At least five police officers were killed and seven more wounded by snipers in Dallas on Thursday night during protests over two separate police shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota this week.
The attacks have shined a tragic light on a police department that has seen decreases in excessive force complaints, arrests, and officer-involved shootings.
"This police department trained in de-escalation far before cities across America did it," Mayor Mike Rawlings told reporters on Friday morning. "We’re one of the premier community policing cities in the country and this year we have the fewest police officer-related shootings than any large city in America."
Dallas Police Department Chief David Brown has credited this progress to a shift in training and practices, which put greater emphasis on de-escalation and community policing.
As the Dallas Morning News reported last year, instructors taught officers to “slow down” when engaging with a suspect and to speak calmly rather than immediately shouting. The department has also doubled the amount of training for officers on patrol.
“We definitely want our officers to defend themselves and we want them to go home at night,” Brown told the paper. “But we also want to avoid the controversies of a shooting that violates our deadly force policy. You do that through training.”
The dramatic decline in excessive force complaints and arrests trace back to the year Brown, who is black, took over the department in 2010. In 2009, the department received 147 excessive force complaints and made 74,000 arrests. Within three years, arrests were down to 61,000, and within five years excessive force complaints were down to 53. As the number of excessive force complaints and arrests declined, so did the city’s murder rate, which reached its lowest point in more than 80 years in 2014, before ticking back upward in 2015.
The city has also seen a decline in officer-involved shootings. From 2010 to 2014, Dallas officers fatally shot 34 people — more than half of whom were black — a higher per capita rate than Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York City.
In 2012, a year in which 10 people were killed by police, an officer fatally shot James Harper, an unarmed black man, sparking heated protests in the city. Chief Brown defended the shooting. The officer was not indicted. In 2013, another officer shot and killed another unarmed black man, Clinton Allen. That officer was also not indicted. That same year, however, Brown fired two other officers involved in shootings. And in the years since 2012, when police shot 23 people, the number of police shootings has decreased each year, down to 11 in 2015. According to the data, Dallas police officers have shot one person this year.
After a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, fatally shot Michael Brown in August 2014, Chief Brown wrote a column in the Dallas Morning News explaining that, in the aftermath of a police shooting, it was important for his department to “immediately” inform the public about “all the facts as we knew them,” release the names of the victim and the officer involved, and, “perhaps most important,” decrease the number of officers in the neighborhood around the shooting scene.
Unlike many departments across the country, the Dallas Police Department has tracked and publicized its number of officer-involved shootings. Following one of the 2013 police shootings, the department published a spreadsheet listing a decade’s worth of statistics showing the yearly numbers of suspects killed and injured by officers. This year, the department released its most comprehensive report on its use of force, detailing how often officers used takedowns, pepper spray, batons, Tasers, and firearms.
The department’s tactics for covering protests reflected its community policing focus. “You have a community that is upset, that feels wronged. It’s important to establish trust with them,” Maj. Max Geron told the Washington Post. "The ideal police response to a protest is no response at all."
And so on Thursday night, the officers around the protest wore normal uniforms, without helmets or heavy vests.
Speaking to reporters on Friday, Mayor Rawlings said he wished to "brag" about the progress his police department has made in de-escalation training.
"We are working hard to improve and there’s always room for improvement, but we are best in class, we feel," Rawlings said.
Albert Samaha is Inequality Editor at BuzzFeed News and author of two books, "Concepcion: An Immigrant Family's Fortunes" and "Never Ran, Never Will: Boyhood and Football in a Changing American Inner City." He is based in New York.
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