In the hallway of the Dallas Police Basic Training Academy, students are greeted by a row of paintings. There is a portrait hanging of every Dallas PD officer who has died in the line of duty. Soon there will be four more — the victims of sniper Micah Xavier Johnson, who ambushed and shot them during a Black Lives Matter protest on July 7.
In the weeks after the fatal shootings, Dallas Police Chief David Brown invited people to join the force and help resolve the problems that led them to protest in the streets. And many responded to his plea. The city’s recruiting division plans to test hundreds of applicants over the next few months, and the Dallas Police Department wants to hire 529 new police officers by 2019.
But in this climate of heightened tension, what might attract new recruits to the force?
“I need to get involved”
There were 73 recruits training at the Dallas police academy when the shootings happened in July. The demographics of the group are diverse — 37 percent Hispanic, 18 percent African-American.
The officer deaths strengthened the camaraderie among these recruits, says Sgt. Angela Shaw. Every student attended a funeral of one of the fallen officers, and they seemed even more determined afterward to become police officers.
Recruit Loren Bolton based his final decision to join the police force on a similar attack. In June 2015, a heavily armed man shot the front of the police headquarters in Dallas and placed bombs in the parking lot. Fortunately, nobody was hurt.
“That was the day that did really wake me up,” he says. “It made me go, ‘You know what? I need to get involved, I need to do this.’ ” Bolton quit his PR job and signed up.
Sugeny Genao, 34, is a single mom raising three boys. She applied to the academy because she “wants to be a good role model for younger people or people who do not have any sense of direction, to show them, ‘Hey, if I can do it, so can you.’ ”
“I am ready to die for my community”
At the police academy, the average age of the recruits is 27. Some have a military background, but what unites them is their motivation.
“I am really excited about getting on the streets because I am bringing the good to every situation, I am ready to die for my community, if I had to,” Bolton says. “To protect others, that is why I am here.”
Many of these recruits and officials believe the nation’s racial tensions can be overcome.
But at least one trainee, Keith Lee, acknowledges that individual policemen in other cities have reacted poorly in the past.
“Is it right? No. It should not be happening,” the 26-year-old says. “You always want to go with the lowest level of force necessary.”
Ivory Dotson also points out that there is discretion in every decision officers make.
“As far as ethnic or racial features are concerned, when you see a vehicle making a traffic violation, especially at night when most of the younger officers work, you do not necessarily see the color of the violator, you just see the violation while it happens,” says Dotson, who is African-American. “Then you treat them like you would treat everyone else. You would treat them how you would want one of your family members to be treated if they are stopped by an officer.”
However, the decision-making process can be subjective, and today there is more public scrutiny than there may have been decades ago.
Sr. Cpl. Christopher Allen says in some parts of Dallas, people lean out of five-story brownstones and they have their own perception of encounters between police and community.
“Should it be video-recorded, the video might be played out of context, and officers need to be as fair as possible and articulate what they are doing as well as possible,” he says. “Body cams are not mandatory for Dallas police officers. But once you are assigned to wear one, you have to wear it, and microphones in vehicles are standard.”
Hill Martin, a 25-year-old recruit, is in favor of wearing and using body cams.
“I think videos help to keep people telling the truth, because then, from the citizens’ side and from the officers’ side, you have indisputable proof,” Martin says.
“The bad apples get all the attention”
In Dallas, the frequency of officer-involved shootings has decreased over the past few years. “We work real hard on that,” says Deputy Chief Jeffrey Cotner. “We’ve done de-escalation training since 2012. And we have seen the benefits of that training, in our day-to-day use of force — all that has reduced. Using the firearm is the last resort, and that is how we teach it.”
So far this year, there have been eight of those incidents. One happened on Aug. 25 during a traffic stop. The suspect had a firearm and took off running, while the police officer shouted “drop the gun.” All of this was captured by microphone. The man then turned around and aimed his weapon at the officer, who shot him. The suspect died in the hospital.
“It was by the book,” says press officer Monica Cordova. “[An officer] can’t wait to be shot first.”
And while formal complaints of racial profiling in traffic stops in Dallas dropped from 14 in 2011 to 10 in 2015, police recruit Tray Chapa hopes that the perception of law enforcement improves.
“Right now, the bad apples get all the attention,” the 27-year-old says. “And the good police officers that do their job, that don’t worry about a person’s skin color, they don’t get as much attention.”