Dallas police officer Terrance Hopkins remembers the night of July 7, 2016, with horrifying clarity.
“This is one of those situations where you’re being fired upon and you don’t even know where it’s coming from, you’re almost like a sitting duck,” Hopkins said.
On that grim day, social justice activists led a nonviolent march through the streets of downtown Dallas, protesting recent police killings of Black men Alton Sterling of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile from the Minneapolis-Saint Paul area.
Toward the end of the rally an Army Reserve Afghan War veteran, Micah Xavier Johnson opened fire. Johnson was angry at police officers for killing Black men, but was not part of the protest.
“Now you start just going down that line of how do we find this person? Who is this person? Is it more than just one?” Hopkins said as he remembered the details of that day.
Hopkins led police officers on the ground through what he calls a “bird’s eye view.” He was at a command post trying to locate the active shooter as people ran throughout the streets that night in panic. He said he remembered the echo of gunshots vibrating through the downtown buildings that made it difficult to identify the shooter’s exact location.
What’s At Stake For Law Enforcement In Dallas, Five Years Later
On that night, five law enforcement officers, Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, Brent Thompson and Patrick Zamarippa, were killed and many were injured, including civilians.
Hopkins, who’s the current president of the Black Police Association of Dallas, said the tragedy and trauma left the police department with deep scars.
“Just because you get some type of mental health assistance doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be okay,” he said.
In the days and years after, DPD officers received mental health resources and counseling. But Hopkins said despite best efforts, morale within the police department reached an all-time low.
“I mean, it’s affected by pay, it’s affected by benefits. And of course, we can just keep going on and on. Then you get the fact that hey, my life is on the line,” said Hopkins.
For This Activist, The Fight For Police Reform Continues
Dominique Alexander was the key organizer of that July 7 protest. He said the event created a sharper divide between organizers and the police department because he feels Black activists were blamed by city leaders for the shooting that collided with the protest.
“So I had to deal with some of the most racist bigotry,” he said. “Some of the most horrible situations.”
Alexander has led protests in Dallas for more than seven years and co-founded Next Generation Action Network (NGAN), a social justice group that’s become the face of the Black Lives Matter movement in the city.
Years later, Alexander says tension between activists and police continues.
“So many people were affected by it. so much trauma,” he said. “It was definitely hard to see something like that happened.”
Protests against police brutality surged after the death of George Floyd.
“The reality is that, man, people are tired,” Alexander said. “And the reality is that when I look at 2016 to now, a lot hasn’t changed.”
He is asking for more police oversight and an investment in city dollars to social services that help communities of color.
He adds that no matter how many grassroots groups push for change and police reform, only city leaders can make it happen.
Can Dallas City Leaders Ease Tensions Between Activists & Police?
Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson says he feels a big responsibility to create those connections.
“I think it’s my job to try to help them [social justice activists and city leaders] see each other, and to hear each other and try to be committed to coming together and working towards the common goal,” he said. “Which is a safer city that works for everyone.”
Johnson points to the Mayor’s Task Force On Safe Communities, which he created in 2019.
The task force aims to reduce crime and ease tensions between police and neighborhoods with help from the Dallas community leaders and organizations.
“I want to find more ways to help bring officers in contact with the community they’re policing, so that they really see themselves as being a member of the community,” Johnson said.
In the proposed budget for FY 2022, Johnson is pushing find ways to ensure people to stay on the police force. Johnson worries officers will leave DPD if salaries are not competitive to other cities in Texas.
Retention is an issue nation wide. A June surveyed by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a nonprofit think tank, shows a startling 45% increase in the retirement rate this year. Factors the organization accounts for is cops leaving the profession due to low moral, stronger demands for police accountability and reform. The survey results also showed an 18% increase in cop resignations in 2020-21 compared to the previous year.
“Retention is a really high priority of mine, and I know that that conversation is going to be part of our upcoming budget discussion because we didn’t in the last budget do everything we could To retain our officers,” he said.
Last year, city budget talks were heated as activists, including many from NGAN called for diverting funds from the police department. They wanted the city to reallocate that money to community services.
The Dallas City Council ultimately voted to approve a $3.8 billion budget and keep police funding mostly intact. During a city budget event in May of this year, the city’s Chief Financial Officer Elizabeth Reich said city council increased the police budget by $15 million.
Reich also said that in proposed budget for FY 2022, there are no financial cuts to the police department and there are a plans to hire an additional 150 officers.
But even five years later, Dallas Police Officer Terrance Hopkins says for those who lived through the July 7 shooting the trauma in the department still lingers.
“Some of that fall out is people or officers that can no longer function in their position. Some of it is, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore. I’m going to quit.’ Some of it is I’m afraid now to deal with large groups,” he said.
Hopkins said that night made him realize that this job isn’t for everyone.
Got a tip? Alejandra Martinez is a Report For America corps member and writes about the impact of COVID-19 on underserved communities for KERA News. Email Alejandra at [email protected]. You can follow Alejandra on Twitter @alereports.