By: Lawana Harrell Porter, NDG Guest Contributor
Sometimes a conversation between adversaries can mark the start of a healing process.
That hope fueled a recent community forum between Dallas police and members of the black community about alternatives to police use of deadly force in confrontations between police and black people, especially individuals with mental disabilities. The forum was held in council chambers at Dallas City Hall and was organized by the Dallas Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. in cooperation with the Dallas Police Department and city of Dallas Mayor Pro Tem Casey Thomas.
Forum inspired by report about force against mentally disabled
Forum moderator Demetria McCain opened the conversation with a compelling question, “Can I trust my life and the lives of my loved ones to this or any other police department across the country?” Her statement went on to express community fears about aggressive policing and police use of lethal force against young people and those with mental disabilities.
The issue is documented in a 2016 report by the Ruderman Family Foundation concluding that people with disabilities were one-third to one-half of those killed by law enforcement officers between 2013 and 2015 even when their hands were raised in surrender. The report details multiple instances of police fatal shootings of individuals with autism, schizophrenia and other disabilities, and criticizes media coverage for failing to connect the violence and disability. At its national meeting, the sorority approved a resolution calling for police departments to reduce violent confrontations with disabled people. The resolution led to the Dallas forum, Lethal Force: Last Resort – A Community Conversation.
Speakers framed concerns about safety and alternatives to force
Featured speakers detailed community concerns and possible alternatives to police use of deadly force. The panel included Texas Senator Royce West, Friendship West Baptist Church Pastor Frederick Haynes, Mothers Against Police Brutality founder Sara Mokuria, attorney Cheryl Wattley and police officers Sgt. Anthony Greer, SC Bobby Parrott, Sgt. Raymario Sanchez and Sgt. Jennifer Wells.
Rev. Haynes suggested that violent enforcement methods are an outdated hold-over from a time when police forces were used to maintain the system of slavery. Calling for more in-depth sensitivity training, Haynes said before officers receive guns, they should be required to serve community internships to learn about and develop trust with those they serve.
Citing the waste of human potential when young people are killed by police Sara Mokuria said, “We need to broaden the conversation about public safety beyond comply or die, increase police training in the use of de-escalation tactics, and eliminate use of deadly force against fleeing suspects.”
Mokuria, who said she and a sibling witnessed police kill her mentally-disturbed father when they were children, said police are not equipped to respond appropriately in situations involving people with mental disabilities. “It’s too much,” she said, “to ask an officer to be a first responder and a mental health professional. Let’s have trained professionals respond to those situations.”
In his comments, Sen. West expressed the complexity of the deadly force debate. “Like all of us, police officers have families who are concerned that they return home at the end of the day,” he said. But given citizens’ concerns about excessive use of deadly force, West said there is a move in many cities to pass legislation to limit when police can use deadly force.
Police: At work on multiple alternatives to lethal force
Dallas Police Chief Renee Hall and a trio of officers discussed actions police are taking to reduce use of deadly force. Hall stressed the importance of positive police-community relations and affirmed that under her leadership the department is actively working to balance protection of citizens with less use of deadly force. Asked about efforts to weed out racists and extremists on the force, she said, like other employers, the department is limited in how deeply it can screen applicants, but she said the department conducts background checks and reviews candidates’ social media profiles before hiring.
Officer Bobby Parrott who works with recruits in the department’s training academy said all officers undergo sensitivity training and instruction in a variety of non-lethal defensive tactics. He said the department’s training emphasizes time and distance, a practice that encourages officers to avoid confronting suspects when possible until more officers arrive on scene to provide support that may improve outcomes. Officers are also trained to talk with people to try to resolve issues and avoid confrontations, but Parrott admitted communication skills are not as well developed as they might be in the 18- to 21-year-olds who are the majority of police recruits.
Regarding police use of non-lethal options, Sgt. Anthony Greer said police officers are trained to employ Tasers, pepper balls, mace and other tools to control violent offenders. Greer said the department encourages officers to consider using less lethal options whenever possible to reduce injuries to officers and the public, however he said the decision of which option to use in a confrontation involves a judgment call by the officer on the scene.
Police acknowledge that responding to calls involving individuals with mental health issues is a serious enforcement challenge. To decrease the odds of these situations turning violent, the department is testing a pilot program that sends a special team to calls involving people with mental illness. The Right Care team is composed of a police officer, paramedic and mental health professional. Care team officer Sgt. Jennifer Wells said the team responds to sensitive calls in unmarked vehicles and can perform mental health evaluations, supply meds, and provide a variety of social service resources to individuals and families. To date, she said results are positive. The team has not only developed positive relationships with disabled people and their families but has freed up other officers by responding to the repeat calls police often receive from boarding houses and residences of mentally disabled people.
Discussions are to continue
Following a robust Q&A session, participants left the forum knowing more about the challenges facing police and having had a chance to express their concerns directly to police. The sorority and city officials have promised follow-up exchanges to keep the police-community conversation going in hopes of realizing better relations and less strife and loss of life.