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In Dallas, New Police Recruits Reflect On Year Since Officers Were Killed


One year ago today, a gunman opened fire on a peaceful protest in downtown Dallas. When it was all over, five police officers were dead. Since then, the Dallas Police Department has been buffeted by the retirement of a chief, a contentious pension battle and a continuing exodus of officers. From member station KERA in Dallas, Christopher Connelly has a look at the department one year after tragedy.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Attention to detail.

CHRISTOPHER CONNELLY, BYLINE: It's roll call at the Dallas Police Department's Northwest Division.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Thirty-two - Sauerman.

CONNELLY: It's the beginning of the deep night shift - 11 p.m., and these officers are just starting their day.


CONNELLY: Among them is a new addition, officer Chelsea Montanino. A few months out of the academy, she's bright-eyed even though she's still adjusting to life on the night shift.

MONTANINO: You know, I'm used to going to bed at 9 o'clock and waking up at 5 a.m. to get on my day shift that I was just on. And now I'm on deep nights, so...

CONNELLY: There's no normal when you're a cop, Montanino says. One night you rush from call to call. Other times it's mostly traffic stops. But you always have to be alert. Just a few days ago, Montanino was patting down a suspect and found a hidden gun.

MONTANINO: That just puts it, you know, into perspective that yeah, it is a very dangerous job. It just made me think about, you know, I do want to go home to my daughter, you know, at the end of the day just like anybody else. But I can't let it affect my job and the way I do my job.

CONNELLY: This wasn't Montanino's first reminder that this is a risky job. That came just eight days after she started the police academy. Toward the end of an otherwise peaceful Black Lives Matter protest, a gunman opened fire.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: A horrific ambush-style attack against police.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Twelve officers and two civilians shot, five officers killed.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: The deadliest attack on law enforcement since 9/11.

CONNELLY: Even before the shootings, this police department was struggling. With low pay and a troubled pension fund, officers have been leaving faster than they can be replaced. Now the department is about 400 officers short of the 3,500 its leaders say it needs. Sergeant Mike Mata from the Dallas Police Association says that's made it hard to grieve.

MIKE MATA: You have officers working so much overtime or double shifts to try and maintain the police presence in the city that there has been no downtime for officers.

CONNELLY: The association has seen a threefold increase in officers using counseling services since the shooting, but Mata says many still feel vulnerable.

MATA: You go into a detail room where you're used to seeing 30 or 40 officers. Now you're seeing 15 to 10. And you're thinking in your head, who's going to cover me on my call?

CONNELLY: Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings points to a pay raise for officers approved last fall and a pension deal struck in May to say things are improving. Still, the mayor says these discussions are difficult.

MIKE RAWLINGS: It is a gritty, tough fight to deal with this stuff because you're talking about money. You're talking about taxpayers' money. You're talking about police officers' money. And as everybody knows, you just can't give everybody everything they want.

CONNELLY: For Officer Chelsea Montanino, she bought extra body armor - a vest to stop the kinds of high-powered rifle rounds aimed at cops last year. But she says her job is about more than facing bad people.

MONTANINO: It's also helping those people that are good in the world, too. And maybe they're just having a rough day. You know, we're just helping people that need help.

CONNELLY: As she gets ready to head out to patrol the night, Montanino says that's her focus even as she remains watchful that every call could be deadly. For NPR News, I'm Christopher Connelly in Dallas.

(SOUNDBITE OF RENE AUBRY SONG, "GRANDE CASCADE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Connelly is a KERA reporter based in Fort Worth. Christopher joined KERA after a year and a half covering the Maryland legislature for WYPR, the NPR member station in Baltimore. Before that, he was a Joan B. Kroc Fellow at NPR – one of three post-graduates who spend a year working as a reporter, show producer and digital producer at network HQ in Washington, D.C.