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How a ‘walking while black’ allegation turned into a ‘perfect’ police-training moment

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Police in Corinth, Texas, released the dash-cam video of officers’ encounter with Dorothy Bland.

After African American journalism dean Dorothy Bland complained that police in her Dallas suburb racially profiled her, video of the stop spawned a social media backlash challenging her characterization of the incident with thousands now calling for her removal.

Corinth Police Chief Debra Walthall first heard about Bland’s stop when a local paper contacted her to respond to an editorial Bland had written alleging racial profiling, headlined “I was caught walking while black.”

“I was shocked,” Walthall told the Los Angeles Times, adding that the officers, who are both white, had been “cordial” with Bland. The chief wrote a response, published simultaneously in the Dallas Morning News, headlined, “No, officers were doing their jobs.”

Police then released their dash-camera footage of the stop, which the chief said shows the officers acted properly. Walthall said the officers handled the situation so well that she is using the video to train officers about the importance of correctly activating dash cameras.

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“It can save the officer. If we hadn’t had the video and she came in and filed a complaint that she was being racially profiled, we would have to investigate that without the benefit of what the video shows,” Walthall said. “One of the perfect things they did was pull up behind her, not beside her,” turning on their flashing lights, which activated the camera.

Walthall told The Times that she has been swamped with emails since the dash camera video went viral, with more than 870,000 views on YouTube.

“Every contact between an African American and a white police officer is not racial profiling. I’m not saying racial profiling doesn’t exist -- I’m saying this isn’t racial profiling,” said Walthall, who has been chief of the 32-officer department for seven years.

Walthall said she wishes more people trusted police.

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A police officer’s word used to mean something. Today we have to equip them with body cams and audio, and people think that’s the saving grace.

Debra Walthall, Corinth police chief

“We’re going to be robocops soon,” she said, “A police officer’s word used to mean something. Today we have to equip them with body cams and audio, and people think that’s the saving grace. But people’s perceptions are still going to be what they want them to be.”

Bland, who is the dean of the journalism school at the University of North Texas, did not respond to calls or email this week.

Claims still abound that Bland fabricated details of the stop, although the rumor-busting website Snopes this week dismissed them.

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“I wrote the column to share my perception of my experience. This happened to me,” she told the local Denton Record-Chronicle. “It was my opinion. I respect law enforcement and respect they have a difficult job.”

Police stopped her Oct. 24 as she was walking down the street for exercise and asked her for identification.

Several days later, Bland wrote in the Dallas Morning News that she had been stopped for “walking while black.”

“I guess I was simply a brown face in an affluent neighborhood,” she wrote, “For anyone who doesn’t think racial profiling happens, I can assure you it does happen.”

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Bland noted that she is not related to Sandra Bland, the African American woman whose case gained national attention after she was found dead in a Texas jail cell this summer, but, “I thought about her, Freddie Gray and the dozens of others who have died while in police custody.” 

Walthall insisted the officers were looking out for Bland’s safety. 

“They had a legitimate purpose to stop her,” Walthall said, noting that the officers had spotted Bland walking with ear buds in her ears, seemingly unaware of a pickup truck stopped behind her, “just totally oblivious.”

“They didn’t tell her to get on the sidewalk, they just said walk safe in traffic,” Walthall said.

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As for asking Bland to show identification, Walthall said, “They are required to ID people who they stop. They didn’t profile her.”

She noted that among those commenting about the case on Facebook were white residents who said they also had been stopped by Corinth police and asked for identification.

One of the officers involved in the stop was a trainer with years of experience, the other a trainee, Walthall said.

Walthall spoke with Bland by phone late last week. She said Bland told her “that she was ready to let this go and move on.”

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“I told her, I wish you would have talked to me before you wrote the article,” Walthall said, noting they could have watched the video together and discussed it.

She said Bland told her a comment the trainee officer had made particularly bothered her: When she mentioned she didn’t like to walk in the rain, he said his dog didn’t either.

“It was not intended to be racial,” the chief said, “He was a young officer in training trying to make conversation.”

The chief said Bland told her she hadn’t done anything to disparage the officers, but Walthall disagreed.

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“Any time you say anything like that, it disparages the officers,” she said.

Walthall was still receiving emails this week about the stop  -- from both sides.

“People see what it is they want to see,” in the video, she said, “Some people will see racism and some will see race baiting.”

Willie Hudspeth, president of the NAACP in surrounding Denton County, said that he had watched the video and was not drawing conclusions until he talks to Bland and the police chief.

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“I didn’t notice anything she did that warranted the attention. I don’t know what the motive was,” Hudspeth said, but he said he was equally wary of “making accusations without proof.”

Earlier this year, Hudspeth met with the police chief in the county seat of Denton after residents became outraged by video posted online of a 26-year-old African American man being shocked with a Taser by officers outside a Motel 6.

“I said, ‘Hold on before you start demonstrating and marching.’ Me and the chief looked at the videos together and he said, ‘there it is, you decide,’” Hudspeth said.

On the full police video, Hudspeth saw that officers -- trying to protect a baby nearby -- told the suspect to back off more than two dozen times before using the Taser.

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“I told my people stand down,” he said, and they did.

Since then, Hudspeth has shown the Tasing video to local high school students as a lesson in “what you shouldn’t do.”

The challenge in interpreting such videos is the context, including the state of race relations in America and ongoing tensions between African American communities and police, experts said.

“Part of the reason it’s controversial is it’s right at that boundary where lots of people have been stopped and feel like they were in an occupied space, where they can’t even feel safe and comfortable in their own neighborhoods,” Phillip Atiba Goff, president of the Center for Policing Equity and a visiting scholar at Harvard University, said of the Dorothy Bland video.

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Goff, who was in Fort Worth on Friday, discussed the video with local police he was working with and concluded, “Officers not only did everything by the book, they did better than the book.”

While officers could have done a better job of explaining why they requested Bland’s ID, he said gathering that information is what allows experts to detect patterns of police profiling.

Bland is now facing an online backlash: Opponents have posted an online petition urging the university to remove her as dean.

In regards to race relations, Ms. Bland’s article and various points made throughout do little to further dissolve any racial tension that undoubtedly does still exist in the United States and in Texas,” the petition says.

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So far, more than 4,200 people have signed.

University officials released a statement saying Bland did not act improperly, and that they encourage people “to read the columns that ran in the Dallas Morning News, and then watch the video to draw their own conclusions.”

Follow me for the latest in national news @mollyhf

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