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'We Need To Change:' During Heated 8-Hour Dallas City Council Meeting, Some Call For Police Reforms

Tony Gutierrez
Associated Press
Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson spoke at a news conference in April.

Yes, it's true: The emergency Dallas City Council meeting on Friday was eight hours long. Five of those hours were spent listening to citizens' comments — from requesting the city drastically cut the police department's budget to demanding that Police Chief Renee Hall be fired. 

After the public comment period, Dallas' top elected officials spent three hours pointing fingers, talking over one another and trying to work through whether or not the police department's reaction to protesters was appropriate.

Here are some highlights:

Mayor And Some Council Members Say Police Chief Let Them Down

Mayor Eric Johnson kicked off the question and answer portion of the meeting by asking about the incident at the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge on June 1. During that night's protest, 674 protesters were detained. Hall later announced the police department would not file charges.

Protesters have said they were under the impression they could get on the bridge.

Johnson asked the chief: "Were the protesters warned not to go on the bridge?" 

"Yes sir. That is what was communicated to me," Hall replied, adding that she was not at the bridge. 

Hall then tried to explain that a commander on the bridge warned protesters. But she was cut off by the mayor.

Johnson referred to a D Magazine article titled "I Was Detained in Dallas' Bridge Raid. It Never Needed to Happen." The mayor pointed out that author Tim Cato said he didn't hear any warnings from the police, who had blocked roads except the one leading up to the bridge.

"You're saying that was an inaccurate statement?" Johnson asked Hall. "Someone did warn them?"

The chief replied: "Yes. I did not issue a warning. But I was told there was a warning that was issued."

The back and forth continued. Johnson asked about the details in Cato's reporting about the use of tear gas and non-lethal firearms.

Hall denied the use of tear gas.

"It was smoke," she said.

As for the use of rubber bullets, Hall said: "I don't know the answer to that. We are actively investigating whether 40mm [launchers] were deployed."

The 40 mm launchers Hall referred to are guns used by law enforcement to shoot sponge rounds, bean-bag rounds and tear gas canisters. Experts say they should not be used against civilians.

Chief Stands By Department's Actions, But Will Review Things

Hall said she stood by the decisions her officers made over the past week.

"When we started peaceful on Friday [May 29], we ended up with riots," Hall said. 

She said video showed "hundreds of people looting and setting police vehicles on fire and throwing bricks through police officers' windows and flattening tires."

Hall said on May 31, the department saw similar acts, such as "people using firearms, shooting through windows, breaking in, looting and assaulting police officers."

Hall told the council that on June 1, before the protest on the bridge, she had met with Dominique Alexander, founder of the Next Generation Action Network, which has organized several protests.

"[He] basically stated, in a threatening manner, that he ... was going to hit us where it hurts, so we could feel what it was that we were feeling," Hall said, adding she was alarmed by the conversation.

Hall said Alexander told her he didn't care about going to jail. 

Alexander, posting on Twitter Friday night, said that Hall "is continuing to lie on me trying to justify her actions" and that he didn't speak with police on June 1 before marching onto the bridge. 

Hall told the mayor and City Council that, overall, the Dallas Police Department was trying to prevent protesters from causing "mayhem" the city had seen previously. They stopped people on the bridge, she said, so they wouldn't destroy Trinity Groves, a restaurant and retail district on the other side of the bridge.

City Manager T.C. Broadnax supported Hall's assessment. Both urged the council to wait until full reviews could be done before making judgments.

Evaluating The Police Department's Performance

During the meeting, council member Jaime Resendez said "there are obviously varying perspectives of what occurred."

Resendez asked Hall what she thought of the department's overall handling of protests.

"The decisions I made at the time, I believe were the right decisions," Hall said. "Each incident on each night was different."

Resendez called the actions DPD took on June 1 at the bridge "unreasonable."

Council member Omar Narvaez asked about how police enforced the city's curfew, which was lifted on Saturday. He wondered about streets being closed 90 minutes before the curfew started.

"When we saw individuals walking, they were walking in large groups," Hall said. "Our goal was to try and prevent traffic from hitting them. Once we realized we were impeding their ability [to walk], we moved."

Narvaez also asked Hall about curfew-related tickets and arrests. The chief told him approximately 124 people were arrested for violating the curfew.

"Why did we have to take people to jail for violating a curfew?" Narvaez asked. "Why couldn't we just write them a ticket and send them on their way?"

Hall said the department was trying to prevent looting, and ticketing and escorting people away from downtown would require more resources.

Narvaez called the operation a shame. Several other council members agreed.

Now What? Reimagining Policing In Dallas Is On The Table

Throughout the eight-hour meeting, council members Casey Thomas and Resendez brought up the idea of defunding the police department and reimagining what policing could look like in Dallas.

Council member Chad West said he’s “going to continue to urge the city to evaluate our operations and procedures."

"I want to emphasize that, in some ways, their officers were really just acting to the policies that were in place,” he said. “We need to review those policies. And they're not working. We need to change them."

West suggested improved recruitment strategies, and called on the city manager to reform police training, specifically related to dealing with peaceful protesters. He also asked that there be more balance between de-escalation training and training for the use of firearms.

"Officers need as much training in how not to use their service weapons, as they receive to use their service weapons responsibly," West said.

West said he also wants body cameras on all officers involved in protests, as well making sure officers' names and agency affiliations are visible.

Resendez said the police department "could not have handled things any more poorly."

"I don't think the law and order rhetoric that we've been hearing is the way to go," he said. "I think we need to exercise patience and understanding."

He continued: "We have to look outside of the box and reallocate money that would traditionally go to public safety and direct these dollars to address the poverty and hopelessness in black and brown communities."

Thomas says this is the sort of intervention that saves lives.

"If there had been intervention on behalf of George Floyd, he would still be alive," he said. "Let's not honor Mr. Floyd with our lives. Let's do it with our dollars and policies that could prevent there being another George Floyd."

Council member Cara Mendelsohn disagreed with the trio. She said that last year Dallas saw murders rise to the highest level in more than a decade, including 40 homicides in May 2019. At the time, Gov. Greg Abbott sent state troopers to Dallas to help quell violent crime.

Mendelsohn said it's crazy to talk about getting rid of the police.

Correction: We've updated this story to more closely reflect council member Chad West's thoughts on police reform.

Hady Mawajdeh has been a reporter, producer, and digital editor at KERA since 2016. He is the creator and the co-host of KERA's first narrative podcast, Gun Play. And prior to his work in engagement, he also reported on arts and culture, social justice, and gun rights for the newsroom.