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‘The moment is still here.’: How policing has changed in Dallas County a year after George Floyd’s death

Several smaller cities backed by Dallas County commissioners are experimenting with new models to help those with mental illness
Members of the DeSoto Care Team pose for a photograph at the Library in DeSoto, TX, on May 24, 2021. The Care Team includes police officers, health care experts and a victim’s advocate. (Jason Janik/Special Contributor)(Jason Janik / Special Contributor)

By Nic Garcia

Tucked away behind the young adult section at the DeSoto Public Library, an experiment to change public safety is unfolding.

Dressed in a blue polo and black vest that obscures her police badge, Lt. Melissa Franks supervises the city’s new initiative from an office that once served as the library staff’s breakroom.

The DeSoto Care Team aims to connect residents in mental health crises and their families with services to keep them out of jail and the hospital.

Its location — a room bathed in fluorescent light with white-tiled floor and new, black cubicles — was no accident but a symbolic shift to put police officers in a different context and bring them and other resources closer to the community.

Established last October, the Care Team is one of several programs Dallas County is investing in to help smaller cities answer last summer’s racial reckoning.

The county awarded DeSoto nearly $2 million to set up a regional team with other nearby cities that one day may include a drop-in community center, legal aid clinic and food and housing assistance program — if Franks gets her way.

“I’ve seen this gap in the community for years,” said Franks, a 16-year veteran. “I believe in investing in people, even if that means we need to take money away from the police. This is our chance to do something meaningful.”

The murder of George Floyd — one year ago on Tuesday in Minneapolis — sparked a nationwide outcry aboutpolicing and racism in the United States. Floyd, a Black man, was killed by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer who was convicted of murder earlier this year. Dallas, like many other major cities across the country, was home to a sustained protest movement. At the time, elected leaders at all levels promised swift reforms.

A year later, change has been slow and people are still being killed by police.

Since Floyd’s death, state data maintained by the Attorney General’s office shows at least 85 people have died by police since Floyd’s murder. An analysis by Mothers Against Police Brutality, a Dallas nonprofit that has advocated for sweeping police changes puts the number higher, at 394. That includes 29 deaths in Dallas County. The analysis was based on data compiled at, a website that has tracked police-related deaths since 2000. The website counts all deaths that occur when police are present or are caused by them, eclipsing the scope of the state’s database.

Despite a lack of systemwide changes, the conversation hasn’t stopped, as some had feared. And those calling for dramatic alternatives — including a large divestment in policing in favor of anti-poverty initiatives — believe the ground is still fertile.

“We know that creating a new system is scary,” said Classi Nance, a coordinator for the In Defense of Black Lives Coalition, a network of advocacy groups that was formed amid last summer’s protests. “But we’re in this together. And just like someone had to dismantle slavery, someone has to dismantle policing.”

Nance and other activists said they plan to push for more in the coming weeks as local governments begin setting their budget priorities. Among the top goals is getting specific measurable goals for the programs already in place and pushing for direct funding to community-based nonprofits that are working to curb violence or end poverty.

County leaders say they’re poised to deliver.

The success of the efforts underway and the next wave of activism will answer whether Floyd’s murder was truly a watershed moment unrivaled to countless other cases of Black men and women being killed by police.

“Protests come in waves, but deadly police brutality is routine. It literally happens every day,” said John Fullinwider, a co-founder of Mothers Against Police Brutality. “I do think there is a bigger space for transformative change and I’m not overly pessimistic. But history would not teach you optimism on this.”

Classi Nance is a coordinator for the In Defense of Black Lives Coalition in Dallas. (Jason Janik/Special Contributor)(Jason Janik / Special Contributor)

A transition team

While the debate over “defunding the police” has become a political flashpoint that has reverberated from the presidential election to the most recent City Council contests, one area of broad agreement has been the need to create alternative responses to mental health calls.

Franks, the DeSoto police lieutenant, sees the work her team is doing as a transition between the modern police system and something new.

“Through no fault of our own, the care of the mentally ill has largely come under the care of police departments in this nation,” she said. “We’re accustomed to utilizing 911 whenever we have a mental health crisis or any other need. Until society can look at other places, police have to step forward.”

Unlike other models, including the Dallas-based RIGHT Care team which sends a police officer, social worker and medical professional to active calls, DeSoto’s team meets with residents and their families 24 hours after they’re taken to the hospital for a mental health emergency or because they were referred.

Among the goals of following up is to provide residents with tools to help navigate the health care system and identify other needs they may have: food, housing, legal assistance. Franks said she hopes the after-care approach will provide more than just a “bigger Band-Aid” than a non-police intervention call during a mental health emergency.

Between October and March, the DeSoto team has tracked about 200 cases. Some residents receive weekly calls, others come to the library to meet with their caseworker once a month. A few never return.

“We’re persistent in making contact,” Franks said. “People are messy. And trying to help people is, too.”

As part of the grant DeSoto received from Dallas County, DeSoto will work with four other cities — Cedar Hill, Duncanville, Lancaster, and Glenn Heights — to build out the program for a regional response.

The hope is the cities can access more resources to help pay for all the services it takes to help people work through mental health emergencies — and bring those to the southern sector.

“It’s hard to get mental health if you don’t have a house, a job or a car,” Franks said. “Too often, people who need help have to go all the way to Dallas, and that’s hard for them. We need a plan to help them here.”

The DeSoto Care Team’s office sits in a converted breakroom at the city library. The team works out of the library in an effort to bring services to a less threatening environment. (Jason Janik/Special Contributor)(Jason Janik / Special Contributor)

Other efforts

The work in DeSoto is not the only effort underway.

Dallas County commissioners approved more than $5 million last year to fund projects in Rowlett, Mesquite, Balch Springs, Seagoville and Sunnyvale. The District Attorney’s office is also leading an effort to launch a jail alternative — known as the deflection center — for people who are regularly arrested for trespassing.

Each project is in various stages and takes different approaches.

Rowlett had already hired a second police officer to join its Crisis Assistance Program, which started seven years ago and has been run by one officer.

Meanwhile, the other cities are working together to launch a program inspired by the CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Ore. The CAHOOTS team includes a social worker and paramedic who are dispatched — without a police officer — to a mental health call. In the southeastern cities, the team will replace officers on some emergency calls and outreach to the homeless.

District Attorney John Creuzot said he expects the deflection center to open by the end of year. He is also working to get money for a more rapid expansion of Dallas’ RIGHT Care program. Additionally, he is collaborating with a cluster of northwestern cities — Addison, Carrollton, Farmers Branch and Coppell — to better understand how they can address mental health emergencies.

“Letting people know the consequences of ingrained practices can impact decisions on public policy,” Creuzot said.

One effort that was started but has failed to gain traction yet is an eviction-assistance program, said Darryl Martin, Dallas County’s administrator who led the county’s efforts at the request of Judge Clay Jenkins.

Martin said he hopes to launch that work in earnest with trusted community groups as soon as the pandemic appears to be winding down.

Martin plans to bring the participating cities, as well as a group of activists who wrote a list of demands outlining necessary changes following Floyd’s murder, together on Tuesday to discuss the progress and begin thinking about what’s next.

“I think we all know the focus needs to be on different policing interactions with the community,” Martin said. “The more we can provide services, the more we can stop police from interacting with those populations, we’ll have more successful outcomes.”

Sara Mokuria, a co-founder of Mothers Against Police Brutality and one of the authors of the 10-New Directions Memo, which served as a launching pad for the county’s work, said the next iteration must focus on specific outcomes.

“It’s good to sit and have these conversations and to learn and to grow,” Mokuria said. “But we need to move to a place of clear purpose and defined goals. How is this work moving us away from reliance on policing and the criminal punishment system?”

Advocating for alternatives

For several years prior to Floyd’s death, a loose network of activists worked to convince the Dallas City Council to rethink its budget priorities. Public safety in Dallas — and in most other cities — accounts for about half of total discretionary spending.

That group galvanized last year as the City Council singled a new openness to rethink how it spends its money keeping Dallas safe. While the council ultimately voted on a symbolic cutting of police overtime pay, activists saw the opportunity as a way to build their political power and membership base.

Since then, activists say they have formed deeper connections, developed their infrastructure and received a rush of new donations to help them with their work.

Demonstrators, many carrying umbrellas bearing the names of people who have been killed by police or racial violence, march through the streets of downtown Dallas following a rally commemorating Juneteenth at Dallas City Hall on Friday, June 19, 2020. (Smiley N. Pool/The Dallas Morning News)(Smiley N. Pool / Staff Photographer)

They’ll be back this year at both City Hall and the county as the budget season starts with a new message: invest in community programs that are working. Specifically, the coalition plans to ask local governments that received direct payments from the most recent federal government stimulus to send at least 22% of their windfall to local organizations doing anti-violence and anti-poverty work.

“We are not just calling for reform,” said Nance, the coordinator for In Defense of Black Lives. “We’re calling for newness. We’re not trying to cut out public safety but build upon the alternatives that already exist in the community.”

The coalition is already circulating a survey in the community and is beginning to canvas to better understand different neighborhoods’ priorities.

Jenkins said he supports both more concrete goals — especially limiting the number of interactions Dallas County police agencies have with the public — as well as sending more money to community-based providers.

“The moment is still here,” he said. “As long as we stay focused on it, we can continue to make progress.”

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