Attack On Dallas Police: Special Coverage, The Morning After

Jul 8, 2016
Originally published on July 8, 2016 2:15 pm
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And we're going to turn now to NPR's Wade Goodwyn who is in Dallas. And, Wade, just get us up to speed. What do we know at this hour?

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: Well, I think the investigation is ongoing. We have five police officers dead, apparently now 12 were shot, and we have two civilians who were also wounded. That's the latest from the mayor of the city. And, you know, it was an ambush. It was a peaceful - it was not an angry protest, really. There were even times when protesters mingled with the cops in a friendly way.

It was almost over. And then suddenly snipers - at least two snipers - opened up targeting the police, and chaos broke loose.

MARTIN: I want to bring in a couple other voices into the conversation - NPR's Martin Kaste who covers law enforcement and White House correspondent Scott Horsley.

But first, Martin, we just heard Wade describe how this was a peaceful demonstration and actually at some points police were taking selfies with protesters. Can you take us back and talk about how police, after Ferguson in particular, have really tried to re-evaluate how they do their jobs, how they're interacting with communities and some of the tangible steps they've taken?

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: In fact, I should point out here that if somebody was trying to punish police for bad policing or send a message, boy, did they pick the wrong department because the Dallas Police Department is actually quite respected among reformers for the work they've done the last couple of years.

MARTIN: Why? What have they done?

KASTE: They have been far more open with data about the things they do about police-involved shootings than other departments. They've embraced that - sort of that ethic. Complaints against the police department have dropped precipitously, and, in fact, the murder rate is now dropping.

A lot of people point to Dallas police as a success story, so not exactly the right target for some kind of twisted demonstration of anger against policing in America, I think. But more broadly speaking nationally, I think, you know, this is a decentralized police system we have in this country, depending on how you count them - 17 to 18,000 different agencies. Constitutionally, there is no federal control over these agencies. They are state and local.

And so change happens from the ground up. You know, the White House had a task force on 21st Century Policing, tried to push all these departments in certain directions, but, you know, this amounts to suggestions. It amounts to best practices. It is like herding cats, and there are some departments that have really tried hard. There are others that have sort of, you know - especially smaller departments that don't really get noticed on a day-to-day basis that maybe haven't been doing as much.

It varies so much, but I would say that in the last couple of years police departments have become far more aware of public scrutiny. But at the same time, they're also a bit - they're puzzled because frankly standards for police are higher now than they were a generation ago. They train more than they used to. And yet, there's a public sense that policing is worse than it was a generation ago, and the key factor there, I think, is we're noticing it more. We're having...

MARTIN: Yeah.

KASTE: ...You know, cell phone videos of what happens.

MARTIN: So, Wade, does that jibe with what you know about the Dallas Police Department and the reforms it's made?

GOODWYN: Yes, I mean, the Dallas Police Department, I think, is one of the leaders in the country in trying to reform the way it does policing. It's focused on community policing. It has a black police chief. And it is not a police department that has been afraid to look at itself critically, and I think you saw that - some of the reaction of that last night. This was not a police department that feels like its at war with its own black community.

MARTIN: I want to bring in Scott Horsley into the conversation. Scott, the president has been put in this strange situation. He is in Poland right now for the NATO summit - historic summit that got a huge agenda - Afghanistan, terrorism, migration in Europe, Brexit, to say the least. But remarkably, he has been pulled back to domestic affairs having to make two statements already in the course of 12 hours about this violence. Can you tell us what he said?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: That's right, Rachel. The White House was very much aware of the widespread public frustration sparked by these back-to-back police killings. And, as Martin suggests, they were amplified by those viral videos. So the president had hardly arrived in Warsaw last evening when he stepped in front of microphones to say, look, these are not isolated incidents. They are symptomatic of racial inequities in law enforcement and criminal justice that all Americans should be troubled by.

Now, this is a politically fraught area for the president because he - when he's made statements like this in the past in regards to the shooting of Michael Brown or Eric Garner or the the death of Freddie Gray, he has sometimes drawn criticism that he's not sufficiently supportive of law enforcement.

So last night, he went out of his way to say we had extraordinary appreciation for police officers. It's a tough job, and he said they have a right to go home to their families just like anybody else on the job. And the president expressed hope that these incidents would not drive Americans into sort of their bunkers or their partisan camps. And obviously what we've seen in Dallas is - it just heightens that concern.

MARTIN: I mean, this is a personal issue for the president. He's had to make speeches, remarks, give condolences about issues related to gun violence in this country, and the state of race relations for a long time now. How do you see this fitting into his priorities in the last few months of his administration?

HORSLEY: Well, he has certainly made criminal justice reform a priority in the waning year of his administration, and he had some hope that because there was bipartisan support for that in Congress, this might be one of the few areas where he could make common cause with the Republican-controlled House and Senate.

He said last night that that effort has lost momentum because Capitol Hill is sort of where momentum goes to die. But he certainly does have hope that there can be some some progress made on this. And this is one of those causes that he has talked about pursuing after he leaves office as well. He said yesterday that these problems won't be solved during necessarily his lifetime or even his children's lifetime, that this is a long-term issue for him to deal with.

MARTIN: Martin, you have spent a long time reporting on the technology that is informing so much of this conversation right now because this wouldn't be happening - frankly, this conversation wouldn't be happening if we didn't have the preponderance of cell phone technology. Can you talk a little bit about that and how police departments are grappling with it?

KASTE: Yes, I think it was two days ago in Baton Rouge when protesters were gathering over the death of Alton Sterling when a couple of the community leaders there, protesters, stood up and started thanking Apple and Google and Microsoft by name. There's a sense that, yeah, that if these things weren't captured up close and personal on video that they would be lumped together into some kind of anonymous statistic, you know - black male shot, encounter with police, traffic stop, no one really knows what happened. That's the sense that a lot of activists have, that now that era is over, that things are now seeing the light of video or the light of day through video and that - you know, police, in the last few years I think have come around to accepting that new reality.

At first, about maybe five years ago, I still remember a lot more of those videos had moments when a frustrated officer or an angry officer would - you'd see his hand reaching for the camera and the camera would, you know, the recording would stop. Police officers now are being told, unambiguously by most departments, you can't interfere with people videotaping as long as they're not getting in the way of law enforcement's work. You know, and that's now part of every officer's training, ideally, and I think in most cases it is. I mean they understand that now, and they sort of grin and bear it. Some of them have embraced it, even. I mean they're wearing their own cameras, too. There's a sense now that the camera is an integral part of every law enforcement encounter, both the civilian's version as well as the officer's version, and that's just the new reality.

MARTIN: And it stirs up public sentiment in such an emotional way, Wade. I mean these protests that were held in Dallas last night were in response to these two killings involving police over the course of the past few days. One of them in particular, Philando Castile, a man in Falcon Heights, outside of St. Paul in Minnesota, his girlfriend recorded this horrific scene on her phone and then posted it to Facebook. It's an emotional scene. It's hard to watch. How many people you have spoken with in Dallas were citing that video as a reason that they felt compelled to go out on the streets and take part in this protest?

GOODWYN: Well, I think the two videos are part of the larger whole that we've all been witness to over the last couple of years that's been building, and I think black people in Dallas and around the country have gotten to the point where it's just too much to take. And, you know, last night was just devastating for the city of Dallas. You know, it's taken us 50 years to get over the charge that we are the city of hate after the Kennedy assassination. And there were some strange similarities. I mean this shooting happened about two blocks away from where the president was killed. Lee Harvey Oswald knew the parade route and picked an elevated position from which to attack. Police now believe that these snipers knew the protest route and they took an elevated position from which to attack.

And both of these attacks, you know, just had - were to devastating effect. And I can tell you right now that, you know, the city of Dallas is stunned and in deep mourning about what has happened to them, and again, out of nowhere.

MARTIN: Just to summarize, we are following the events in Dallas this morning. Five police officers were killed, another at least seven wounded by snipers who attacked what had been peaceful demonstrations held on the streets of Dallas last night, those protests coming in response to two killings - two African-American men who were killed during altercations with police over the past few days.

President Obama is in Warsaw, Poland, today. He is there for an historic NATO summit. Heads of state are gathering to take on a whole host of issues ranging from the ongoing war in Afghanistan and the NATO effort there, also migration in Europe and of course the U.K.'s vote to leave the European Union. However, he has been forced because of what has happened in Dallas to make remarks about the violence. He's condemned the violence. We are also expecting the president to come out again and speak about what has happened. We are waiting for that press conference. He'll be giving a joint presser with the Polish president. They will be coming out together.

In the meantime, I am joined by Wade Goodwyn, who's reporting on the ground from Dallas. We've also got Martin Kaste on the line with us, national correspondent who covers law enforcement and policing issues, and NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Scott, if you don't mind reminding us, what is supposed to be happening in this NATO summit? I ticked off some of the issues, but talk about what has brought the president there in the first place.

HORSLEY: Well, this is his fifth and final NATO summit, possibly his last trip to Europe as president, and it comes at a time when of course that continent is feeling a lot of different strains. There was the vote two weeks ago of the U.K. to divorce the European Union. That is a major pull. The president, of course, had lobbied for Britons to vote the other way. At the same time, he's stressed that the U.K. remains an important partner in NATO, and he'll be emphasizing that during these talks.

NATO has an important role to play in Afghanistan. He's asking other NATO allies to up their contributions to the effort in Afghanistan. And he set the table for that this week by announcing that he's slowing the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Instead of cutting back to 5,500 U.S. troops next year as planned, he's planning to leave 8,400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, at least through the end of his term.

NATO also has concerns to the southeast, on its southeastern flank with all the fallout from the Syrian civil war, and to the east because of a newly aggressive Russia. And so NATO is deploying four new battalions on its eastern flank to guard against any further Russian aggression. One of those battalions will be made up of U.S. forces, the other, from other NATO allies.

So, you know, there's been concern - we've heard this in the presidential campaign - about other NATO allies not necessarily, you know, carrying their weight in the alliance, and that's something they'll be talking about. And then of course the EU Brexit vote just sort of hangs over this meeting. So lots going on in addition to keeping a weather eye on what's happening back home.

MARTIN: And we are waiting for the president to come out and make remarks in a joint press conference with the Polish president, but in the meantime I'm going to turn back to Wade Goodwyn, who is in Dallas. And Wade, you know, the city was on lockdown essentially as all this was unfolding in the early morning hours. People in Dallas are now waking up to this news. What is the mood as you've been monitoring reports and talking with people? How are people feeling this morning?

GOODWYN: Well, I think people are shocked. First and - and so sad about, you know, this senseless slaughter of these innocent police officers who were for - you know what they were doing? They were guarding this protest march to make sure that everything went well, and it did go well, you know, all the way up until these snipers started to try to kill them. And there was a standoff with one of the snipers for much of the morning. That standoff has ended with the - with the suspect dead.

And we have - you know, I mean, there's so many questions about, you know, what the motive was and - but I - you know, a good chunk of the downtown is going to be closed. People are going to try to have to figure out how to get around. There's logistical issues and - as well as just the emotional issues, I think, are going to take a long time to get over.

MARTIN: Yeah. Martin, what does something like this do to the perception among law enforcement around the country of being on the attack, of being targeted in this way of a so-called kind of war on cops?

KASTE: The war on cops is an incredibly sensitive and very politically-fraught phrase and it's really become a theme among some police groups in the last couple of years. And when you look at it in terms of statistics, in terms of police dying on duty there isn't really a war on cops, at least not compared with a generation ago. I mean, police die on duty less than they used to - depending how you count it, half the rate they did back in 1980, say.

On the other hand, there is an undeniable sense among many police that for the last few years there's been a steady erosion of the traditional respect that Americans have had for police officers, and then that is dangerous in their minds. You know, you may recall, I used to be a foreign correspondent. I used to work in Latin America, and it was a very different reality in places like Brazil, where police officers wouldn't even hang their uniforms out to dry in their backyard lest their neighbors find out they were cops because - and when a police officer was killed, there'd hardly be any kind of public notice. It was almost a sense of good riddance.

That wasn't true in the United States traditionally. Obviously, police officers have often done things that have made people angry, but there was this general sense, you know, when a police officer was killed on duty that there would be a sense of mourning and respect for that. And police officers worry that that's going away. Rightly or wrongly, they worry about that, and they worry that that will lead to greater danger for them, more possibility of ambush when people who are extremists or unbalanced are inspired to attack them.

And even though the number of ambushes is actually very small compared to other dangers for police officers, it preys on their minds. It's an ever-present thought. You know, you talk to officers and they recall the two New York police officers who were killed at the end of 2014 who were ambushed in their car. You know, their names will - you know, are always on their minds. And now I'm assuming the names of these Dallas officers will also kind of join that roll call for them. So there's this sense of changing - sort of a changing place in society in America, and it really disturbs them.

MARTIN: You know, we hear about this trust gap between police and the communities they serve, but there also seems to be just conflicting messages because on the one hand you hear about police officers saying, you know, listen, we end up having these altercations because we are patrolling these communities where there's a lot of crime, and that's why there's this disproportionate number of incidents with African-Americans or other minorities.

And then you talk to people who live in these communities, and they say, wait, that's not our reality. We call the cops, and they don't show up, which is why, you know, perhaps people feel that they have to arm themselves. I mean, can you talk a little bit about that trust gap and what seems to be this mismatch of information?

KASTE: Yeah. I mean, I think that's - as you were saying before, it's been fed in the last few years by a greater awareness of what's going on because, you know, video is so striking. People see these incidents, and it becomes real as opposed to just an abstraction. And so there is a sense that, you know, when police officers do the wrong thing, when they kill someone, when they abuse someone's rights, you know, that that is - that's more present somehow and it seems like it's happening more often. Scholars of this say, well, probably not. It's probably at least same as it ever was and maybe even slightly better now than it was a generation ago. But that doesn't really - that's cold comfort for someone who's 20 years old, growing up in a neighborhood where there's a sense of a breakdown of that relationship between community and the people policing the community.

So, you know, we have to deal with what we have today, not, you know, the history. And even though officers, police officers will say, you know, things have gotten better, training is better, we don't understand why everyone's so angry at us right now, you know, for a young person that's irrelevant. Right now, people have been killed on video, and these are egregious-looking incidents.

HORSLEY: One of the things that President Obama said after the death of Freddie Gray is these things are not new. We shouldn't pretend that they're new, but in some ways they have now been exposed to a broader community than the African-American community where they were perhaps well-known. The president certainly talked about addressing that trust gap between police and the communities that they are intended to serve. And he's argued that this is not an either or, that rebuilding that trust is not only good for the community, but good for the police, makes their jobs easier, makes them safer, makes it more likely they go home at the end of the shift safe.

MARTIN: Wade, what have you seen in the community there, in Dallas, in terms of the relationship with law enforcement?

GOODWYN: Well, there was an incident last night that kind of speaks to what we're talking about right now. A 7-Eleven that was a couple blocks away from the shooting, one of the sniper's bullets shattered it's plate glass, which says just how - just how far these these snipers were able to reach. And after things had calmed down, that empty plate glass was too much temptation for some of the folks who were still trapped in downtown and they began to go in and steal the beer and wine and out of there. Well, very quickly, about 30 to 40 cops gathered around the 7-Eleven and stood shoulder-to-shoulder and stopped any more looting, which didn't go well with the potential looters, I guess, who were hanging around, and so they began to taunt the police - dance in front of them, singing and taunt them about their fallen colleagues.

And, you know, on the one hand, you kind of think to yourself, well, I guess there's no shortage of people who'll act like horses' patoots. But on the other hand it also speaks to the fact of just how deep the alienation can be between the black community and the police department. I mean on one hand they were kind of saying, welcome to our world and we're going to celebrate the fact that this time it's people - it's the men in blue who are lying dead on the street.

And I just felt the whole - that whole scene was such a stark and sad, I felt, comment about where we're at in this country.

MARTIN: Martin, can you talk a little bit about how the Black Lives Matter movement has evolved? I mean, we should just remind listeners that the violence that we saw was in response, or happened, rather, during demonstrations that came in response to these two killings of African-Americans this week. This was in connection to the Black Lives Matter movement. How has - how has that group evolved since Ferguson and its relationship with law enforcement?

KASTE: Yeah, and obviously - and I think everyone here understands that, you know, we know nothing of the actual motives of these people who attacked Dallas police and much needs to be answered there. But obviously, the the context for this is this anger at police that African-Americans have been expressing, you know, a lot more visibly in the last couple of years. I mean, Ferguson is sort of seen as this watershed moment, but, you know, it was always there. Somehow it came together at the summer of 2014, you know? There was the death of Eric Garner in New York. There was Ferguson. That combined with the, you know, rising tide of videos, it sort of just hit a critical mass at that moment. But it's, you know, not a new - by far not a new sentiment, especially among minority communities in the United States.

MARTIN: And I'm going to interrupt you there, Martin, because now officials in Dallas are holding a press conference. We'll go to that live.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

MARTIN: And you have been listening to Special Coverage from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene, listening there to the mayor of Dallas, Mike Rawlings, and also the Police Chief David Brown. And, wow, Rachel, I mean it was just - it was just chilling. You really got a sense from the police chief how painful this has been. He said we are hurting, our profession is hurting. We must stop this divisiveness between our police and our citizens. And he spoke - you know, the new information we have now, you know, the police were approaching this one suspect and tried to negotiate with him, got, you know, from him, described as lucid, sort of what he was thinking. He told police that he was upset about recent police shootings, as we've seen this week, upset at white people, wanted to kill white people, especially white officers. And the police decided they could not approach him because they would be in danger and decided to detonate a bomb which killed him. So that's just some of the drama this morning and some of the pain that is clearly being felt in this city.

MARTIN: Yeah, Chief Brown clearly trying to establish that they had no way out, that this guy was a threat, that they had gone through hours of negotiations with him and those had come to a standstill and they felt - in the police chief's words - that they had no alternative but to send in what sounds like a robotic explosive device that they had to detonate and then that suspect was killed in that.

We are joined by a few different voices to give context to what we've been talking about. NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley, Martin Kaste, who covers law enforcement, and Wade Goodwyn in Dallas. Pretty remarkable press conference. Martin, I'm going to turn to you. What did you hear out of that that struck you?

KASTE: Well, as you point out, that opening statement of the fact that they are in pain as a profession, I think that echoes what we were talking about before the press conference started, the sense that many police officers have in this country right now of being - being sort of under siege in terms of people's attitude towards them. You know, whether or not - you know, whatever you may think of the professionalism of police in your particular community, there's a sense across the board among many police officers, even very reform-minded officers that I talk to on a regular basis that they're all being tarred with the same brush, that you'll have someone do something horrible captured on videotape and that all officers are then lumped together. And then they have to worry about their safety doing their jobs in their communities.

And, you know, as they pointed out, Dallas has a good reputation as a department. It's very community policing-minded. It's definitely interested in improving the way it does its work. And so they feel especially, I think, right now unfairly targeted by whatever this person had in mind. And as a side note, that technique of the robotic...

MARTIN: Device.

KASTE: ...Device with the bomb on it, I have never heard of anything like that in policing. That is astonishing.

MARTIN: I want to bring in another voice into the conversation. Sarah Mervosh is a reporter with The Dallas Morning News, and she joins us on the line. Sarah, we should point out, in that press conference, the police chief made a point of establishing that this suspect had no connection to any groups, that he was acting on his own. Correct?

SARAH MERVOSH: Right. And that sort of jives with what I heard last night from marchers and protesters when I was out on the streets. They were saying (inaudible) people. There were police officers who were taking photos with people, protesters. And there was actually an incident where one man was arrested who was a protester, and they were saying, that can't be the shooter. He was with us the whole time.

MARTIN: What did you hear out of those remarks from those two city leaders? We saw the mayor there. We heard the mayor and the police chief. Clearly, this is a city, in their words, that is heartbroken right now.

MERVOSH: Right. You know, I heard, you know, heartbreak and anger, especially from Dallas Police Chief David Brown. Just a year ago, he had to defend our Dallas Police Headquarters when it was attacked. Shots were fired at Dallas Police Headquarters and miraculously no one was hurt. And this time it's a totally different scenario and so he's asking for the support of the city. He's saying on most days they don't feel support, and he hopes that today won't be most days.

MARTIN: Yeah. Sarah Mervosh, reporter with The Dallas Morning News, giving us the view from there of these tragic events. Thank you so much.

We've also heard from NPR correspondents Scott Horsley, Martin Kaste, Wade Goodwyn. You have been listening to Special Coverage from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

GREENE: And I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.