On Thursday, the public was invited to a forum to hear the candidates address six major issues facing the Fort Worth Police Department (FWPD).
Two of the candidates are currently employed by FWPD. Julie Swearingen is an assistant police chief and Neil Noakes is deputy chief. Wendy Bainbridge is currently assistant chief at the Houston Police Department. Troy Gay serves as an assistant chief with the Austin Police Department. Derick Miller serves nearby as chief of the Carrollton Police Department while Christopher Jones is an assistant sheriff in Las Vegas.
Each of the candidates has over two decades of law enforcement experience.
Increase in Murders in Fort Worth
The candidates were first questioned about the increase in homicides and other violent crime in Fort Worth in the past year and how to address the issue.
All of the candidates encourage a data-driven and collaborative approach to addressing the issue, but they emphasized that nothing would really change without building trust within the community.
Bainbridge touted her experience working with domestic violence victims and deploying victim assistance workers with police officers.
The COVID-19 isolation, unemployment, and frustrations have contributed to violence, Johnson said.
Miller said that underlying causes of crime like housing and poverty issues must be addressed with social services in order to help reduce crime.
Noakes pointed to a model program in Denver that has seen success in deploying specialized teams to take the load off of detectives.
Secondly, the candidates were asked what their approach would be to community-oriented policing. They all agreed that it must be part of the overall culture of the department.
“Community policing must be woven into every officer’s job,” Gay offered.
Johnson added that he would help officers’ see that part of their role is to bring communities together.
“We have to be intentional about opportunities for positive engagement,” Noakes added.
Swearingen added that houses of worship could assist by holding meetings and introducing teams of officers to residents of a neighborhood in Fort Worth to help build trust.
The third major area of discussion was holding police officers accountable, especially in instances of excessive force. Calls for reform and accountability grew after the 2019 shooting death of Atatiana Jefferson by a FWPD officer while she was babysitting her nephew.
Jones pointed to his experience heading up an internal affairs department in Las Vegas where he has had to fire police officers for use of excessive force. “If there is a problem officer, it must be dealt with.”
“You need a crystalline direction that certain behaviors will not be tolerated,” Miller said, adding that he thinks having an external monitor is a good idea.
Noakes pointed out that the expert review panel has acknowledged that the department has good policies in place, but it must follow those policies. He pointed out a success story where an officer escalated a situation with rude behavior, was pulled out of patrol, and sent for de-escalation and emotional intelligence training. That officer then rode with a senior officer for a bit and has since returned to patrol with no further incidents.
Bainbridge emphasized that departments have to be creative about training, offering that each station should have trainers available every shift and pull a couple of officers out on a rotating basis to receive an hour or two of ongoing training.
Culture Change at FWPD
Fourth among the issues was changing the culture of the department.
Miller touted his success in changing the culture of the Carrollton Police Department from one focused on citations to one that engaged with the community.
Swearingen said culture change starts with new recruits. She said that FWPD brings community members in to speak with the recruits and explain interactions, both positive and negative, that they have had with police officers.
“We have to acknowledge there is a problem,” Gay said, “and have difficult dialogue with communities of color.”
Johnson said that the Las Vegas Police Department changed its culture a few years ago after seeing an increase in the use of force and implementing 75 recommendations. “We have to listen to our critics. They will tell us where we are getting it wrong,” he stated.
Officer Recruitment, Retention, and Morale
The candidates were also asked about officer recruitment, retention, and morale.
Noakes said that officer morale will be improved if department leadership takes the time to get buy-in from officers before making changes. He also acknowledged that FWPD’s make up does not reflect the make up of the city as a whole.
Swearingen touted her achievement in recruiting more women and minority applicants with the “Be the Change” campaign that she headed up. “Recruiting is a passion of mine, and I won’t stop until this department reflects the community.”
Bainbridge would create committees that include officers and union representatives when changing department policies, also pointing out that morale and productivity are interrelated.
“A progressive agency will change. You have to have officers know they will be part of the solutions,” Gay offered. He added that a department with high morale will be attractive to recruits.
In Las Vegas, they discovered that those they were trying to recruit couldn’t come to the testing times being offered to take the required examinations, Johnson explained. They began to offer the tests on weekends and at locations within the community.
Carrollton’s department reflects the same percentage of black officers as the community — eight percent. But he added that recruiting can’t be one-size-fits-all. He has learned that recruiting from the Korean community in Carrollton requires that they aim efforts at convincing parents that law enforcement is a noble profession.
Civilian Oversight and Monitoring
Finally, civilian oversight and the office of police monitor, which Fort Worth added in 2020, were discussed.
Swearingen praised newly hired police monitor Kim Neal, saying, “She’s been great to work with.”
“Iron sharpens iron,” Bainbridge began, adding that she believes accountability makes a better police department. She has also worked with a civilian oversight board in Houston and believes it increases transparency.
Gay said he believes oversight is absolutely necessary, adding that he has spent 20 years of his career as part of police oversight. He pointed out that the police monitor can also help the community understand when issues are handled in a particular way by the department.
“One of the six pillars of President Obama’s 21st Century Policing Task Force was oversight,” Jones pointed out, adding that the Las Vegas civilian oversight board has subpoena power to question officers, which he considers critical to a productive inquiry.
Miller said he has been a proponent of police monitors. “Any progressive police department should be open to these ideas.”
Noakes also touted his good working relationship with current monitor Neal and added that he plans to be a part of the process of change at FWPD.
FWPD encourages citizens to send their feedback after viewing the candidate forum to [email protected].
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Kim Roberts is a regional reporter for the Texan in the DFW metroplex area where she has lived for over twenty years. She has a Juris Doctor from Baylor University Law School and a Bachelor's in government from Angelo State University. In her free time, Kim home schools her daughter and coaches high school extemporaneous speaking and apologetics. She has been happily married to her husband for 23 years, has three wonderful children, and two dogs.