DALLAS, Texas (KDAF) — Who polices the police?
It’s a question that’s been talked about and asked for decades, often without a satisfactory answer. In a perfect world, the community and people a police force is tasked to serve would oversee it, or at least have some influence over it. Too often, however, police are seen to operate as separate from a community, at times even feeling like an occupying force for some in the community.
In Dallas, after calls and work from many local activists, there are steps being taken to change that and go beyond empty calls to improve community and police relations. In 2019, the City of Dallas overhauled the Citizens Police Review Board, renaming it to the Community Police Oversight Board (CPOB). Along with the new name came a new supporting office, the Office of Community Police Oversight (OPO).
After creating the OPO and tasking it with new investigatory powers, city officials and community activists set out in search of a police oversight monitor. In early 2020, Tonya McClary took the helm of police oversight in Dallas. In the wake of George Floyd and the resulting protests and issues around police conduct, she arrived just in time.
A Powerful Opportunity
First and foremost, McClary wants it apparent that the Community Police Oversight Board and Office of Community Police Oversight are not a part of the police department. “The name ‘police’, like its the Office of Community Police Oversight, so a lot of time people think we do work for the police department,” she says, “we are totally independent and separate from the…police department.”
McClary is the first police oversight monitor that Dallas has had, and while it is an oftentimes sobering and complex position, she’s excited to start building true oversight in the city. She says “When this opportunity came in Dallas to actually start the office, and to have this be a new entity, I thought it was a really powerful opportunity to come in, to help bring this kind of vision to the City of Dallas.”
While McClary has previously lived in North Texas, she came to Dallas from New Orleans where she was the chief monitor for three years. While there, she was in charge of exclusively overseeing the use of force and officer-involved shootings.
McClary says “I got to kind of see the worst of the police, but also the best of them, because I literally just focused on use of force.”
Voice Of The Community
The road to Dallas and overseeing the DPD has taken a few turns for McClary, but it all comes back to criminal justice reform. She calls herself an activist lawyer and has been a public defender and criminal defense attorney for the majority of her career, as well as a community organizer and policy advocate.
The word community may seem like a buzzword, but it’s critical to how McClary is operating her office. “I serve as like the voice of the community,” she says, “So I’m hopefully the bridge between the residents of Dallas and the police department.” She also says another main aspect of her job is it to decipher police department policies and procedures for residents, something that is rarely transparent.
McClary stepped into the role just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, but that hasn’t stopped the wheels from moving. McClary works closely with and reports to the Community Police Oversight Board, whose members are appointed by the city council. Already her office and the board are addressing bodycam and dashcam policies, and getting access to internal police department data and officer disciplinary track records. This is in addition to reviewing police conduct, such as the June 1st incident on the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge where police boxed in protesters and fired at them with less-lethal weapons.
McClary says oversight is crucial to improving the way police departments function, especially large departments like the Dallas Police who operates with a budget of almost $500 million. She wants to make clear, however, that her job isn’t as an enemy of the police.
“I also want to clear up the myth too that I know a lot of people think that oversight is about bashing the police,” she says, “I kind of see my see myself as a coach, right, when they’re doing great I’m like ‘great, let’s continue to do that’ but when they’re not doing well, I try to bring in solutions to help correct them, to help them be the best that they can be.”
She says it not about constantly trying to find fault with the Dallas Police Department.
Just months into the position and in the middle of a pandemic, McClary has a lot on her plate. If someone has a complaint or inquiry about the Dallas Police Department, you can contact her office here. People can also attend (virtually for now) Community Police Oversight Board meetings that take place once a month.