DALLAS, TX – Dogged by criticism stemming from recent shootings by police officers, the Dallas Police Department said it will overhaul its use-of-force training program.
The revamp comes after Chief David Brown fired two officers in two months, citing internal investigators’ conclusions that the officers violated the department’s deadly-force policy when they shot suspects without apparent provocation.
The department plans to replace its current crop of seven rank-and-file instructors — senior corporals — with sergeants.
Brown, who didn’t respond to a request for comment Friday, said in a recent news release that a main goal of the new training is to rebuild public trust.
Deputy Police Chief Albert Martinez said the department doesn’t believe there are major flaws with its training, “but we know it can be better.”
But critics say overhauling the department’s reality-based training program — which teaches officers how and when to use deadly force — is little more than window dressing in response to public pressure.
“I don’t think it will have any effect on the culture of the department and if it did, it would take two to 10 years to make a difference,” said retired Dallas police Sgt. Keith Wenzel, who teaches street survival classes across the nation and once ran the department’s training program. “This is nothing more than political grandstanding.”
Currently, veteran officers go through four hours of live simulations of potential deadly force encounters, every two years.
Martinez said the ultimate goal is to have officers complete that training annually so they are better prepared to handle stressful situations, though he said the department will need more trainers to cycle the department’s 3,500 sworn officers through the program.
Ken Murray, who wrote a book about reality-based training and taught Wenzel, said the scenarios are meant to program officers’ behavior.
“There’s really four things you can do as a cop: You can talk, you can fight, you can shoot and you can leave,” he said. “Where police get into trouble is they’re fighting when they should be talking, talking when they should be leaving, shooting when they should be doing something else.”
Martinez said the sergeants will go through the same certification process as the senior corporals and will meet with experts across the country about best practices. They’ll also be able to provide management-level evaluation of procedures, he said.
“We want supervisors to be able to critique the officers and be able to talk with officers who may not have performed at the level we want them to at those training scenarios,” Martinez said.
He said senior corporals have a harder time doing that because they are instructing peers.
Harvey Hedden, executive director of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association in Wisconsin, backed the idea of having management involved in training.
“One of the real advantages of having supervisors involved in training is they are the ones who get to see how guys are performing on the street,” he said. “Sergeants are trainers anyway.”
Wenzel said he agreed that more frequent training and more supervision is positive. But he said rank has nothing to do with ability to train.
“A good trainer is a good trainer,” Wenzel said. “Are you telling me that because he’s a police officer that he doesn’t possess certain skills? It’s a skill set, not a rank set.”
The new structure is one of several policy changes the department has implemented since a July 2012 shooting of a man in South Dallas that nearly sparked a riot. The department overhauled its foot chase policy, has begun to notify the FBI of all shootings and is field testing new uniform-worn cameras.
Some of the changes have widened a growing rift between the department and the Dallas Police Association. The association’s president Ron Pinkston, a senior corporal himself, sent interim City Manager A.C. Gonzalez a letter Friday asserting that the department’s “management has continually created policies that render us ineffective and less efficient.”
The changes were accelerated after a neighbor’s surveillance video captured Officer Cardan Spencer shooting Bobby Gerald Bennett, who had a knife and was mentally ill, as Bennett stood still with his arms at his sides.
Martinez said the training overhaul was also partially sparked by the Bennett shooting.
“Is it the one single factor? No,” Martinez said. “But that is a very visual example of what can we teach our officers and incorporate into their daily routine to where they are using reasonable alternatives to use time and distance as a friend.”
Wenzel, who publicly criticized Spencer for advancing on Bennett before the shooting, said the shootings all have different sets of issues.
For instance, Senior Cpl. Amy Wilburn — who Wenzel knows and describes as “levelheaded” — apparently didn’t know that a carjacking suspect was still in the stolen car she approached before she shot him. Walker was unarmed and a witness said he had his hands up the whole time.
“Do you really blame training for what happened with Amy, or do you blame a set of circumstances?” Wenzel said. “She’s involved in a chase. She’s stressed out. Her adrenaline is pumping. She doesn’t sense the danger because she thinks the car is unoccupied. She gets up there and someone literally throws their hands up and it scares the crap out of her.
“If all those circumstances lead to why she reacted the way she did, are you telling me that because she was trained by senior corporal at the police academy, that’s why she reacted the way she did?”
AT A GLANCE: Recent shootings involving officers
July 2012: Officer Brian Rowden fatally shoots James Harper, 31, after officers respond to a bogus kidnapping call. Rowden told investigators that he shot Harper as he reached for what he thought was a weapon. It turned out Harper wasn’t armed. The incident nearly sparked a riot in the Dixon Circle community of South Dallas. Rowden has since been cleared by a grand jury.
March 2013: Officer Clark Staller fatally shoots 25-year-old Clinton Allen, who was unarmed, during a confrontation at an east Oak Cliff apartment complex. Authorities say Allen was choking the officer and had PCP in his system at the time of the confrontation. Allen’s mother has since embarked on a crusade against police shootings and founded the group Mothers Against Police Brutality. Staller has been cleared by a grand jury.
Oct. 14: Officer Cardan Spencer shoots Bobby Bennett, 53, outside his mother’s home in the Rylie area. A neighbor’s surveillance video showed that Bennett, who had a knife, had his hands at his sides and never moved toward the officers. Spencer was fired and his partner was suspended.
Dec. 9: Senior Cpl. Amy Wilburn shoots carjacking suspect Kelvion Walker, 19. An independent witness said Walker, who survived, had his hands up when Wilburn shot him. Attorneys for Wilburn said she shot Walker when he didn’t comply with an order to show one of his hands. Walker turned out to be unarmed and has not been charged. Wilburn was fired on Dec. 30.