STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The calculated killing of five uniformed officers would be traumatic for any police department. It's especially difficult in Dallas, where the police force already suffered from low pay and low morale. Now, citizens are rallying around their officers in blue, but that raises a question of whether much will change. NPR's John Burnett reports.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: All day long in front of the fortress-like Dallas police headquarters, there are heartwarming scenes like this.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I'm so sorry that this happened.
BURNETT: An African-American woman throws her arms around a crew-cutted white police officer sweating in his body armor. She buries her face in his beefy shoulder, and tears stream down her cheeks.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: In Jesus' name, bless him right now. Amen. I love you.
STEPHEN TOTH: I love you, too.
BURNETT: The cops she's hugging is a communication sergeant, Stephen Toth, who wipes away his own tears. This is, after all, a force that has not gotten a lot of love in recent years. A survey last year by the Dallas Police Association showed that 3 out of 4 officers responded that morale is low or lowest ever. Sergeant Stephen Toth.
TOTH: Pay is one issue, but it's - it's even larger than even pay. I mean, who wants to come out and do this job, especially in light of seeing something like this?
BURNETT: This meaning the cold-blooded murders of five officers. Dallas police are so underpaid that they routinely flee the force for smaller, neighboring departments, or to cities like Austin and Fort Worth, where starting pay at a lower rank is $10,000 to $15,000 better and health benefits are more generous. The Dallas department is currently short at least 200 officers. Detective Ron Pinkston is president of the Dallas Police Association.
RON PINKSTON: We're the lowest-paid department in the metroplex. We're - we're losing officers to the suburbs at a tremendous rate.
BURNETT: Dallas elected leaders say they can't pay the cops more because of a looming police payroll lawsuit, a nearly broke pension fund and competing needs, like crumbling streets. Fred Frazier is chair of the Assist the Officer Foundation. He says, by his count, 94 police have left DPD since last October.
FRED FRAZIER: We can't even get guys to come for recruiting. We've had to cancel the last two classes because there's not enough people that want to - want to be police officers.
BURNETT: Classes of what?
FRAZIER: Academy classes.
BURNETT: To be fair, this is not just a Dallas problem. Departments all over the country are losing young officers because of pay, workload and the recent challenges of policing in the glare of social media. But even before last Thursday's sniper attack, Dallas had an unusually turbulent department, in part because of its chief, 55-year-old David Brown. The African-American police boss is unmistakable with his bald head and big, black glasses. And he's been on camera a lot lately.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DAVID BROWN: This is my hometown. I'm a third-generation Dallasite. Big D, I want to say thank you to all of you for your show of support today.
BURNETT: Only three months ago, all four police associations in the city were bitterly complaining about Brown's dictatorial, mercurial management style. The Black Police Association went so far as to call for his resignation. Yet today, David Brown is earning universal accolades. James Ragland is a longtime Dallas Morning News metro columnist.
JAMES RAGLAND: This was one of David Brown's finest hours. For him to step up in a moment of crisis and take full control and calm the city down, it's remarkable.
BURNETT: Will Chief Brown be able to use his restored reputation to stabilize the ranks and calm his detractors? And will the Dallas police overall be able to leverage its newfound appreciation to get city government to give it a decent pay raise? Some officers wonder whether this tragedy could be a turning point for their embattled department. John Burnett, NPR News, Dallas.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.