Fort Worth

Can civilian review improve trust in Fort Worth police?

The next time a Fort Worth Police Department officer pulls the trigger, a greater level of public scrutiny might be involved in determining if the shooting was justified.

A police monitor will track investigations into officer-involved shootings and a community oversight board will provide a bridge between the residents and City Hall. Those are recommendations from the city manager and a special task force, but how they would operate has not been set in stone, and the City Council will have the final say.

Proponents say both would increase public trust in the police department.

“We’d have confidence that if there is any funny business going on, it’ll be flagged and addressed,” said Pamela Young, an organizer with United Fort Worth, the grassroots coalition that has pushed for greater citizen participation in policing through its Tarrant County Coalition for Community Oversight. “That’s your accountability piece and your transparency piece.”

The concept of a citizen oversight bubbled up in December when the council accepted recommendations from the Race and Culture Task Force, and City Manager David Cooke earlier this year told council members he wanted the city to adopt both.

But calls for greater oversight into police actions heated up after police were involved in four shootings since June 1. The shooting of JaQuavion Slaton, 20, on Sunday sparked emotional criticism from those who said the officers’ actions were excessive. Slaton was shot multiple times by three officers while inside a truck. Police have said Slaton raised a handgun and a medical examiner’s report shows a bullet from that gun struck his head.

When an officer is involved in a shooting, the Major Case Unit and the Internal Affairs Unit investigate. Those findings are sent to the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office for grand jury review.

That’s the norm for mid- to large-size departments, said Johnny Nhan, an associate professor of criminal justice at Texas Christian University. Internal affairs investigators are usually segregated from the rest of the police department and don’t make determinations. Instead they simply gather information to pass on to either the chief or district attorney.

Under the recommendations from Cooke and the task force, a police monitor, a city employee directly under Cooke, would track the internal investigation and make reports to him and the police chief. Cooke plans to include the salary for this position in the 2020 budget.

“The intent is that this monitor is the third party,” Cooke said. “Someone who is outside the department but understands how they function and can look at it from an independent standpoint.”

United Fort Worth has pushed for a board made up of community members to have subpoena power to compel officers to testify and provide information.

Under the plan, the board’s role would be to review reports from the monitor, make recommendations on policy and discipline, and listen to concerned residents.

Details of how the board would operate have not been finalized but United Fort Worth wants significant public input.

“We always want the community to be at the table,” said Young, the United Fort Worth organizer.

The council has been lukewarm to the oversight board.

In discussions, Councilwoman Kelly Allen Gray has said she wants more information about the structure of the board and its powers. Councilman Brian Byrd has suggested starting with just the monitor and assessing if the board is needed.

Councilwoman Gyna Bivens, who represents the Stop Six neighborhood where Slaton was killed, said public trust will depend on how the board is constructed. She wants each council member to appoint a member to ensure their districts are represented, she said.

Her larger concern was the spread of misinformation. Immediately after the shooting Sunday, a rumor police had shot an unarmed teenager “spread like wildfire” and stoked fear in the neighborhood.

“I’m not sure a board or anything could handle that,” she said.

Nhan, the TCU associate professor, said these boards require a delicate balance.

In some cases the increased oversight negatively affects officers’ morale and causes some to avoid taking actions for fear of retribution, he said.

On the other hand, departments have historically been seen as poor at investigating themselves and review boards create a sense of greater transparency.

Richard Vazquez, a Stop Six leader, said he supports a civilian board, but he’s not sure if it would increase trust. The board should be fair to both the community and police, he said, a balance that may be tough to find in a city where people are deeply invested.

“A lot of people have been treated unfairly, but there are people who portray officers in a way that makes them look bad,” he said.

Vazquez thought a quicker way to gain trust was simply by hiring people who live in the community as patrol officers for their neighborhoods.

“Nobody knows what happens in a community like people who live there,” he said. “When people see someone from the community stepping up, cleaning up, that says a lot.”

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Luke Ranker covers the intersection of people and government focused on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. He came to Texas from the plains of Kansas, where he wrote about a lot, including government, crime and courts in Topeka. He survived a single winter in Pennsylvania as a breaking news reporter. He can be reached at 817-390-7747 or
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