” she told the church audience through tears.

Virginia Bradford testified that it took her three days to find out that a Dallas officer, Bryan Burgess, ran over her son, Fred Bradford, with his patrol car while Bradford was on his bicycle in April 2013. Burgess was recently indicted for manslaughter by a Dallas County grand jury.

Many families spoke about how corporate news outlets focused on assassinating the character of their relatives in ways that attempted to justify the police shooting. Many testified that reading and watching news accounts of their relatives’ killings retraumatized them.

“You get a bad record if they put bad things in the paper which are not true. You never get to hear the good side, or your side, of it. The paper tells what they want to tell. But I’m going to keep shaking the trees until justice is actually served,” Bradford said.

Sean Harrison, whose brother Jason Harrison was shot six times by Dallas police in the doorway of his house in June, described his mother’s trauma in having to live with the memory of his shooting, which she witnessed. Jason Harrison was struggling with mental illness at the time he was killed.

“To listen to the police department say that ‘our officers get 72 hours because they’re traumatized,'” Harrison paused astounded. “You have a 70-year-old woman traumatized because she just watched you murder the child that she birthed, and I guess she’s not traumatized because they took her right down to the police station for a statement.”

Sandra Harper, who lost her son James Harper to DPD officers in July 2012, described how she felt in the days after the shooting.

“You don’t know. You’re mind is gone. You don’t know today, tomorrow; you don’t know nothin’. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t lay down, couldn’t eat. I just walk, walk up to God, and say ‘please give me the strength to help me rest a little bit,'” Harper said.

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