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Fort Worth Police Firing Exposes Deep Divisions In The Department And Community

Christopher Connelly
A still from the body camera video released by the Fort Worth Police Department shows Sgt. Kenneth Pierce handcuffing Dorshay Morris after she was hit by a stun gun.

The firing of a 22-year veteran of the Fort Worth Police Department is exposing tensions between the police chief and his officers, and between the department and the city’s African-American community.

On Monday, the Fort Worth Police Department fired Sgt. Kenneth Pierce for an August incident where he ordered a rookie to use her stun gun against an unarmed woman. He’s challenging his termination.

The department released body camera video from the rookie officer. She and her partner were the first to respond to a call from 29-year-old Dorshay Morris, who said her boyfriend was trying to break down her door and that she had a knife to defend herself from him.

The incident

When the officers arrive, it’s tense and confusing. The couple is separated. The rookie officer gets Morris to hand over her knife. She has Morris open her apartment door to check that her 5-year-old daughter is safe, and the rookie tries to sort out what’s happening.

The tone of the encounter changes when Pierce shows up. He’s white; Dorshay Morris is black. When she’s reluctant to show her license to the police, Pierce tells to hand it over “or you’re getting handcuffs and going to jail.”

After that, it becomes a struggle. The officers get one handcuff on Morris and try to pull her to the ground. She resists, screaming at them to stop pulling her hair. Then, Pierce orders the rookie officer to Tase Morris. It hits her in the belly.

Morris was arrested, but the charges were later dropped. In a statement, the Fort Worth Police Department said Pierce went too far. Chief Joel Fitzgerald said Pierce escalated the situation unnecessarily.

Fitzgerald also called the case “eerily reminiscent” of an arrest made almost exactly a year ago, which went viral.

In that video, you see Jackie Craig, a black woman who called the Fort Worth police for help, aggressively arrested by a white officer for what many saw as simply talking back to a cop. Craig’s attorney said the family is planning to sue the city.

Pierce is appealing the firing.

"The message has been sent by Chief Fitzgerald to the officers of this department that they will be sacrificed for his political agendas."

Pushback from police association

At a press conference Tuesday at the Fort Worth Police Officers’ Association, the union representing rank-and-file members, association president Rick Van Houten and a lawyer for Pierce pushed back on the department’s narrative, and played audio of a chaotic 911 call by Morris.

Van Houten said it doesn’t matter that the knife had been taken away from Morris when she was handcuffed and Tasered. The use of force, he said, was appropriate because her call included threats of violence, a weapon, and because it was a domestic disturbance, which are particularly dangerous and volatile.

“When the female in this case refused lawful commands and refused to cooperate with the simplest of orders, the officers reacted in a manner consistent with our policies, procedures and our training,” Van Houten said.

The Police Association has been increasingly critical of Chief Fitzgerald, who has been in his position for two years.

In September, the association released a survey of officers showing low morale and frustration with Fitzgerald. Van Houten said Pierce’s termination – especially its timing, almost exactly a year after the Jackie Craig incident – all point to a chief more interested in looking good to his critics than backing up his officers.

“The message has been sent by Chief Fitzgerald to the officers of this department that they will be sacrificed for his political agendas,” Van Houten said.

Van Houten called on city leaders to take action against Fitzgerald over the Pierce termination and stopped short of calling for the chief to be fired.

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said she hasn’t lost faith in Fitzgerald.

“The chief is responsible for his forces and until we see some reason not to we’ll continue to support him and his decisions,” Price said.

Joel Fitzgerald
Credit Christopher Connelly / KERA News
Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald.

 History of racial tension

The association’s criticism of the chief doesn’t surprise Bob Ray Sanders, a former journalist who spent much of his career writing about criminal justice for KERA and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

“The police officers association, they’ve never met a chief they liked,” Sanders said. “Unless that chief would allow them to run the department.”

Sanders said the Fort Worth Police Department has a long history of racial tensions both within the ranks and between the department and communities of color. In 2015, four black police officers sued the city and the department, arguing they’d faced racial discrimination, harassment, a hostile work environment and retaliation.

"The police officers association, they've never met a chief they liked."

“This latest case really just said to me that we haven’t rid the department of that culture, that there are still people within the department that’ll abuse their power,” Sanders said.

Sanders sits on the city’s Task Force on Race and Culture though he said he’s just speaking for himself here. That task force was set up this summer with a charge to recommend actions the city can take to ameliorate racial disparities and tensions in Fort Worth — largely as a response to the outrage following Jackie Craig’s arrest.

At a race and culture task force meeting last month, Chief Fitzgerald outlined changes he’s made. He said more officers have body cameras. The department is training officers to be more respectful when interacting with the public. And, perhaps most relevant a month after that meeting: All Fort Worth Police Department officers have been taught techniques by national trainers to equip them with tools to diffuse tense situations peacefully.

“They are now held to a different standard,” Fitzgerald told the task force. “De-escalation is now written into our policy on use of force.”

Bob Ray Sanders said the chief is clearly making an effort, but he questions whether it’s making a difference. Fitzgerald lost trust from many in the black community last year after Jackie Craig’s viral arrest video who saw his decision to give the officer involved a 10-day suspension instead of a more severe punishment.

With this case, Sanders said firing Pierce this week was the right call, but the chief moved too slowly. It was August when Dorshay Morris was Tasered on her doorstep.

“If you’re dealing with a civilian, you can investigate and have it on somebody’s desk in 24 hours charging them with a crime,” Sanders said. “When it comes to dealing with a police officer who has committed a crime or, at least, an infraction against the rules, it shouldn’t take four months to resolve that case.”

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.