In what one North Texas congressman calls an effort to “prevent the next Ferguson,” Fort Worth is one of six pilot sites chosen for the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, a Justice Department program to help fight crime and build trust between communities and law enforcement agencies.
The $4.75 million partnership with criminal justice experts is vital for the future, Attorney General Eric Holder said in announcing the selected cities.
“Incidents like the one we have witnessed throw into sharp relief why conversations like the one we convened today, to build trust between law enforcement and community members, are so important,” Holder said.
Federal officials will provide high-powered technical, research and training assistance to the cities, where officials welcomed the news.
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“Today more than ever, we must work together to reform our justice and law enforcement policies so that we may improve law enforcement’s relationship with the community and ensure we prevent the next Ferguson,” said U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth.
Police Chief Rhonda Robertson said: “The Fort Worth Police Department is honored to be selected as one of the six pilot sites for this groundbreaking study. Upon learning about the project, we immediately realized the opportunity it would present to strengthen our existing community partnerships and to develop new relationships built upon trust within the community.”
Mayor Betsy Price agreed, saying, “Fort Worth historically has an excellent track record of encouraging diversity as a city. This study will be a valuable tool to open the discussion on equitable treatment in major cities across the nation, including Fort Worth. This study gives us a tool to strengthen our partnership with the justice system and to continue building relationships in the community.”
Veasey said he has already heard local communities voice concerns about the need for law enforcement authorities to build better relations with residents.
“When I co-hosted a Community Policing Summit this past January, participants made clear that we must have the community’s support and trust to be successful. I look forward to working with the Department of Justice to ensure that the Fort Worth community is active and involved in their efforts,” he said.
Despite the officials’ talk of a positive past in Fort Worth, the city has had its share of racial issues. Last year, the leader of the Fort Worth Black Law Enforcement Officers Association called for then-Police Chief Jeff Halstead to be fired because he “irreparably harmed the careers of many minority officers.” Halstead has since retired.
Some black officers also filed grievances with the city’s Human Resources Department in 2013 and have since filed a federal lawsuit against Halstead and the city, alleging racial discrimination, retaliation and harassment.
Widely publicized incidents in the city include the death of a mentally ill man who was hit with a Taser by police and a controversial law enforcement inspection of a Fort Worth gay bar.
The selected cities range in population from 298,000 in Stockton, Calif., to 792,000 in Fort Worth. The others in the pilot program are Pittsburgh; Minneapolis; Gary, Ind.; and Birmingham, Ala.
Crime afflicts each city to varying degrees. Stockton recorded 1,548 violent crimes per 100,000 residents in 2012, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports. Fort Worth recorded 587 violent crimes per 100,000 residents that year.
“We do rank quite high, especially in the area of violent crime,” Stockton Police Chief Eric Jones said in an interview Thursday, “but we see the violent crime rate dropping.”
Training will cover reducing bias, enhancing procedural fairness and supporting reconciliation in communities nationwide. A clearinghouse will be established where information, research and technical assistance will be accessible to law enforcement agencies and community leaders.
The initiative will be guided by a board of advisers that will include national leaders from law enforcement, academia and faith-based groups, along with community leaders and civil-rights advocates.
Justice Department officials will be advisers along with staffers from the department’s Office of Justice Programs, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, Office on Violence Against Women, Civil Rights Division and Community Relations Service.
Holder’s announcement of the program’s details will likely be among his last official acts as attorney general. Next week, the Senate is scheduled to begin debating the confirmation of his replacement, Loretta Lynch, a U.S. attorney based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Despite the entrenched opposition of most Republicans, Lynch appears to have the support necessary for a narrow victory.
Staff writers John Gravois, Domingo Ramirez Jr. and Mark David Smith contributed to this report, which includes material from the Star-Telegram Washington Bureau and the Star-Telegram archives.