Unnecessary force and ‘aggressive conduct’ go unpunished among Fort Worth police, report states
The city commissioned a review of the Fort Worth Police Department’s policies and practices after a former Fort Worth police officer shot and killed Atatiana Jefferson while on duty in 2019. Three years later, that review found that officers are often aggressive and combative with the public.
A review of the Fort Worth Police Department found a pattern of unnecessary use of force among police officers, a failure to deescalate tense situations, and a wide gulf between what the department says it wants to do and what officers are doing in the street.
The city of Fort Worth commissioned the review after a former Fort Worth police officer shot and killed Atatiana Jefferson in October 2019. Criminal justice consultants Alex del Carmen and Theron Bowman led the panel of experts involved in the three-year study, which evaluated department policies and interviewed members of the department up and down the chain of command.
The panel’s 97-page report found that the Fort Worth Police Department’s policies and trainings line up with national best practices, but officers who act out of line aren’t reliably held accountable.
"In writing, y’all are great,” Del Carmen told the Fort Worth City Council during a presentation Tuesday. “The issue is, what happens once that officer goes out there?"
The biggest problem the report identified was officers’ use of force, Bowman said. Officers failed to defuse tense situations, or made the tension worse, making force unavoidable.
"In a significant number of cases, we saw officers initiate contact with a person using profanity, using some aggressive language," Bowman said.
People of color and residents of low-income neighborhoods often deal with this "command and control" approach to policing, creating mistrust, the report states.
And while that behavior was almost always noted by chain of command review, it was “frequently excused because the officer ‘was excited,’ the situation was ‘tense,’ or for similar reasons.”
“The failure to correct, and the after-the-fact justification of this aggressive conduct, sends a message to all officers that this approach is not only tolerated, but perhaps even expected,” the report states.
Some incidents noted in the report went beyond profanity.
“The Panel observed a disturbing pattern of the display of Tasers, punching, and force against persons in handcuffs under circumstances in which no threat of resistance was present,” the report says.
Supervisors need to intervene more when they see officers under their command behaving badly, but making that change may not be simple, Bowman said.
"Some supervisors even have said they are discouraged from addressing these issues, when they see use of force issues,” Bowman said.
Bowman and Del Carmen praised the police department for changes made in recent years. Since the panel released its preliminary report in 2020, the department revised its use of force policy to emphasize de-escalation, expanded its Internal Affairs Unit, and clarified officers’ obligation to intervene if they see one of their colleagues violating a resident’s rights.
The city also established its first-ever independent police oversight office in 2020, to serve as a watchdog over the police department.
The police review panel found some threats to Police Monitor Kim Neal’s independence. For one, her unrestricted access to the department and its personnel isn’t codified in policy. She's also not well-protected against losing her job, Bowman said.
"It’s hard to be independent if you're worrying about being fired for making the wrong person angry,” he said.
At the city council presentation, Police Chief Neil Noakes acknowledged his department must do better and said he is committed to that work.
"The panel found that officers do not always meet the standards expected by the department or the community and are not held accountable,” he said. “The project before Fort Worth PD is one of culture change.”
Noakes told the City Council he’d come back in October to give an overview of the department’s status and what changes still need to be made. He also promised quarterly updates on the department’s progress.
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