Fort Worth

In wake of police shootings, will outside review of Fort Worth police restore trust?

Not quite a month after a rookie police officer killed Atatiana Jefferson in her home, Fort Worth City Manager David Cooke announced Friday that the city has tasked an outside panel with investigating police procedures and forming recommendations to improve how officers interact with the public.

The panel, which includes national experts on a variety of policing issues including use of force and racial profiling, could begin reviewing the Fort Worth Police Department as soon as Dec. 2, pending approval from the City Council Nov. 19. That review will include multiple public forums where the panelists are expected to hear directly from residents about their experiences with police.

“There is a community that doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t trust the police department,” Cooke said. “It’s our job to figure out how we rebuild that trust. We want them to tell us what we should do differently to help build the trust.”

Community activists say it remains to be seen if the city will take police reform seriously.

Mayor Betsy Price called for the third-party review of policing in the week after Aaron Dean, a white officer, shot Jefferson, a 28-year-old black woman, while investigating an open door call at her home in Morningside in the early morning hours of Oct. 12. Dean resigned from the department and has been charged with murder. The shooting sparked unrest across the city as residents protested police brutality with chants of “We do not feel safe in Fort Worth.”

Fort Worth police have shot at nine people this year. Jefferson was the seventh person hit and the sixth to die. Officers fired at two others, but did not hit them.

In a statement, Price called the panelists Cooke assembled “exactly the action promised to Fort Worth residents.”

While she voiced support for Interim Police Chief Ed Kraus and the department, she said she believed working with an independent group of police experts would improve the department.

“It is my hope that together, we can continue to propel this positive step forward and continue to drive change for a better Fort Worth,” she said.

Eight experts chosen

The panelists are:

Theron L. Bowman, co-chair, former Arlington police chief who has participated in police practice investigations in Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles and other cities.

Alex del Carmen, co-chair, associate dean of Tarleton State University’s criminology school and former federal monitor of police departments under consent decrees. He wrote “Racial Profiling in America.”

Lynda Garcia, policing campaign director for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and author of “New Era of Public Safety.” She previously worked at the national ACLU office.

Emily Gunston, deputy legal director at Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and former U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division deputy chief with experience working with police reform in New Orleans and Cleveland.

Tom Petrowski, visiting professor at Tarleton State University and a former FBI Dallas chief legal counsel with experience in use-of-force training.

Marcia Thompson, a law enforcement and civil rights attorney who is vice president of consulting firm Hillard Heintze’s law enforcement division.

Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee who was previously the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division chief during the DOJ’s investigation of the police department in Ferguson, Missouri, following the death of Michael Brown.

Rita Watkins, executive director of the Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas and certified instructor by the Texas Commission of Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education with specialties in cultural diversity issues, leadership development, interpersonal communication, conflict resolution, investigative techniques, and diverse workplaces.

The panel was assembled a little more than a week ahead of a self-imposed deadline of Nov. 19.

Cooke said that was possible in part because of the amount of interest the city received from policing experts across Texas and the country. The city received an “overwhelming” amount of unsolicited inquiries, he said. Bowman and del Carmen were engaged early in the process, he said, and a list of nationally recognized experts quickly formed. Rather than pick candidates himself, Cooke said he asked Bowman, del Carmen and other experts to make recommendations.

In a prepared statement, Bowman and del Carmen declined to comment.

“If confirmed by the City Council, the experts anticipate issuing a statement to the media at that time,” the statement read.

What the panel will do

The panel’s work is split into two phases.

First, it will investigate police practices and patterns related to police stops, searches, arrests and use-of-force incidents. This will include training, accountability measures, de-escalation tactics and reporting procedures between 2014 and present. The panel is expected to provide recommendations for improvements and meet frequently with members of the community.

A second phase will more broadly review general police practices and orders related to the department’s relationship with the public, including training associated with traffic stops and routine interactions with residents.

A full report with recommendations is expected at the end of both phases.

Kraus, in a prepared statement, said he was committed to making positive changes to the department.

“We welcome the review of our policies and procedures to support that improvement, and look forward to working with the distinguished, highly respected members of the panel,” he said.

Manny Ramirez, president of the Fort Worth Police Officers Association, said the union understood the reasons for the review and its goals. He said he was hopeful the panel would find holes in the department’s policy, including some observations the union has made. He suggested staffing levels are critical, including a need to recruit more diverse cadets. Comprehensive scenario-based training is needed and incentives for officers to live in the same communities they patrol should be explored, he said.

“I think anything that makes our department better will ultimately make the city safer,” he said.

The process will cost the city as much as $400,000 and could take nine months to a year, Cooke said. Money will come from a city fund designed for consulting services. The council will approve the anticipated budget Nov. 19 along with the panelists. Cooke said the vote was scheduled then, and not next week, to give both the council and the public time to review the panelists and make comments.

Community input

It will be some time before it’s clear whether this panel will restore trust as Cooke and Price hope.

Many, especially those in the city’s communities of color, have grown troubled with Fort Worth police after a rash of officer-involved shootings this year, the bulk of which took place this summer

Unrest hit a high when JaQuavion Slaton, 20, was shot by multiple officers who surrounded a truck he was hiding in on June 9. A coroner’s report indicates he was also struck with a self-inflicted shot from a gun found within the truck, but several experts told The Star-Telegram the officers’ tactics were questionable.

Pamela Young, a member of the Tarrant County Coalition for Community Oversight which has made a series of demands related to reform, suggested Garcia, from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, because of her background working with consent decrees and enforcing bias-free policing.

“She was the perfect candidate for this,” Young said. “We’re hoping everyone they pick is objective and has a mission to see change in the Fort Worth Police Department and not a mission to uphold the status quo.”

She remained skeptical of the city, though, because she believed leaders have not been sincere in shaking up police practices, pointing to two critical reports on the department.

One, known as a the Coleman Report, found no “hard finding of race-based discrimination” but did conclude hostility existed in the department. The National League of Cities found black and Hispanic residents were disproportionately more likely to be arrested than whites.

Cooke said this investigation would be different than the League of Cities report, which looked broadly at city practices, because he expected the panelists to be “laser focused” on policing problems.

Jen Sarduy, a co-founder of Re+Birth Equity Alliance who has been critical of the city’s response to police shootings, said she had doubts. The panel does not feel like a community-driven effort for reform, she said. Panelists will have to take public comments and criticisms seriously for it to be effective.

“I think my largest fear is that it’ll just be talking heads and some watered down recommendations that the city can find palatable,” she said. “What we need is structural, meaningful change.”

For more than a month residents have spoken at City Council meetings decrying the shooting as an example of systemic racism in Fort Worth.

Many have said they do not believe the panel will be independent because it was selected by city officials. Instead, some speakers echoed calls from a group of Fort Worth pastors suggesting the city enter into a contract with the U.S. Department of Justice to have federal officials review the police department.

But such contracts, called consent decrees, are not as simple as requesting federal oversight. Many are court-ordered, like the one Chicago went under this year after the Illinois attorney general sued the city.

Del Carmen previously told the Star-Telegram most police departments do not qualify for a consent decree because periodic trouble does not rise to the intense level of scrutiny a consent decree employs. Consent decrees can stretch for decades and cost millions of dollars.

Cooke said he expected the panelists to treat their investigation like a consent decree since many of them have worked for the Department of Justice or participated in federal oversight of police departments.

Petrowski, for instance, is involved in the consent decree with the Puerto Rico Police Department, and Bowman was a federal court-appointed consent decree monitor in Baltimore. Gunston negotiated with the Cleveland Police Department during a consent decree.

“They know what is involved when they go into a city whether it’s the DOJ administering the work or us,” Cooke said.

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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 lranker@star-telegram.com.
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