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Atatiana Jefferson and her nephew were inside their home playing video games when a Fort Worth police officer showed up. The cop was responding to a call from a neighbor who saw Jefferson’s front door was open and wanted someone to conduct a welfare check.
According to police documents, when Jefferson heard noises coming from outside, she grabbed a handgun from her purse and approached the window. When she did, then-Fort Worth police officer Aaron Dean fired his weapon into the house, killing Jefferson.
Police reform advocates say a citizen review board could help change the culture of policing, but they’re meeting resistance in Fort Worth, where the city’s top cop has cast doubt on the civilian-led bodies.
Fort Worth Police Chief Neil Noakes, in a recent interview with WFAA, said he didn’t see many benefits to forming a citizen review board in the city. “If we can find something that works for everyone, that’s great,” he said. “But I’ll be honest, the more I’m looking into it, the more I’m seeing less positive results from civilian oversight.”
Noakes isn’t alone in opposing citizen oversight, either. The Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas (CLEAT), the state’s largest police union, doesn’t want one either.
“If you’re wanting to be the boss of the police department, the best way to do that is become the chief of police [or] the sheriff of the county,” CLEAT executive director Charley Wilkison told the Observer.
As far as Wilkison is concerned, there are already enough mechanisms in place to discipline police officers when they break the rules. Forming a citizen review board, he argues, is redundant and undermines public trust in the city’s leadership, whom he believes ought to be in charge of police oversight.
But to Jesuorobo Enobakhare Jr., chair of the Community Police Oversight Board in Dallas, a death such as Atatiana Jefferson’s underscores the need for civilian input.
“Those types of events really strike at the heart of a community,” he said, explaining that community police oversight is one way to heal these wounds. But establishing a body to handle this oversight is often an uphill battle. Actually making that body meaningful is another battle altogether.
Enobakhare Jr. understands the resistance to civilian oversight; it’s a battle he’s fought before. After a string of high-profile police slayings that left young Black men and women dead, such as the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Chicago in 2014, Enobakhare Jr. joined what was then called the Citizens Police Review Board in Dallas.
The board had been established in 1987, and Enobakhare Jr. “realized fairly quickly that this board had absolutely no power and authority to do anything,” he said. “The only thing we could do was listen to civilian complaints.”
They would only hear the complaints after they’d already been investigated and received a ruling from the department. If they didn’t agree with the department’s investigation, all they could do is ask the department to reinvestigate. Most times, he said, they came back with the same results. “It was really a waste of time,” he said.
The board had the power to vote for an independent investigation, but in order to do that, they needed to make their case to a panel of three police officers from another jurisdiction. The panel had to have a majority vote stating they supported an independent investigation. “OK, you cross that hurdle, but then the second hurdle you have to cross is any independent investigation costs money,” he said. They didn’t have the staff or the funding to do such an investigation.
Eventually, he and others decided the board needed to be reformed. After months of downhill meetings, the Dallas City Council voted in 2019 to revamp the review board with a new name and expanded powers. The result is the Community Police Oversight Board and the Office of Community Police Oversight Dallas has today.
The Office of Community Police Oversight in Dallas is where the police monitor sits. The police monitor is also the director of the office where civilians can file complaints. Those are reviewed by the monitor and the department to determine if they have merit and need to be investigated.
Sometimes, the department and the police monitor do not agree. When they don’t, the police monitor can call an independent investigation. The results are then provided to the board and the police chief to review. The board can also make policy recommendations.
Fort Worth has an Office of the Police Oversight Monitor, which Enobakhare Jr. said has similar powers to the Office of Community Police Oversight in Dallas. But it’s been a slow start for the new office. As recommended by the city’s task force on race and culture in 2018, the office was formed last March.
Kim Neal was hired to head the office and came in ready to meet with community members to discuss civilian oversight. But, the pandemic put a lot of those efforts on pause. They were eventually able to make do with virtual meetings, and in December, Neal recommended creating what she called a “mutual accountability working group” to begin talks about what a civilian oversight board would look like in Fort Worth. They met every couple of weeks to discuss possible names for the board, who would appoint members, how that process would work, and what kind of training they would need.
Neal’s office did not respond to the Observer’s multiple requests for comment.
Chief Noakes took over the department in January and at first, he seemed supportive of civilian oversight. “It’s coming whether we want to see it or not,” he said during a press conference at the time. “My plan is to be part of the process.”
But, he’s since changed his tune on the idea. Others haven’t though. Cory Session was on the race and culture task force that originally recommended civilian oversight of the police department about three years ago. Session told WFAA he still thinks this oversight is necessary.
“The people have spoken, and now it’s time for the city to acquiesce and do what those citizens want,” Session said. “It’s a different way to get another eye on the same information.”
Enobakhare Jr. said he understands the department’s hesitancy to create the board. He said review boards tend to have a bad connotation.
“Change is something that most people find difficult. For a police department to now have a civilian entity overseeing them, watching them, making sure they’re being accountable, for a department that feels they’re doing all those things already, they may feel as though it’s redundant,” he said. “But, that’s only from their vantage point. Many communities do feel as though there needs to be greater accountability.”
Noakes has said he feels the police monitor is already doing the work a review board would do. Enobakhare Jr. agrees to some extent, but he argues a board can give the community more of a voice by letting them appoint its members. “They’re not employees of the city of Fort Worth,” he said. “Therefore, they have more of a pure voice for the community.”
He feels a citizen oversight or review board could only bring positive changes to the department and community relations with police. “I see only positives,” Enobakhare Jr. “It actually brings more legitimacy to the police department.”
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