By Allen R. Gray
NDG Contributing Writer
With the 2015 election of longtime Dallas resident Casey Thomas, II as City Council representative for District 3 came an upsurge in the revitalization of the 50 square-mile track that lies south of the Trinity River. Thomas has labored assiduously to alter the perception about what is economically, culturally, socially and, academically possible in the area he champions. Thomas’ ability to lead and form coalitions has been recognized by both the former and present mayors of Dallas.
Among the countless committees on which the ubiquitous Thomas serves are the Public Safety (police) Committee, Financial Management Committee, and Thomas chairs the current mayor’s highly prioritized Workforce, Education and Equity Committee. These are the general areas on which our conversation was centered.
In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, Downtown protests over police injustice, friction between the Dallas mayor and the surprising resignation of Dallas PD Chief Renee Hall, there is no better time to gain the insight and opinion of the two-term councilman.
Thomas’ talents have been spread thin, to say the least, but the accomplishment he’s most proud of is being community-centered.
Thomas says he is most proud of his ability to get his constituents involved and be in the habit of expressing their frustrations. He has been successful in showing his community how to get things done. Thomas is proud of the revitalization of community shopping centers in his areas that have been allowed to deteriorate over decades. Thomas, who is a member of the City’s COVID committee, says, “It’s not about titles it’s about relevance.
With the horrific death of George Floyd, a rash of protests hit Dallas like a monsoon. Thomas believes the time is ripe for systemic change.
Thomas says, “People have been outraged for a long time and unfortunately it took the murder of George Floyd to cause them to take action,” but warns that nearly irreparable damage can leave a valid cause tainted. “As far as rioting and looting those are things people should be mindful of the damage they’re doing to their community and own city…Looking at the damaged that was done in Compton, California when Rodney King was beaten, and the officers were found not guilty, it took 15 or 20 years to recuperate from the fire that happened in that community…” Thomas does, however, believe strongly in the power of protest and encourages people to speak out, but with one reservation, “Express your outrage, but don’t destroy your own community.”
Even before the Death Floyd came the death of Botham Jean, who was shot to death by a Dallas police officer as he sat comfortably eating ice cream in the sanctity of his Dallas apartment. Citizens witnessed the city torn between the offending officer’s guilt or innocence. Citizens the witnessed unpredictable conflict over Jean being honored with the renaming of Lamar Street.
Thomas states succinctly, “I’m in favor of (renaming Lamar Street to honor Jean.” Although the idea was not his own, he reveals that “I talked to Mayor Pro Tem Adam Medrano, who is the councilman for that district. As a matter of fact, he reached out to me about it initially. I wanted to make sure he had talked to some of the business owners in that area because those are the ones that would be impacted the most by renaming the street…I told (Medrano) I would support it.”
Dallas police have historically brandished a get-tough-on-Blacks policy. Still, the optimistic Thomas is seeing some signs of successfully changing that get-tough policy.
Thomas expectantly states, “I think we’re moving in the right direction. I think that some of the policy changes that (Chief Renee Hall) started to implement around the time of the protests were good.” Thomas points out that the Obama Foundation proposed 8 actions that were required to change the policies of abrasive interaction between police departments and minority citizens. “Dallas is moving in that direction. We’ve got six of the Obama proposed actions completed. We have two more to do.” Thomas credits Chief Hall for the implementation of those changes. “That’s why the City Manager asked Chief Hall to stay on until the end of the year so that we can implement those last two policy changes. So, when a new chief comes in, they won’t have to deal with that responsibility.”
Yet Thomas admits, as it is with anyone, there is an upside as well as a downside to Chief Hall.
“The pros were that she was very approachable, very relatable, she wanted to be out in the community much more, and she was receptive to moving to a police review board.” The downside to Chief Hall, Thomas suggests, was her failure to have advisors close to her who knew the inner-workings of Dallas. Thomas, who characterizes Chief Hall as “a cop’s cop,” suggests that Chief Hall also could have been more receptive to some of the recommendations made by the community. “Dallas has a culture of its own,” Thomas stated unapologetically.
Thomas does confess, though, that some people became “disenchanted” with Chief Hall solely based on those three fate-filled nights of the George Floyd protests, while there were others who considered the fact that Chief Hall is an African American female who was given a fair chance at succeeding. “We should give her the same latitude that we would give a white male police chief,” Thomas insists. “Two schools of thought were that she had people on the inside working against her, while others believed that she was in over her head.”
Concerning racism in the ranks of DPD, Thomas fell short of saying that it may be prevalent, but he would not deny the existence of racism among DPD’s ranks.
“I think race does play a part. One of the best things we’ve done as a city through the police department was implementing the bias training and having police officers to do that training annually. So, people can see what it is they come to the table with. The biases they have against Black and brown males that they may not even be aware of. But because they do the implicit biased training they (police officers) begin to see that what I thought was natural or innate, I was taught this.”
At the “horseshoe” in recent days, Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson finally submitted his $3.8 billion budget again. It was rejected again. That budget is up for a final vote on September 23rd. Thomas discusses some of the causes of the budget’s original rejection.
“A couple of things,” Thomas begins. “The Mayor didn’t take the time—in advance—to spend time with the council discussing why (the proposed budget) was important to him, how it would make a difference, why he was doing it… (The budget) was thrusted upon us at the meeting. (The council) may have seen the amendment, but we didn’t know the rationale of the amendment.” Thomas and other council members felt that the Mayor seeking to save $6 million of a $3.8 billion budget wouldn’t have a great impact; and to cut that $6 million from the salary of city officials would cause those employees to exit city service for the private sector.
If nothing else, and despite being raised in the city, the Mayor, too, is finding out in a lot of ways that Dallas has its own culture and its own way of getting things done. One of those lessons came when angry protestors picketed the Mayor’s home, and they would not relent even in the face of a thunderstorm.
“I don’t think it’s about (African Americans) having an aversion to the Mayor,” Thomas shares with some concession. “The Mayor has experience as an elected official at the state level, but (Dallas) doesn’t have a strong mayoral system. The City Manager runs the day-to-day operation of a city. So (in Dallas’ system of government) the mayor doesn’t have that authority,” explains Thomas. When the Mayor’s home was picketed by a group of rancorous African Americans, Thomas says that episode could have been avoided. “If there was a possibility of that being avoided it would have been (the Mayor) having an actual conversation with the protest leaders about the various proposals of defunding the DPD. As opposed to saying, ‘You know what, I’m not going to meet with you.”
Thomas’s final thoughts and message to his constituents.
“This is a moment (in history) that many people have been looking forward to for a long time, where we are focused on social justice and racial equity. Seize the moment. Seize the moment not just by protesting, rioting, and looting standpoint, but by a policy standpoint. Identify what policies you would like to see changed. Recommend how you would have more money go into the Black and brown communities when it comes to public safety in particular… I’m a firm believer that if you address the root causes of crime and poverty, it will decrease the amount of crime that you have in your neighborhood.
“How do you advocate for social justice and at the same time not make sure the people who are less than—those who are the least of these—that their needs are met?”