Right before a horrifying shooting killed five police officers, people in Dallas were marching in the streets to protest police violence — specifically, the killings this week of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota.
But until sniper fire rang out from nearby rooftops, the protest itself seemed to be a model of goodwill between police and protesters.
The Dallas Police Department’s official Twitter account featured officers posing for friendly photos with protesters.
One tweet emphasized the duty of police to protect citizens’ First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly, as well as their safety.
At times, the Dallas Police Department’s Twitter account could have been mistaken for that of a reporter or activist documenting the rally. Tweets meticulously documented the demonstration and where it was headed, and featured photos and videos of the marchers.
Men, women, boys & girls gathered @ Belo Garden Park for the demonstration re: recent police involved shootings. pic.twitter.com/gah2Q3tqG6— Dallas Police Depart (@DallasPD) July 8, 2016
Some tweets even reported on the rally’s message and the slogans being chanted.
The demonstrators have lined the Main Street and are walking eastbound, chanting, "Black Lives Matter." pic.twitter.com/VSwpnUoDBn— Dallas Police Depart (@DallasPD) July 8, 2016
The Dallas PD’s apparent attitude toward Black Lives Matter–affiliated protesters was a stark contrast with the often fraught national debate over the disproportionate number of black Americans who are killed by police.
But it’s also not remotely unusual for the department, as BuzzFeed criminal justice reporter Albert Samaha noted:
A column Dallas PD Chief Brown wrote after Michael Brown was killed: https://t.co/VjQmzYFE7f "My prayers go out to the folks in Ferguson."— Albert Samaha (@AlbertSamaha) July 8, 2016
A DPD major on their tactics for handling a protest: "The ideal police response to a protest is no response at all." https://t.co/LLQEVMUcQW— Albert Samaha (@AlbertSamaha) July 8, 2016
As the Dallas Morning News reported last year, Dallas police have shifted to a stronger focus on deescalation techniques since David Brown became police chief in 2010, with dramatic results. In 2009, there were 147 excessive force complaints against police officers; by 2014, those complaints dropped by 64 percent. And as of November, when the article was published, there had been just 13 such complaints in 2015:
"This is the most dramatic development in policing anywhere in the country," Brown said in an interview Friday with The Dallas Morning News. "We’ve had this kind of impact basically through training, community policing and holding officers accountable."
Brown says his commanders have improved the quality of so-called reality-based training and increased required training hours for street cops over the past year. Trainers model the scenarios on real-life events recorded by officers’ body cams, dash-cams, and the media.
"We can learn from what Dallas is doing," said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, D.C. "That’s what police departments need — they don’t need training in silos: one day about the law, one day about firearms, one day about crisis intervention."
Brown believes the Dallas training has also led to a 30 percent decline in assaults on officers this year, and a 40 percent drop in shootings by police.
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings took a moment during a Friday morning press conference to commend the DPD’s newer tactics.
"This police department trained in deescalation far before cities across America did it," he said. "This year, we had the fewest police officer–related shootings than any large city in America. We are working hard to improve, and there’s always room for improvement, but we are best in class, we feel."
Many observers see the Dallas Police Department as a model of community relations and an example of how to avoid the kinds of seemingly needless killings that sparked the protests in the first place. And that makes Thursday evening’s events seem all the more devastating.