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Low Police Complaints Mask Discontent With Dallas Department

Dallas Habitat Photos
Flickr Creative Commons

At a time of high tensions between police and the public, the Dallas Police Department would seem to be a success story: While some other big-city departments draw thousands of citizen complaints every year, the nation's eighth-largest gets only a fraction of that number.

In fact, the department received a mere 221 complaints in 2016 and 183 for the first 11 months of 2017 — stunningly low numbers for a metropolis of 1.3 million people patrolled by about 3,300 officers.

But a closer look suggests that the apparent success may stem from the complaint system itself, which makes it so hard for people to complain that many do not try or give up. Those who persist confront a host of built-in obstacles, including vague or nonexistent instructions, confusion about complaint forms, incorrect phone numbers and a mysterious investigation process where decisions often go unannounced and are difficult to appeal.

"The process doesn't seem to be clear or open," said Sam Walker, a professor emeritus in criminal justice at the University of Nebraska who has written several books on police accountability. He concluded that Dallas' suspiciously low complaint rate is "unacceptable" but not surprising.

Providing "open and accessible" police complaint systems has been standard since the early 1980s, Walker said.

"To me, being able to file a complaint is a First Amendment right, to tell someone their perception of what happened," he said.

Many of the complaints happened before Police Chief U. Renee Hall took over in September, but Hall's chief of staff says she has developed a strategic plan that will be released in the next few weeks that will address some of the accountability concerns.

Frustration with the complaint system intensified in recent months, and the police chief met publicly with citizens who described being blocked from filing complaints and having their grievances dismissed without being notified. Some reported that they did not bother to file complaints because the system seemed so stacked against them.

In 2014, Maria De Jesus Garza tried to file a complaint against an officer who ticketed her for having trash cans that obstructed traffic. The officer came back weekly for three months, she said, and knocked her cans over with his car to make a point.

"I realized this wasn't extreme," she said. "But I decided that I needed to report it."

Other officers attempted to dissuade her. One said the allegations were not enough to pursue a complaint. "He told me, 'I don't think you understand what you are doing.'"

Over the span of three hours, three officers tried to talk her out of the complaint before telling her the office was out of complaint forms, Garza said.

The Dallas department has no complaint forms. The department's internal affairs division confirmed to The Associated Press in January that it instead asks people to write their account on a blank sheet of paper and sign it.

Neither the department's website nor a pamphlet that is supposed to be available to the public offer instructions on the complaint process. Nowhere do they explain that signed complaints can be filed by mail, email or fax to the internal affairs department.

Changa Higgins filed a complaint several years ago but never learned the outcome. He was not surprised, given the lack of direction he had from police.

"There's nothing to talk you through it or guide you through. It comes down to how well you can write, what you can remember. What if you leave out a piece of critical information because you didn't know it would be important for an investigation?"

Walker said the process should be outlined on the department's home page, with directions for filing a complaint and information on possible outcomes and the ability to appeal.

The AP obtained six years of complaint data from the department, which shows 60 percent or more of complaints are referred to division commanders after being deemed minor complaints, including a handful alleging excessive use of force. In 2017, 15 percent of complaints were labeled "no investigation" and closed.

Lorraine Birabil filed a use-of-force complaint against officers in 2013, after her father called police about a trespasser and was arrested during the investigation — an arrest that, she said, resulted in injuries.

Only after filing a lawsuit in the matter did she learn that the use-of-force complaint had been dismissed.

The Dallas department says its policy is to send written notifications if its internal affairs division conducts the investigations. For lesser violations referred to division commanders, commanders are required to notify people of the outcome.

The low complaint numbers could indicate a problem in the community's relationship with officers, said Ron Davis, former director of community oriented policing services at the Justice Department. The federal government has reformed the complaint systems in the almost two dozen police departments it has supervised after various legal or community troubles.

"It could easily be apathy because it doesn't look like the department responds to complaints," Davis said.

The number of complaints against police has been dropping at most U.S. departments because of wider use of body cameras and the abandonment or reduction of practices such as New York City's stop-and-frisk policy. But the complaint numbers in Dallas are still two to five times lower than at similar-sized police departments around the country.

Other Texas cities provide explicit instructions and online complaint forms, sometimes in multiple languages. Those communities have received more complaints than Dallas.

The Dallas department's website does note that a decision can be appealed to the city's Citizens Police Review Board, but a phone number on the website is incorrect, and a city worker who answered said it had been changed nearly two years ago. Neither the department nor the city website explains how to file an appeal.

Hall took the reins just about a year after the departure of her predecessor, David Brown, who led the department through perhaps its most painful chapter since the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, who was slain in Dallas.

In July 2016, a peaceful demonstration against police brutality turned deadly when a sniper opened fire downtown on a large group of police, killing four Dallas officers and one transit officer and wounding nine others. It was the largest death toll among law enforcement from a single event since 9/11.

Since then, the department has struggled with low morale and a wave of retirements, including Brown, who had sought to change the culture among rank-and-file cops by firing 70 officers during his tenure.

When Brown started firing officers, "it was clear to people that the culture we had of doing whatever you want and not being held accountable was about to change," said Senior Cpl. Frederick Frazier, vice president of the Dallas Police Association, the city's largest police union. "And that accountability is what a lot of us wanted."

In 2015, Brown touted the dramatic drop in use-of-force complaints as a result of intensified training and stepped-up community policing and accountability. Law enforcement experts and former union officials said the assertion was hard to prove, explaining that apathy or slow 911 response times could have played a larger role.

Hall plans to seek more reforms, including allowing complaints to be filed at the city's seven substations instead of only at headquarters and putting a 90-day cap on the time an investigation takes, according to her chief of staff, Thomas Taylor.

Open complaint systems, Davis said, are a critical way for police chiefs to track issues in their departments before they explode into a major crisis.

"Otherwise," he said, "you won't know until a tragedy occurs or a video pops up."