Fort Worth Residents Hope For Change But Remain Skeptical Of New Police Monitor’s Role | KERA News

Fort Worth Residents Hope For Change But Remain Skeptical Of New Police Monitor’s Role

Nov 21, 2019

Five experts on police reform and accountability pitched themselves to residents at a forum and reception in Fort Worth this week.

The job applicants are seeking to become Fort Worth’s first police monitor. Whoever gets the role will come to a city where relationships between many residents and the police force sworn to protect them are strained.

Last year, the city’s Task Force on Race and Culture listed the creation of a community oversight body for the Fort Worth Police Department as the first of 22 recommendations to heal racial divisions and reduce disparities. Fort Worth is the only major city in Texas without some form of civilian oversight for the police force, a function that the task force said is key for helping to build trust between city residents and the police.

The position, and its focus on accountability, transparency and trust-building, has taken on an increased salience in the wake of the October 12 killing of Atatiana Jefferson, a black woman who was in her home when she was shot through a window by a white Fort Worth patrol officer.

The Fort Worth City Council included funding for the new police monitor and an assistant in its current budget, which was approved in September. The monitor, who will report to the same assistant city manager who supervises the police chief, will track investigations into critical incidents, like officer-involved shootings, make recommendations for policy changes to the department and act as an intermediary between residents, police and city officials.

One of the monitor’s first tasks will be to research and craft a proposal for a board made up of Fort Worth residents who will act as a conduit between residents concerned about police behavior and the city. Separately, the city this week hired a panel of policing experts to study Fort Worth PD’s policies and practices to identify problem areas and recommend solutions.

“All that is about building trust in the community,” said Fort Worth City Manager David Cooke.

Community activists skeptical of the city’s commitment to police reform have raised questioned whether the police monitor will be adequately funded and have enough support staff, the office’s ability to be independent and the scope of its authority. Cooke says he expects that, once the monitor is in place, adjustments will be made to address those issues.

The candidates are:

  • Edward Harness heads Civilian Police Oversight Agency for the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
  • Janna Lewis is deputy ombudsman for the King County, Washington, Office of the Ombuds, which provides oversight for county agencies.
  • Kim Neal is executive director of the Citizens Complaint Authority in Cincinnati, Ohio.
  • Rick Rasmussen is an investigator for the Salt Lake City Police Civilian Review Board.
  • Denise Rodriguez is a senior researcher at the firm CAN, where she focuses on collaborative reform, police accountability and community-based policing.

The five job applicants all have deep experience in police oversight, and come from a range of regional backgrounds. The discussion was tame and somewhat technical, and the candidates spent the 45 minutes at the forum agreeing with each other about the importance of having an independent, outside official in city government to hold police officers accountable, and hold departments accountable when their policies and practices don’t serve all residents equally. 

What The Candidates Said

When a city gets to the point that it’s instituting taking civilian oversight of the police force, Janna Lewis told the audience, it’s because there’s already a divide between the community and the police. Bridging that trust gap is important for residents to feel safe, and to help police do their jobs more effectively.

“You’re all in the same boat together. If you’ve got a hole, and it’s starting to sink you ship, and no one’s doing anything or everyone’s saying it’s everyone [else’s fault], guess what: you all sink,” Lewis said.

Kim Neal stressed that a police monitor needs to be functionally independent in order to build trust, and said she’d want to see Fort Worth follow the model she uses in Cincinnati when investigating complaints of police misconduct.

“We look at factual data, we use a very specific preponderance of the evidence standard, and that’s what I’d suggest to maintain the independence of this position,” Neal said.

Rick Rasmussen, from Salt Lake City, said it’s important for a police monitor to stick to the facts and not bow to outside pressure from police leaders, elected officials or community activists, in order to maintain the credibility of the oversight authority.

“The monitor and your civilian review board have got to be the arm of government that’s got to call balls and strikes,” Rasmussen said.

Ed Harness, who was once a police officer and now leads Albuquerque’s police oversight agency, said a civilian oversight mechanism is essential for accountability and transparency, but he said oversight needs to be as impartial as possible in navigating often-controversial issues related to policing.

“I believe in the professionalism and nobility of working as a police officer,” Harness said, “but I also believe they need to be held to professional standards – standards higher than the general working population because of the responsibilities that they hold.”

Denise Rodriguez pitched herself not only as effective and research-driven, but as someone who has worked on a lot of federal grant programs, and knows where to find funding for new initiatives. She called the work of improving police-community relations rewarding.

“I know it might not seem like it now, but I know that change is possible,” Rodriguez said, pointing to her work in Charleston, South Carolina and Las Vegas. “You look at them now and it’s a complete 180 [degree] change.”

Hope For change, And Skepticism

After the forum, interim Fort Worth Police Chief Ed Kraus said the addition of a monitor to provide oversight of the police from outside of the department, may be causing some “trepidation” for rank-and-file officers, and may take some adjustment. But, he says, he thinks it’ll be good for the city.

“If the monitor helps the community understand what the police are doing and can help add that legitimacy to the police, that makes our officers safer, that makes our citizens safer, and it builds that trust with the community,” Kraus said.

All of the candidates seemed credible to emergency room nurse Tara Wilson, but she was skeptical of the city leaders making the hiring decision.

“There’s not been a lot of transparency about how the final decision is going to be made,” Wilson said.

Lawyer Courtney Miller was looking for assurances that the police monitor would tackle “over-policing,” particularly in communities of color — an issue she says isn’t easily addressed by changing official policy because it relies on individual officer discretion.

“I was hoping to hear tonight, and I didn’t hear, how they were going to address police workforce culture. That’s the stuff that you’re not going to see in black and white in the human resources manual,” Miller said.

Fort Worth is on the map, and not in a good way, said Pastor Anthony Callins, because of the shooting of Atatiana Jefferson and other controversial police incidents. He is hopeful the city has started moving in the direction of increased transparency, accountability and reform.

“The ship is turning, but the ship is turning slowly,” he said.

His friend, Teena James, said she just hopes the changes signified by a new police monitor last.

“It’s kind of where they put it in our faces and say ‘hey, we’re doing this’ to appease us and calm us down,” after critical incidents. “I want them to stay on course this time.”