In the year since a gunman killed five officers, Dallas police have been buffeted by the retirement of a chief, a contentious pension battle and a continuing exodus of officers. Despite these challenges, two brand-new officers say they’ve landed in the right place, in a city where they feel they can do some good.
Officer Brannon Barber has been on the streets for just a few weeks. Born and raised in Oak Cliff, he now patrols his old neighborhood as part of Dallas Police Department’s Southwest Division. And it’s been eye opening.
“Just the amount of crime that’s going on – the stabbing, the shooting, the robberies,” Barber says with a sigh, “I knew it was going on. I just didn’t know it was going on that much, that consistently, so that was a bit shocking for me.”
Barber gets mixed reaction wearing the uniform. He’s had people stop him on the street to say thanks. And he’s had tough encounters because trust with police is far from automatic in many of these neighborhoods.
Every morning, he has a ritual: After he gets up and dressed, he sits down and prays.
“I ask God to cover me in his blood and shelter me with his wings and allow me to stay out of harm’s way and return back home to my loved ones,” Barber says. “That, there, puts me in the right mind frame for what I’m about to encounter.”
It puts him at ease, and keeps him on his toes, he says, so he leaves the police station unworried, but wary.
“At any given moment, anything can happen,” Barber says. “July 7 can happen any day of the week.”
The July 7 attack happened just eight days after Barber enrolled in the Dallas Police Academy. Like the rest of the country, Barber watched, horrified and unable to help. Like his classmates, he decided to stay the course and enter the department despite the gravest reminder that officers face risk every time they go to work.
“The Dallas police family is a very tight family. So, when one officer is killed, it impacts the whole department, particularly in the way it happened; it’s a terrible thing. A lot of pain, a lot of grief,” says Danny Souder, a Dallas police chaplain for three decades.
A year after the attacks, Souder says many officers are still struggling to process the tragedy.
No time to grieve
Over the last year, since the shooting, the Dallas Police Association has seen a three-fold increase in officers using counseling services. The department also crafted new strategies to help officers cope with the trauma of the unprecedented event.
At the same time, the police force has continued to struggle with staffing shortages. With low pay and a troubled pension fund, for years officers have been leaving faster than they can be replaced. Now, the department is almost 400 officers short of the 3,500 its leaders say are needed.
“It’s almost like no officers have had a chance to grieve, and we’ve lost so many officers. You have so many officers working overtime and double shifts to try to maintain the police presence in the city that there has been no down time for officers,” said Sgt. Mike Mata, president of the Dallas Police Association.
Mata says those diminished resources leave officers more vulnerable.
“We are one call away from being in a deadly force confrontation and risking our life. You go into a briefing room where you’re used to seeing 30 or 40 officers, now you’re seeing 15 to 10. And you’re thinking in your head 'who’s going to cover me in my call?'” Mata says. “It’s a city leadership issue.”
“This city loves its police officers,” Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings says.
Rawlings points out that the city has begun increasing the pay scale that for years has remained below that of neighboring departments. After a protracted battle, a pension deal was struck in May, though the mayor acknowledges a lot of people aren’t thrilled about it.
“It is a gritty, tough fight to deal with this stuff because you’re talking about money,” Rawlings said. “You’re talking about taxpayers’ money. You’re talking about police officers’ money. And, as everybody knows, you just can’t give everybody what they want.”
Watch '24 hours in Dallas: From Peace to Horror to Grief'
Hard calls and humanity
After the shootings, many Dallas officers bought extra body armor — a vest that goes on top of the department-issued vest in order to withstand the kind of high-power rifle rounds the Dallas shooter used on July 7. This spring, the Texas Legislature allocated money to help departments buy vests like that.
Officer Chelsea Montanino bought her own. She also started the police academy eight days before the attack. As she prepped for to hit the streets at 11 o’clock — the beginning of the “deep night” shift at the Northwest police station — Montanino said she’ll carry that extra body armor in the trunk of her cruiser.
In the nearly three months she’s been on patrol, Montanino says there’s no “normal” when you’re a cop: One night it’s mostly traffic stops and the next night, you’re rushing from call to call. The hardest calls, she says, are domestic violence cases. She carries candy in her bag in case kids are at the scene.
“I just want them to realize that we’re human because that’s the thing is, if we have to take their parents to jail or anything like that , they look at us badly,” she says. “And so I want to put a positive image of police in their eyes.”
Always, she says, you have to be alert. Just a few days ago, Montanino says she was patting down a suspect and found a gun in his waistband. Nothing happened, but it was a stark reminder.
“That just puts it into perspective that it is a very dangerous job,” she says. “I want to go home to my daughter at the end of the day, just like anybody else. But I can’t let it affect the way I do my job.”
Neither does Montanino dwell on the problems in the department much – the attrition problems, or the pension mess. That, she says, is for leadership to figure out. She just wants to focus on being a good cop, which she says is more than just chasing bad guys.
“It’s also helping those people that are good in the world, too, that maybe are just having a rough day,” Montanino says. “We’re just helping people that need help.”