When Grapevine officer Robert Clark fatally shot an unarmed Mexican immigrant after a pursuit in February, police officials knew that challenging times lay ahead.
Allegations of excessive force by Rubén García Villalpondo’s family and supporters soon erupted, with Dallas attorney Domingo Garcia leading the charge. Family members and supporters, chanting “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” spoke before the City Council, questioning García’s death.
And when a grand jury decided not to indict the officer, Next Generation Action Network, based in Grand Prairie, quickly organized a protest outside the Grapevine Police Department, calling for Clark to be fired.
But among residents of Grapevine, support for the department was overwhelming, Sgt. Robert Eberling said. One reason, he said, is work done at the department’s Community Outreach Center, which caters largely to the city’s Hispanic population offering GED and English classes, tutoring and feed-the-children summer programs.
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“Our community was unwavering during that whole incident, even the length of time we couldn’t release the video,” Eberling said last week during a visit to the center. “We constantly had a lot of support. The chief really feels it’s because of programs like this that we got that support.”
Last week, McKinney became the latest Police Department to come under fire, for the actions of Cpl. Eric Casebolt responding to a disturbance call at the Craig Ranch community pool. A video taken by a teen at the pool showed Casebolt, who is white, repeatedly pushing a bikini-clad African-American teen onto the ground and pulling his gun after other teens drew near.
Casebolt has resigned from the department.
As highly publicized incidents continue to plague police departments nationwide, some local departments say forging relationships with residents, including growing minority populations in their cities, is more vital than ever.
While most have followed the community-policing philosophy for several years, some departments are finding it necessary to go beyond just having neighborhood police officers and programs like citizen police academies.
“To me, you can’t just ask for volunteers. Those are the people that want to get involved and probably already have a good feeling about the police department,” said Cpl. Tracey Knight, a Fort Worth police spokeswoman. “You want to go out there and get the ones who don’t want to volunteer and who don’t have the best point of view.…
“You can’t wait for them to go knock on your door; you have to go knock on their door.”
Growing minority communities
Census data show that the number of minorities in Tarrant County cities has exploded in just a little more than a decade.
And police departments say hiring enough minority officers to reflect the changing makeup of residents can be a struggle.
In North Richland Hills, for example, the number of Hispanics almost doubled between 2000 and 2013, rising from 9.5 percent of the city’s population to 16.1 percent. In Mansfield, while the number of Hispanics rose only slightly, the African-American community more than tripled, from 4.4 percent of the population in 2000 to 14 percent in 2013.
And in McKinney, the portion of African-Americans has climbed to 11.3 percent of the population in 2013 from 7.2 percent in 2000. The Hispanic population grew from 18.2 percent to 19.6 percent in that time.
High-profile national incidents, such as the police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., don’t help with recruiting efforts.
“We get painted by a broad brush. [People think] we’re all the same,” Knight said.
According to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement records, African-Americans make up about 10.7 percent of Fort Worth’s 1,558 licensed peace officers, and Hispanics about 16.4 percent. White officers represent 70.1 percent of the department.
In comparison, census data show that in 2013 blacks made up 19 percent of the city’s population, Hispanics 34.2 percent, and whites 41.3 percent.
Knight said the department is striving to be more reflective of the community, and in recent years has amped up recruiting efforts nationwide. That includes visiting predominately minority colleges and posting videos on the department’s YouTube channel about working for the department by minority and gay officers.
“We’re trying to get the word out, especially to younger people, ‘Come work with us. We’re all inclusive,’” Knight said.
Some strides are being made. A nationwide report released last month by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that the percentage of police officers who were members of racial or ethnic minority groups in 2013 was nearly double that of the late 1980s.
Robert Hinton, assistant police chief in Colleyville, said that while the makeup of officers in his department closely mirrors that of the community, attracting any qualified candidate into law enforcement is a nationwide problem.
“Finding good quality candidates of any race is very much the challenge of our time for any police agency,” Hinton said.
Colleyville is a member of PACT, a joint effort among five Northeast Tarrant cities that gives individuals interested in law enforcement the chance to take one test for employment eligibility with five police agencies.
Like Fort Worth, PACT has been recruiting in the minority community, including making trips to predominantly minority colleges.
“We have seen a serious lack of minority candidates stepping forward and testing to become police officers,” Hinton said.
‘One bad apple’
While some might attribute what happened in McKinney to racism in America, that would be only partially true, according to Jayden Gray,14, and his father, Maurice Gray.
“McKinney is a great community,” said Maurice Gray, 41. “I’ve never had a problem with the adults in the community. We got our one bad apple out of the bunch and hopefully the other police will learn. If the police would have just assessed the situation correctly from the beginning, this would have never made the news.”
The Grays, who are African-American, moved to the Craig Ranch community more than three years ago from the Ferguson area, where the shooting of a black teen by a white officer last year was followed by several days of violent protests and looting. Jayden Gray, his four siblings and mother were at the Craig Ranch community recreation area on June 5 when police were called out.
Ferguson is racist, Maurice Gray insists. What happened in McKinney that day, he said, was a racist incident but not reflective of a racist town.
“St. Louis is a segregated city,” Gray said. “Police have pulled guns on me there and taken me to jail for no reason. What happened in McKinney does not even compare with what happened in Ferguson.
“In the 31/2 years that I’ve been here, I have not ever been tailed once by a police officer. The white kids and my kids play sports together. If there is racial tension here, it’s hidden pretty well.”
John Kay, pastor at Wesley United Methodist Church in McKinney, said he believes that dialogue between the city’s residents is a key to healing whatever rift might exist between the races and that churches must work together to help in that mission.
“When you work together, it’s not an us-against-them effort,” Kay said.
Making inroads after controversy
Fort Worth police know what it’s like to be under such intense public scrutiny.
Within a decade, the department has weathered fallout from multiple high-profile incidents: The Taser-related death of a mentally ill black man in 2009; a controversial bar check of the Rainbow Lounge, a newly opened gay bar, that year that led to protests outside the courthouse and international news coverage; and more recently, the fatal shooting of a 72-year-old white retiree by an officer who went to the wrong house on an burglary alarm call.
Knight said that while no program or effort by a department will prevent controversial incidents, bridging gaps between police and the diverse community they serve is vital to minimizing the blowback from such incidents.
Under Texas Commission on Law Enforcement rules, individuals obtaining or holding a basic peace officer’s license in the state must undergo at least eight hours of cultural diversity training every four years.
But after its controversies, Fort Worth strove to do more.
Former Police Chief Jeff Halstead appointed liaison officers as contacts for the LGBT community, African-Americans, Hispanics, the deaf or hard of hearing, and the homeless.
The department sought citizen volunteers from various diverse backgrounds, including Muslims and the LGBT community, to serve on committees that helped develop and teach curriculum about their cultures to police recruits.
And more recently, Fort Worth sought and was chosen as one of six pilot cities for a federal initiative aimed at helping fight crime and building trust between communities and law enforcement agencies.
“We want to be ahead of the curve as much as possible,” Knight said.
Knight said the department also relies on older partnerships, such as the Clergy and Police Alliance program and Ministers Against Crime, to help ease tensions at difficult scenes like police-involved shootings and to serve as a liaison with residents.
“We’ve worked on those relationships for decades,” Knight said. “That isn’t something that just happens overnight. You have to develop those relationships and maintain those relationships in the good times too.”
In Arlington, in addition to several ongoing programs that reach out to the community’s diverse population, the department has been embracing a new philosophy for the last three years known as “procedural justice.”
Lt. Christopher Cook said the staff is being trained that on every call and interaction, officers must aim to be fair and transparent, to provide residents an opportunity to voice their side, and to be impartial in decision-making.
He said the department believes that he approach will help build greater trust in the community.
“At the end of the day, who decides about police fairness? It’s the person on the other end that views their interaction with us no matter what role we are in,” Cook said.
Reaching out and revitalizing
Yareli Gobellan, 23, said that she has never had a bad dealing with police but that her husband believes he was racially profiled in Dallas when stopped while driving the family’s new Cadillac.
“He was just going to the bakery to buy bread,” Gobellan said. “They told him he did a wide turn which I don’t really understand.”
Gobellan said the Dallas officers asked her husband whose car he was in and then told him they wanted to search it “because they said it smelled like weed.”
“He doesn’t do any drugs at all,” Gobellan said.
She said he was ultimately allowed to go on his way and no search was conducted.
Now living in Grapevine, Gobellan said her family’s interactions with police there have been only positive.
She is taking GED classes at the Community Outreach Center. Her 7-year-old son, Abraham, has participated in the center’s after-school program and Feed the Children Program.
“He wants to be a police officer when he grows up,” she said.
Begun in 2006 in a cramped first-floor apartment, the outreach center has grown into a large-scale enterprise operating out of two portable buildings on school district property off Mustang Drive in south Grapevine.
It is near apartment complexes and a mobile home park that are home to a large number of the city’s Hispanic residents.
“We didn’t start this program saying, hey, we need to have a better image out there,” Eberling said. “We started this program because we felt there was a need to give some services to the community, what this particular area of town lacked. We felt we needed to fill that gap.”
Eberling said the biggest benefit from the center has been the revitalization of the area.
“I’ve been here for 17 years. When I first started working here, this was a bad area. We were making a ton of arrests, repeat calls and same offenders,” Eberling said. “Not to say we don’t have any problems down here. Occasionally we do. But nothing like we had 15 years ago.”
“The unseen benefit of it is we have generated a lot of support from our citizens.”
Staff writer Yamil Berard contributed to this report.
Deanna Boyd, 817-390-7655
Mitch Mitchell, 817-390-7752