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Finalists make their case for filling Fort Worth’s police oversight director position

Finalists Michelle Phillips, left, and Bonycle Sokunbi, right, speak at a public forum May 31, 2023.
Emily Wolf
Fort Worth Report
Finalists Michelle Phillips, left, and Bonycle Sokunbi, right, speak at a public forum May 31, 2023.

Who will lead Fort Worth’s police oversight office after Kim Neal’s departure in November? Fort Worth has narrowed its search to two finalists — and community members had plenty of questions for them ahead of the city’s final decision.

The public was invited to a two-hour Q&A session at Como Community Center with finalists Bonycle Sokunbi and Michelle Phillips. Sokunbi currently works as the deputy independent police monitor for the Office of the Independent Police Monitor in New Orleans, and Phillips currently works as inspector general in Oakland, California.

The center’s gym was transformed for the occasion, with felt mats laid over the hardwood court and more than 200 chairs set out for residents. Fewer than 50 people showed up to hear from the finalists. The majority of those in attendance were Black.

Estrus Tucker, CEO of DEI Consultants and former member of the city’s race and culture task force, posed questions submitted by residents to each finalist, ranging from how they would combat political pressures on the office to preventing future shootings of minority residents by police officers.

It’s been six months since the inaugural police oversight director, Kim Neal, left her post to lead a new oversight office in Virginia. Tucker said whoever is chosen to replace Neal will have big shoes to fill.

“But wow, do we have two incredible candidates to step into your shoes and beyond,” Tucker said to Neal, who was present at the forum.

‘Fair, firm, and impartial’

In five-minute opening statements, Sokunbi and Phillips laid out their personal experiences and how they influence their philosophies of police oversight.

Sokunbi realized the need for police oversight when trying her first case as a prosecutor. The case was open and shut: The jury affirmed the charges, but in the end, it didn’t matter — it was revealed that the police officers who worked the case had been stealing money from confidential informants. The conviction fell apart, Sokunbi said.

As she continued her career as a prosecutor, others in the prosecutor’s office told Sokunbi that her talents and passion had a place in police oversight. She worked her way up the ranks in New Orleans’ police monitor office to her current position as deputy independent police monitor.

“I am committed to doing this work and I’m committed to doing this work long term,” Sokunbi said. “I stumbled upon it initially. But I believe with my skill set, my background, it’s where I’m really supposed to be.”

Phillips began her professional career as a corrections officer at 19, she said, in order to have a job. But some of the things she saw behind the “wall,” as she dubbed it, are things she wishes she could forget. Things like disparate treatment of Black men behind bars, and increasing recidivism as a result.

That experience influenced her career path, culminating in her current position as inspector general in Oakland.

“I will hold the police accountable,” she said. “And what does that look like and what does that mean? Collaborative involvement, policy reform. Fair, firm, and impartial investigations that go from front to back.”

‘I’m listening, I’m learning and I’m planning’

Tucker asked both finalists to describe their plans for the first 60 days in office.

Phillips said her first step would be conducting a need assessment. She’d talk with staff about gaps in the current system, and make moves from there.

Sokunbi agreed, and said she’d do a review of what has happened in the oversight office in the past year. She would specifically look at who the office had not been successful in reaching, and tailor targeted strategies to engage those residents that haven’t been heard.

“In the first 60 days, I’m listening, I’m learning and I’m planning,” Sokunbi said. “Then it’s time to execute a little bit after.”

Both Phillips and Sokunbi said they’d take their findings to the city manager’s office and push for necessary changes revealed in their assessments.

Responses to resource crunch, political pressure

One hypothetical posed to the finalists was if they got into office and found resources lacking. What, Tucker asked, would they do?

Phillips said she’d organize residents and put pressure on elected officials to put money in the budget toward the oversight office.

“I’m not gonna be used to gaslight a community,” she said. “I’m not gonna be here to just take taxpayer money.”

Sokunbi said she wants to have stable funding for the oversight office, independent of other things happening in the city. The oversight office has to plan for when council members in office change, when support dwindles, and they still need to do their job.

“I would love to see a pure stream of funding that can’t be touched by any political pressure or political wind,” she said. “…I think that is a conversation that needs to be had.”

Both finalists also committed to standing up to the Fort Worth Police Officers Association if they felt it was protecting an officer who committed misconduct. The police union is a regular force in city elections, where it frequently gives thousands of dollars each cycle.

“It has to be done, because if not, what’s the point of having an office in the first place?” Sokunbi said.

Phillips said fostering a good relationship with the police union will help them understand the importance of oversight, and show them the benefits of working together.

“There has to be consequences to actions,” she said.

Moving forward after the killing of Atatiana Jefferson

Tucker posed a question on the minds of many in the room: How does Fort Worth ensure a police officer doesn’t shoot and kill another person of color, like Atatiana Jefferson, without just cause?

Sokunbi said former police officerAaron Dean’s shooting of Jefferson showed a failure to do basic policing. While policies can be improved and built upon, Sokunbi said, police officers first need to know the basics of how to do their job without harming community members.

“If we had just done the basic things, we wouldn’t have to remember her name,” she said.

Phillips said she can’t promise that something like Jefferson’s shooting will never happen again. But the department can put policies in place to destigmatize officers’ being honest when they’re struggling, and take time off when they might be angry and not suitable to patrol the streets.

Training for officers needs to be constant, she said, and accountability should be too when officers don’t adhere to their training.

“We need to provide our public safety officers with every tool they need to succeed,” Phillips said.

After Jefferson’s killing, calls for a community oversight board, headed by residents, increased in vigor. A push to create that board failed last November, angering many community members who felt the board is a vital piece to oversight in the city.

Sokunbi said making sure community members are empowered to conduct oversight, outside of the police monitor’s office, is important in order to make police oversight sustainable.

Phillips referenced a community board in Oakland, where residents work side-by-side on oversight cases. She’d like to see similar structures for community involvement in Fort Worth in the future, she said.

Finalists no strangers to federal police oversight

In 2019, faith leaders and community members sent a formal letter asking for Fort Worth to be placed under a consent decree, days after Jefferson was shot and killed by then-police officer Dean. Then, city leaders were in the process of hiring Fort Worth’s first police oversight monitor.

Consent decrees are federal court orders that require significant changes to the way a police department operates, including updating training, changing and creating new policies and putting systems of accountability in place. The decrees are designed to rectify ongoing civil rights violations by a city’s police department.

Both Sokunbi and Phillips have worked in cities whose police departments were under a federal consent decree. Tucker asked both Sokunbi and Phillips to describe how they’ve moved policing forward in their respective communities under the consent decrees.

Sokunbi pointed to her track record since joining the New Orleans oversight office. Every policy recommendation she’s made to the New Orleans Police Department since stepping into her role has been accepted, she said.

“I have a great working relationship with the police department,” she said. “I believe they respect the work that I have done. I’ve helped improve community relationships, helped (residents) talk with homicide investigators and get answers.”

Phillips said during her time in Baltimore, her office worked to solidify policies for how the police department and oversight staff could work collaboratively together.

“We also started talking about recommendations as they were negotiating the (police union) contracts,” she said.

At the end of the forum, both finalists acknowledged each other’s accomplishments, and said they were confident that oversight in Fort Worth would move in the right direction.

City management will begin final interviews with Sokunbi and Phillips Thursday morning and make a decision in the days or weeks following.

Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at or via Twitter.

At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.