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Fort Worth's police monitor sees 'racial divide' in the city

Kim Neal is stepping down at the end of the month as the city's first police monitor. Her goal was to help improve community and police relations

FORT WORTH, Texas — Two and a half years after Kim Neal joined Fort Worth as the city’s first police monitor, she’s stepping down at the end of November.

In a one-on-one interview discussing her time in the city, Neal shared the issues she sees with community trust in policing as well as successes in the department and what she hopes to see done after she leaves.

Neal is leaving for Alexandria, Virginia to create a new office of police monitor identical to her work in Fort Worth.

“I think people got to realize the importance of civilian oversight and what it’s really here for,” Neal said. “We are not anti-police. We are really about building up those relationships.”

Just weeks after she started, the country shut down as the COVID pandemic began and she was forced to build community relationships virtually. That changed during the summer 2020 protests over the murder of George Floyd.

“The fact that our office started during our time period allowed folks to kind of voice their concerns and their feelings and be able to express themselves,” she said.

Part of her job was to help create a citizen review board recommended by the city’s Race and Culture Task Force after the viral arrest of a Fort Worth mother six years ago.

Tuesday night, after a five-hour meeting with dozens of speakers, Fort Worth City Council rejected the plan with a 5-4 vote. Mayor Mattie Parker joined Carlos Flores, Michael Crain, Alan Blaylock and Leonard Firestone.

“What I’m disappointed at is that I’m not sure that every voice was heard,” Neal said.

Both the speakers and votes appeared split on racial lines with the council’s three black members voting in favor of the plan. Neal believes the proud city has struggled with self-reflection on what should be changed.

“There is a racial divide on the issue of policing. I do feel strongly about that,” Neal said. “We have different communities that have different experiences with police.”

She says the vote reinforces concerns from marginalized minority communities about not feeling heard.

“If that board is important to them, enough to make them feel like and know that they have a voice at the table, then I think it’s an important aspect,” Neal said. "Folks aren’t listening to each other so that if you are against it, you have the passion for the folks and understand the perspective of those who are for it, and likewise.”

Debate has centered around several topics including who could sit on the board and if it would review complaints or simply recommend policy. Councilmembers who voted against the board questioned if it would duplicate the role of the office of police monitor or if it would make officers unsafe because they would respond differently. Neal pushed back against both claims.

"There’s no reason why a board that’s going to look at policy and procedure would impact the safety of an officer,” she said. “It really just dumbfounds me that people would use that as an excuse.”

Neal says the city’s police department hasn’t been resistant to changes, and she hopes the next monitor will build that relationship, push for the office of police monitor’s policy recommendations that are not yet implemented, and expand staffing.

“Right now, we have a staff of six and we cannot do all of the work we need to do as it relates to all the policies and procedures of the police department and making sure that they are the best in the country,” she said.

She also notes the highly critical 97-page expert panel review of the police department found many Fort Worth police policies existed on paper but not in practice.

A week after Neal leaves, former Fort Worth police officer Aaron Dean is expected to stand trial, accused of murdering Atatiana Jefferson in her southeast Fort Worth home in 2019, likely putting increased scrutiny on community and police relationships.

“I don’t think Atatiana would’ve died the way she did in my neighborhood and that’s a tough thing to say in my city, but I believe it in my core,” Parker said during Tuesday’s meeting.

“Everyone wants to truly believe that things are equitable, and people are being treated fair but when you go into different communities, people experience things differently,” Neal said. “I believe in listening to our community.”

She believes the gap in trust won’t improve unless something gives.

“I think it needs to be addressed head-on. I think that’s the problem,” Neal said. “Sometimes, it’s dealt with in such a passive way that we have to deal with it head on.”

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