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Dallas Police, A Model Of Improvement Was Targeted Anyway

A sad bit of irony to the deadly assault on police Thursday night is that the Dallas police department had made great strides in reducing cases of excessive use of force.

In the aftermath of the killings in Dallas
In the aftermath of the killings in Dallas
Philip Bump

WASHINGTON — The first of the two impromptu statements President Obama has offered over the past two days focused on the videotaped deaths of two black men at the hands of law enforcement in Louisiana and Minnesota. While mourning their passing, Obama asked that the country reflect on how we could prevent similar incidents from happening in the future. One way, he suggested, was to implement ideas to improve relationships between the police and communities.

"Last year, we put together a task force that was comprised of civil rights activists and community leaders; but also law enforcement officials. Police captains, sheriffs," he said. "And they sat around the table, and they looked at the data and looked at best practices."

"There's some jurisdictions out there that have adopted these recommendations," he continued. "But there are a whole bunch that have not."

One of the jurisdictions hailed by Obama's task force was the Dallas Police Department — the same agency that the president would mourn 24 hours later after five officers were killed in a stunning attack in the city's downtown. That attack came at the tail end of a peaceful march organized to draw attention to police use of force.

In the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., the department launched a new tool detailing officer-involved shootings in the department. In a distinct break with the way such incidents are handled in other jurisdictions, the Dallas department identifies not only the number of such incidents but also their locations, the outcome of the incident — and even the names of the officers. Earlier this year, the data provided was made more robust, including other incidents in which force was used.

"We try our best to be transparent," Dallas Police Chief David Brown wrote for the Dallas Morning News after Ferguson, "and I can tell you that not all cops like it. It does open us up to criticism, threats and exposure of every mistake we make. But it's the right thing to do." The focus of that essay was an officer-involved shooting in the city in 2012, an incident that threatened to similarly spill over into violence but didn't, thanks to the department's focus on transparency.

That focus and the database of information aren't the only changes the department has undergone. The Post's Radley Balko has tracked the evolution of the Dallas Police Department, noting how the agency has focused on use-of-force more broadly. In November, the Morning News explored how the department's training system works, including videos of the program.

One of the more remarkable bits of data in the Morning News's report is this graph showing a sharp decrease in complaints about use of force by the department. Between 2009 and 2014, complaints dropped 64 percent.

Balko noted at the beginning of last year that the department's reforms also overlapped with a decrease in the city's murder rate in 2014 — though that number jumped in 2015, as it did in other large cities.

At an event on improving policing hosted by the White House earlier this year, Brown presented the department's data on use of force and how it was achieved. But a better example of the department's efforts to build a relationship with the community came from its Twitter account, shortly before Thursday night's attack. This photo of police standing with a protester and smiling is not what you would normally expect to see — particularly given the protest's focus.

The deaths of his officers doesn't seem to have changed Brown's opinion on how to handle his relationship with the community.

"Police officers are guardians of this great democracy," he said during a news conference on Friday morning. "The freedom to protest, the freedom of speech, the freedom of expression — all freedoms we fight for, with our lives. It's what makes us who we are as Americans. And so we risk our lives for those rights. So we won't militarize our policing standards, but we will do it in a much safer way every time, like we chose to do it this time."

The relationship between Dallas police and the community is hardly perfect, of course. But the ironic effect of Thursday night's murders is that quick assumptions about how they fit into the national debate over police use-of-force obscure a more nuanced and more positive truth.

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