Data-Smart City Pod: Public Safety and Policing in Dallas, TX featuring Mayor Eric Johnson

Episode Summary

In this episode, Professor Steve Goldsmith interviews Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson. They discuss the role of the mayor in maintaining public safety, balancing community values, and prioritizing research-based ideas over reactionary polarization. Tune in to hear Professor Goldsmith and Mayor Johnson talk about the positive strides Dallas has made against violent crime, how mayors can implement non-law enforcement safety strategies, and how to implement this type of work in other cities.

Episode Notes

In this episode, Professor Steve Goldsmith interviews Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson. They discuss the role of the mayor in maintaining public safety, balancing community values, and prioritizing research-based ideas over reactionary polarization.

Tune in to hear Professor Goldsmith and Mayor Johnson talk about the positive strides Dallas has made against violent crime, how mayors can implement non-law enforcement safety strategies, and how to implement this type of work in other cities.

About Data-Smart City Pod

New from the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, the Data-Smart City Pod brings on top innovators and leading industry, academic, and government officials to discuss data, innovation, and government. This podcast serves as a central resource for cities and individuals interested in the intersection of government and innovations, the adoption of data projects on the local government level, and how to become data smart. Hosted by Stephen Goldsmith, former Deputy Mayor of New York,  Mayor of Indianapolis, and current Professor at Harvard Kennedy School.

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Music credit: Summer-Man by Ketsa

About Data-Smart City Solutions

Data-Smart City Solutions, housed at the Ash Center at Harvard Kennedy School, is working to catalyze the adoption of data projects on the local government level by serving as a central resource for cities interested in this emerging field. We highlight best practices, top innovators, and promising case studies while also connecting leading industry, academic, and government officials. Our research focus is the intersection of government and data, ranging from open data and predictive analytics to civic engagement technology. We seek to promote the combination of integrated, cross-agency data with community data to better discover and preemptively address civic problems. To learn more visit us online and follow us on Twitter

About the Ash Center 

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Episode Transcription


Steve Goldsmith: Hello, this is Steve Goldsmith, professor of urban affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School. And you're listening to Data-Smart City Pod, where we bring on top innovators and experts to discuss the future of cities and how to become data smart.

Welcome back to the Kennedy School Podcast. Today we have the pleasure of being with Mayor Eric Johnson, the Mayor of Dallas, and the subject of today is really leadership. Although it's got a large dose of policing, mayor Johnson. Welcome.

Mayor Eric Johnson: Thank you so much, professor Goldsmith. Thanks for having me.

Steve Goldsmith: Mayor Johnson, Dallas is a city manager form of government. So the mayor's authority is limited. You're a high-profile mayor, and I was interested in talking to you today about the role you played in issues related to policing and safety. And I was a former district attorney as well, and this discussion in the US has been defund the police or don't defund the police, support the police or don't support the police. And it feels to me that lacks nuance. So I wanted to start with how you used your leadership position cause Dallas had its own crisis, obviously, with respect to a police action shootings, how did you step in and use your leadership? And then I want to talk to you about the details of the results of your task force.

Mayor Eric Johnson: I thought it was important that I slow things down, slow down the discussion and try to center it on the residents of the city and their needs. There was a real push, as you will recall, after the murder of George Floyd to do something. People felt the need to address racial equity issues that particularly relate to policing. And I shared those concerns and I've been working on issues of police reform, for years. I served in the state legislature for a decade before I became the mayor. But what I wanted was to make sure that what we did was not some sort of a knee jerk reaction or a reflex reaction to national movements or slogans or hashtags or anything like that. I wanted to make sure that what we did was going to address the underlying issues with respect to policing, but also we're not going to leave our city and our residents less safe.

And so, what we had been dealing with in Dallas long before actually the pandemic and the uptake in violent crime across the country for the past few years, Dallas has seen its crime, violent crime in particular, steadily ticking up. It was happening before I became the mayor and it started to accelerate during the pandemic. So I wanted to make sure that we did things that were responsible. And so, what I wanted to do and what we did was we brought together a group of folks in our community who really wanted to solve problems and not just make noise. And I put them into a task force that came up with some approaches to addressing violent crime in our city that were non-law enforcement related. So these were outside the police department. And then I asked the police department to work on law enforcement based solutions of violent crime. And we kind of worked on two tracks and it's been, it's been good, it's moving things in the right direction in our city. And so I had to push back a little bit during our last budget cycle on some folks who want to kind of go down that defund path and we can talk about that, and how I dealt with that. But I'm happy with where the city is and how we weathered that, but it took a lot of work.

Steve Goldsmith: So one could think about this conversation as a defund conversation, the other way to think about the conversation is augmenting the police budget with interventions, that aid young adults. And so I was interested in your task force recommendations on both addressing blight, and programs for juveniles in certain areas of the city. And I think that one of those suggestions was called Violence Interrupters. I thought that was just a great phrase. Would you tell us about the Violence Interrupters?

Mayor Eric Johnson: Sure. So, I can't take credit for these ideas personally, that the task force was given instruction by me to look around the country at what's actually worked and then get the data and then figure out whether or not it would work here. If we thought that they would work here, I would recommend them to the full city council, into our city manager for implementation and funding in our budget. And so what they undertook was a process that lasted several months and what they came back with was four main recommendations. Violence Interrupters was one of them. It's a concept that's been tested in other places. It's shown to actually reduce violence in communities, by taking trusted community members, people who have some experience living in those communities and even have been on the wrong side of the law, frankly, but who have credibility to help diffuse interactions before they become violent, because they have their ear on the ground and they know the people involved.

And what we know from looking at this is that most of these crimes are being committed in certain communities, in our city, are not stranger crimes. These are people who know each other. These are conflicts that have been brewing and when they turn into something Violence Interrupters do exactly what the title suggests. They interrupt that cycle of violence by getting folks to dial it down, and resolve some of these differences before they turn fatal. In addition to the Violence Interrupters, the task force found that having some social-emotional educational component in your school system to help children learn to resolve their feelings of anger without resorting to violence. And, combining that with addressing some of the issues that drive violent crime and pockets of your community, which will be areas that maybe are just fortunately blighted. They found data that shows that blighted areas tend to become havens for violence – and poorly lit areas as well. So we ended up getting $5 million put into our budget to put into lighting and blight remediation. And our school system decided to put in money into social-emotional learning. And so that's what the task force recommended. And so we're very optimistic about that. And so that the non-law enforcement part of dealing with our violent crime problem

Steve Goldsmith: Are, let me ask you, that's a great list. Let me ask you a few questions about how you led, right – in the following sense is that watch these things across the country is it seems to me it's not the mayor's job, just to say things that everybody wants to hear, right. It's the mayor's job to lead being respectful to the democratic process. So, when you heard these voices on one side ‘defund the police’ and voices on the other side saying, ‘defend the police, period’ how did you exercise your leadership? What forums did you use? How did you amplify your personal voice?

Mayor Eric Johnson: I really appreciate that question because it was not easy. That is for sure. It is far easier to sort of pick a side, so to speak in these types of disagreements and become the champion of one side or the other.

Steve Goldsmith: At least then only half of the people are mad at you the way you're about to say it, all the people going to be mad.

Mayor Eric Johnson: Yeah. There's some, definitely some risks in there that you end up not being anyone's champion. But at the end of the day, I decided that I wanted to be on the side of the residents of the city and I want it to do what I thought was right for them. And so my leadership approach here was just to stand on principle. And my starting principle was Dallas. Can't succeed as a city. If it's not safe, that it's a fundamental responsibility of a city government to provide public safety. And I got broad buy-in for that concept. And then my next step was, well, if public safety is our top priority, then we can't do things that don't actually contribute to public safety, no matter how good they may make us feel. And that was a message to both sides to say, so what does that mean to the reform community, to the reform community?

It means we're not going to do things that are going to make people fundamentally less safe, like slash our police overtime budget when we are short-staffed on police officers. And we're going to need to in fact, add to our police department, we've lost hundreds of officers over the past few years due to a police pension crisis. And we need to get to a level of manpower that can actually adequately address the crime in the city. That's not what reformers wanted to hear at the time. They definitely didn't want to hear that you were talking about adding officers. They wanted to cut the police department in some cases by a pretty drastic amount. So I had to hold my ground there, but I also had to make it clear to folks who are, what people would describe as the other side. I guess the back, the blue side, is that we can't say that the police department doesn't need any improvements.

We can't say that the activist community is making up the fact that we could do a better job in community policing, and that there needs to be some investments in training of our officers. We need to actually recruit more talented officers. We don't want policing in our city. And I don't think anybody in the country that they really think about it should want policing to become a vocation of last resort. We don't want people becoming police officers who don't feel like they can't do anything else. We want people to becoming police officers who could do anything else that they wanted. And this is a high calling that's appreciated and it's compensated appropriately. So I'm pushing for and was pushing for then. Actually I'm hopeful that we're going to be successful in this budget cycle and actually paying our officers more money, who are on the police force now, to help retain them.

So that was something I had to be pretty adamant about on the last budget cycle. And unfortunately, the city council and the city managers post budget data approving, did not include those pay increases, but I'm hopeful this time that they will. So the principle I stood on basically was, we got to put public safety first because that's our number one responsibility. And I think people have actually come around in that year since I took that stand to agree with me. And I think our violent crime numbers are starting to move in the right direction. We've got a new police chief who actually shares, I think my commitment to these things and things are looking good now. So things are looking bright.

Steve Goldsmith: Yeah. After spending years as district attorney, I saw terrific police officers and I saw some that weren't so terrific. Right? Your comment is really interesting, right? You want folks to become officers who are talented, right? Who could use their sensitivity and their intelligence to diffuse a situation who don't have to resort to only one response, which is a physical force. Think we're about out of time. But as you look out, it's been a really problematic a year for violence across the country, both in terms of, well, in terms of COVID, in terms of folks who lost their jobs, in terms of disparity in income and defend the police. If you look at today at Dallas and you look forward two years, what do you see? What vectors do you see? What do you predict is the future of Dallas?

Mayor Eric Johnson: Well, I'm obviously very optimistic about my city's prospects and our future, but I can tell you it's not an optimism, that's not rooted in any facts of the major cities in Texas. Dallas is seeing a decline in the rate of violent crime and particular with homicides. Things are starting to actually move in the right direction. So I think that what we are seeing in Dallas, it is a result of a new police chief who has a violent crime reduction plan, which is something I asked for. And I would encourage other cities that are experiencing violent crime. If you don't have a written plan to reduce violent crime, you should seriously consider adopting one. It was something that I asked our last police chief for, wasn't taken all that seriously. New police chief that we hired is taking it very seriously, brought on PhDs and criminology from the University of Texas at San Antonio to help design a plan that is really based on hotspot policing and a real focus on places and behaviors that drive by crime it's based on data and science, and it's showing early signs of success.

I recommend everybody take a look at doing that. I'm optimistic about that. I'm optimistic about the mayor's task force. We'll save communities that you referenced before. And those nonlaw enforcement-based strategies, which are starting to kick in. The violence interrupters are hitting the streets and blight remediation aspects of our plan are being implemented. We remediated thousands of properties. All these things make me think that we are going to see our violent crime continue to fall. Dallas, continue to move up the list of safe, large cities in the United States, which is good for everybody. So that's what I'm optimistic about.

Steve Goldsmith: This is Steve Goldsmith from Harvard Kennedy school with mayor, Eric Johnson of Dallas on leadership and safety. Thank you so much for your time. Good day mayor.

Mayor Eric Johnson: Thank you, professor mayor.

Steve Goldsmith: You're welcome.

If you liked this podcast, please visit us at or follow us @DataSmartCities on Twitter. Find us on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. This podcast was produced by Betsy Gardner and hosted by me, Steve Goldsmith. We're proud to serve as a central resource for cities interested in the intersection of government, data, and innovation. Thanks for listening.