This past summer, as protests against police violence erupted across the country, local grassroots groups took a multifaceted approach to creating transparency within city politics and the Fort Worth police department. Petitions were signed that demanded participatory budgeting from Fort Worth leaders, police budgets were dissected like never before, and, in August, members of No Sleep Until Justice DFW, a police reform-minded group, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
The request, said the grassroots group’s leader, Thomas Moore, sought incident reports and documented infractions committed by active Fort Worth police officers. The Fort Worth Secretary’s Office responded with a bill for $1,731 to cover the labor of compiling the information, which prompted a successful fundraising effort. Blue Lives Matter supporters soon heard of the request and made their opinions known via the Facebook group The Blue Wave.
“There is a current open records request being filed with the City of Fort Worth requesting personnel files and all information on ALL FWPD Officers,” the Facebook post read.
Send the activists to Guantanamo Bay, one woman replied.
Moore said his group received the 37-page document in late October. The unredacted ledger contains the names of 334 active officers who have at least one incident report of an allegation of misconduct: intoxication while off duty, weapon use violation, sexual harassment, illegal arrest, false arrest, and assault, among many others.
The number of officers whose incident reports fill nearly an entire page is alarming. One officer tallied 25 offenses, including sleeping on duty, neglect of duty, intoxication while off duty, unnecessary force, and multiple accidents that set the police department back $25,000 to $30,000 in damages. The document does not state whether the offending officers faced criminal charges for assaulting civilians or stealing.
The president of the Fort Worth Police Officers Association (FWPOA), Manny Ramirez, said the list is proof that Fort Worth officers are held accountable for their actions.
“It’s a big list,” he said. “What it shows is that we don’t sweep things under the rug. … [Every incident] is investigated, and officers are disciplined. Fort Worth police department does a good job of holding people accountable.”
The report does not list what disciplinary steps were taken, though. Police officers are seldom held criminally accountable for the very actions that send tens of thousands of Tarrant County residents to jail every year. In 2019, 48,945 criminal cases were filed in Tarrant County, according to the local district attorney’s office. That’s roughly the combined populations of Benbrook, Crowley, and White Settlement.
A 2020 article by The New York Times noted that, “It remains notoriously difficult in the United States to hold officers accountable, in part because of the political clout of police unions; the reluctance of investigators, prosecutors, and juries to second-guess an officer’s split-second decision; and the wide latitude the law gives police officers to use force.”
The open records release comes at a time when the police department is battling growing public mistrust and outside scrutiny from an independent review panel that is in the early stages of a comprehensive examination of Fort Worth policing practices. Preliminary results from the panel found that Fort Worth police officers too frequently engage in verbal attacks and heavy-handed policing practices.
It has been just over one year since Aaron Dean, a white Fort Worth police officer, shot and killed Atatiana Jefferson, a Black woman, while she was inside her mother’s home. Dean was quickly fired and remains free on bail. His trial date is yet to be scheduled. Calls for justice for Jefferson and her family have become a weekly feature of City Council meetings.
In response to public uproar, Police Chief Ed Kraus announced several reform initiatives in recent months. They include an expansion of the police department’s Mental Health Crisis Intervention Team and a yet-to-be activated team that will address 911 calls that do not require a response from armed police officers.
Moore said Fort Worth police department lacks credible lines of accountability.
His group’s position is that the “Fort Worth police department does not hold their officers accountable in an appropriate manner, which undermines the public trust in police, wastes taxpayer money, and keeps everyone less safe. The City of Fort Worth must have a community oversight board with sufficient authority and oversight to ensure the trust of its citizens.”
Earlier this year, Fort Worth leaders hired two police monitors to field civilian complaints of police misconduct. Ramirez said the monitors have done an “amazing job” of using their first several months at work to learn how the Fort Worth police department operates.
Whether the monitors’ work has resulted in any level of police accountability remains to be seen. Recent requests by the Weekly for a list of disciplinary actions resulting from police monitor investigations have so far been blocked. Fort Worth’s Secretary Office is seeking a legal brief — a maneuver that potentially allows important public information to be kept private through FOIA caveats — from the State Attorney General’s office.
Moore said Fort Worth’s police union has grown too strong and politically influential. FWPOA is holding the city hostage, he said.
“Nearly every city councilmember has taken significant political donations from the FWPOA and then turned around and ruled in favor of the FWPOA’s requests,” he added, referring to typically noncontroversial City Council votes approving massive police budgets (around one-third of the city’s total budget) year after year.
Ramirez said campaign donations have nothing to do with controlling local politicians and everything to do with public safety. Homicide rates in Fort Worth are up 60% from this time last year, he said.
“Without a safe society, you won’t have a prosperous society,” he said. “We know that from the business and socioeconomic lens. Everything hinges on making sure we can protect our citizens.”
FWPOA is a substantial donor in local politics, as are members of the Bass family and other elite families and groups who understand the influence that campaign contributions garner. FWPOA frequently divvies out checks of $15,000 or more in local elections, according to recent campaign finance disclosures.
“Public servants should not be allowed to unionize without accountability, and they should not be trusted to hold themselves accountable,” Moore said.
Police Chief Kraus has stated that he will retire at the end of this year. Ramirez said the call for new police chief applicants recently ended. Disciplining officers is an important part of any chief’s job, Ramirez said, but the priority of any new police department head will be “reducing crime.”