“Exercises in Futility”: Dallas Police Oversight Board Mired in Frustration and Inaction
Citizen oversight of police remains weak in Dallas and across Texas despite reforms sparked by tragedy.
Tyler Hicks, | January 9, 2023
Shortly after 10 p.m. on Sept. 6, 2018, Dallas police officer Amber Guyger shot and killed Botham Jean inside his own apartment. Guyger, who was off-duty and lived in the same complex, would later testify at her trial for Jean’s murder that she believed she had entered her own apartment and that he, standing there and eating ice cream, was the intruder.
Jean’s killing cast a harsh national spotlight on the long legacy of violence by Dallas cops and bolstered demands for police reform in the city. Local activists urged officials to revamp Dallas’ toothless, decades-old system of police oversight: a citizen review board with members appointed by city council and tasked with hearing citizen complaints about police. That board was created in the 1980s, when Dallas was home to the highest number of police killings per capita among large cities, and it never issued any recommendations to improve policing. It also never had a budget for investigations.
While the police union fought changes in the wake of Jean’s murder, activists and members of the review board asked the city to create an independent investigative arm with the budget and staff needed to seriously review citizen complaints and publicize findings and policy recommendations—a model employed by Austin since 2001. In April 2019, seven months after Jean’s murder, the Dallas city council voted for a version of those changes.
The newly revamped board has been a source of contention practically ever since. Its powers to press for accountability remain weak, and board members have been dogged by accusations that they aren’t doing enough to be the watchdog activists fought for.
Officially titled the Community Police Oversight Board, the new body is part of the city’s Office of Community Police Oversight, which is itself staffed by a “monitor” who collects citizen complaints and reviews completed police internal investigations into complaints or critical cases, like police shootings. This person then reports any findings to the oversight board. The board is comprised of 15 council-appointed volunteers whose day jobs include everything from law to real estate; they have a budget and the ability to recommend investigations, two key departures from its previous iteration.
But at a heated, four-hour meeting in mid-November, activists pointed to the case of Michelle Spencer as a recent example of the board failing to do its job. Spencer was injured in a 2021 arrest she says cost her two jobs and a pile of medical bills. Although she was ultimately cleared of wrongdoing, Dallas police took no action on her complaint after an internal affairs investigation, and the board voted against an independent investigation.
“This office was supposed to be a solution” and a “source of checks and balances,” noted local activist Dominique Alexander. Instead, Alexander said, the oversight body sides too often with a police department they are tasked with keeping in check.
Even members of the revamped police oversight board seem frustrated by the limitations of the reforms that Dallas passed nearly four years ago. Under the ordinance that created the police monitor and oversight office, the board can only initiate an investigation after a civilian files a complaint, receives an official response from the police department, and then appeals that response to the advisory board—which critics argue makes the board too reliant on whatever information or cooperation police provide.
Further, even when the board gets an appeal and launches an investigation, they have no subpoena power over city employees or officers, and thus can’t make police cooperate; the board has conducted 18 investigations since their inception, but officers haven’t agreed to be interviewed for any of them. During the November meeting, member Jose Rivas said the board had been “stonewalled,” “marginalized” and “put in a corner” by an uncooperative police department.
In an interview with Bolts, Jesuorobo Enobakhare Jr., the board’s chair, pointed to a use-of-force review that the board asked the police monitor to conduct two and a half years ago, but that still hasn’t happened, into officers who fired tear gas and pepper balls into a nonviolent crowd of protesters in the summer of 2020.
“If there aren’t enough staff to get things done, that needs to be put at the feet of the city council,” Enobakhare said. “Government is complicated, and a lot of times it’s complicated for no reason.”
He added, “It’s almost as if some of these things created at the federal, state or local level are supposed to be exercises in futility.”
Some activists who fought for the revamped oversight board have pledged to protest its meetings until Enobakhare resigns, according to the Dallas Morning News, criticizing him for meeting alone with Dallas police Chief Eddie García, which they say undermines the oversight office. García told the paper that oversight board members need to do more to gain officers’ trust and called Enobakhare an “outstanding advocate.”
Enobakhare defended his board’s work and said members have managed to influence police policy despite serious limitations. He pointed to a new policy directing officers to take people to a hospital instead of lockup if they suspect a mental health condition, which he says was a result of the board asking police to revise the way they treat people exhibiting symptoms of a psychotic episode.
Police oversight boards are often focal points for policy change after tragedies and scandals involving police violence, particularly after a police reform task force set up by Barack Obama’s administration recommended them as a best practice for building trust between communities and police. There are more than 200 such boards across the country, according to the National Association of Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. Still, those boards are often volunteers who hold little to no official power over investigating police actions.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, community police oversight boards rarely play any meaningful check on police power and often resemble little more than a thin gesture by police agencies to work with the public without really working with the public, according to Barry Friedman, an attorney and scholar who published a national study on such boards last year.
“To be blunt, we didn’t find many successful boards, because they were hamstrung,” Friedman told Bolts. “Very often they’re created because the community is angry, so it’s ‘Let’s give them something.’”
“Something is created out of hope and promise,” he added, “but people end up being disappointed.”
Friedman’s research, which was published by the Policing Project at New York University’s law school, emphasizes the importance of boards being well-resourced and staffed. Friedman points to the board in Oakland, California as a well-resourced body, while San Francisco has both a police commission and a network of 10 advisory boards: one for each police station.
Yet adequate staffing and budget matter little if a community oversight body isn’t heard or empowered to influence police policy. In Austin, where activists have fought for years to expand the scope of the city’s police oversight office, police have pushed back to try and limit the office’s ability to proactively and aggressively investigate citizen complaints.
As a result, local activists last year gathered enough signatures to put the Austin Police Oversight Act on the ballot for the city’s May elections. The act would remove the oversight office from the purview of the city’s labor contract with its police union, giving it access to more police records and allowing the city’s police oversight commission to recommend discipline in cases of police misconduct. Activists pushing for the measure claim a group of opponents has been posing as them to sow confusion about the May ballot measure and circulate another petition for a plan with less oversight.
Police critics of oversight bodies often insist that people from outside law enforcement appointed to oversight boards know little about policing and shouldn’t be tasked with judging the actions of officers. As a result, according to Friedman’s study, police often send board members to a citizen police academy for ‘shoot-no shoot’ drills on a simulator.
Complaints that police oversight boards are too close to police and offer little more than the window dressing of accountability are not unique to Texas. Buffalo, New York, a city fraught with tension between the community and a troubled police department, offers another example of an ongoing tug-of-war between activists and the board they fought for. The Buffalo city council last year dissolved the board it created after a series of resignations from board members fed-up with red tape and in-fighting. A month later, local activists announced plans to form a dueling board whose members would be elected by the community and not local government.
In Dallas, the same activists who helped push for the creation of the city’s police oversight board have chafed at its members for being too cozy with police since its very first meeting in October 2019, where the police chief was invited to address the public. They also took issue with one city council member appointing someone who had previously called for the very board to be disbanded. Police eventually broke up the crowd of activists who had gathered and demanded to speak at that first community oversight board meeting, an altercation serious enough for officers to file a use-of-force report over the incident.
Activists are still pushing for more oversight for the city’s cops, which oversight board members admit they can’t really provide without more power. Changa Higgins, a local activist and former city council candidate who pushed for the revamped oversight body, is asking city officials to expand its powers, including the ability to initiate investigations without waiting for a formal complaint to make its way through the police department’s internal affairs process. Activists are also asking for more police cooperation with the board, including access to police data; the department still makes the oversight office submit open records requests when seeking information, according to Higgins.
Higgins called the police oversight body a “work in progress” that will still take both more time and pressure from the community to really create the watchdog activists want over the police department. He also said some of the language in the ordinance empowering the current oversight board was left intentionally vague or weak to overcome police union opposition and secure enough votes for its passage.
“We wanted to get a vote quickly, and we thought if we were too granular with the policies, that it would cause too many problems with the council and we would’ve missed their voting window,” Higgins told Bolts. As a result, the ordinance “leaves some room for interpretation by the PD and the city manager and sometimes the board, and those gray areas were never resolved.”
“It takes institutions in this city and boards like this a long time to be fully formalized,” Higgins said. “We need people to tap in and hold folks accountable.”
Just a half-hour drive away, in the neighboring city of Fort Worth, attempts to even start a police oversight board have sputtered. While a city task force on race relations recommended creating a board years ago to give communities of color an official forum to air grievances about policing, the 2019 police killing of Atatiana Jefferson inside her own home fueled more demands for one. Even with the potential board’s powers whittled down during months of negotiations, Fort Worth’s city council still shot the idea down in a 5-4 vote in early November. The vote came just before the long-delayed trial of Aaron Dean, the officer who shot Jefferson and was convicted of manslaughter last month and sentenced to more than 11 years in prison.
“This is the most watered-down police board in America, because we tried to come to some type of consensus, to some type of compromise,” said Chris Nettles, a council member who pushed for the board, after the final vote rejecting it. “And even with a board, a snaggletooth board with no teeth . . . you still cannot support it?”
Correction 1/12/23: Enobakhare says the board is waiting on the police monitor, not police department, for a use-of-force review from 2020.