As Fort Worth continues to grow at a rapid rate, the city is facing both new and old issues regarding public safety and police response. Mayor Mattie Parker and Police Chief Neil Noakes say they’re ready and working to handle them.
Parker has been mayor since 2021, after a multi-year stint as former mayor Betsy Price’s chief of staff. She most recently won reelection in 2023. Noakes has been with the department since 2000, and was selected as the next chief of police in January 2021.
Parker and Noakes spoke with Fort Worth Report CEO and publisher Chris Cobler in a wide-ranging discussion about crime Sept. 22 at the 2023 Texas Tribune Festival in Austin.
They discussed recent shooting deaths in different areas of the city; what civilian oversight should look like; the role police play in responding to the homelessness crisis; and the department’s police pursuit policy.
“When people think of a crime, that’s a police problem, the police need to go fix that,” Noakes said. “We are part of the equation, and we will do our jobs. We have a very important role there. But these are bigger societal issues that are facing people across the country.”
West Seventh shooting
After Texas Christian University student Wes Smith was shot and killed Aug. 31 outside of a Fort Worth bar in the West Seventh district, local officials and business owners rallied together to enact substantive changes in the area. These include more off-duty officers in West Seventh, screening customers of the entertainment district with security wands and increasing street lighting.
But some community members decried what they said was a disparate reaction to Smith’s murder and the murder of three Como residents in July. Smith was white, while all three Como residents killed — Cynthia Santos, Paul Willis, Gabriella Navarrete — were Black and Hispanic. Both Noakes and Parker pointed to the different crime patterns in the area.
“In this situation, it was so random,” Parker said. “And also in one of the city’s most successful entertainment districts. It needed to be handled differently.”
Noakes said the city always has more officers on hand during July Fourth events, like the one where the Como shooting took place, because they can plan coverage for annual events. But the West Seventh district has higher levels of daily crime, irrespective of events, Noakes said. That means the police department’s investments there need to be different.
“We look a lot at statistics, we look at data, we look at different figures, but we never lose sight of the fact that every one of those numbers, it’s not just a statistic, it’s a victim,” Noakes said. “And when it’s someone like Wes or the three young people we lost in Como, they’re people who will never be here again.”
In some ways, the shooting “felt city-sanctioned to me,” Parker said, because of the area’s designation as an entertainment district. That meant the city needed to take concrete policy steps.
“This location is more vulnerable to mass casualty events because of the type of businesses that are there,” she said. “And when you have a lot of young, drunk people having fun, they’re easy victims. So the city has a responsibility to respond.”
The question of what police oversight should look like in Fort Worth has dogged city officials — and the department itself — for years. After the city’s Race and Culture Task Force recommended creating a civilian oversight board in 2018, opinion split over whether such a board was worthwhile.
Council members voted 5-4 in November 2022 against creating a board. Since that vote, Noakes has created his own community advisory board, whose members he selected. They include faith leaders, the area NAACP chapter president and the executive director of the Tarrant County Homeless Coalition.
Those in favor of a civilian oversight board, including District 8 council member Chris Nettles, have expressed concerns about the advisory board and the fact that it includes police officers. Noakes said while he understands the desire of a wholly independent board, he doesn’t think it would ultimately be productive.
“It was just one more entity that would be created that drives a wedge further between the police and the community,” he said. “Instead of being in different rooms talking about each other, why don’t we sit at the same table and talk to each other.”
Noakes said he viewed the creation of a civilian oversight board as redundant, given the 2020 creation of the Office of the Police Oversight Monitor. In addition, he said the City Council provides another level of accountability to the department.
“Then I really started digging into the other similar civilian oversight boards that are out there in the country,” Noakes said. “The one thing I kept hearing over and over and over again is that, as well meaning as any of them may have been, I found no one that told me they felt it was a long-term solution.”
Two people have died in Fort Worth police pursuits this summer — Andra Craig, 57, and a 15-year-old girl. Craig was an innocent driver who was struck by a police SUV pursuing another vehicle; the 15-year-old girl was inside of a truck being pursued by police when it slammed into a pole, killing her.
The Fort Worth Report and several other media outlets filed an open records request seeking the department’s pursuit policy. The department requested that the attorney general’s office allow it to withhold that policy, citing concerns that releasing it could help criminals evade capture and endanger officers.
Noakes said the policy has changed multiple times in his 23 years with the department. It used to be “chase until the wheels fall off,” but it has become more and more restrictive over time, he said.
In the pursuit policy, for example, there are some crimes for which Fort Worth officers don’t initiate chases, he said. But the police department doesn’t want to advertise what those crimes are.
“There are certain policies that are not made public. And, as long as I’m chief they will not be,” Noakes said. “The reason is there are certain tactics that officers use that we don’t necessarily want everyone, specifically criminals, to know about.”
Throughout the discussion, Noakes and Parker referenced a worsening homelessness crisis in Fort Worth. While the police department isn’t a social service agency, it is often the first city resource that homeless residents interact with — and officers are tasked with threading a line between criminalization and assistance.
Many homeless residents are experiencing mental health crises, drug addictions and alcohol abuse problems, Parker said.
“I believe strongly that you’re seeing a full crisis breakdown of a lack of mental health policy in the country, and it is playing out on the streets of your cities,” Parker said. “And unfortunately your police departments, your first responders and your firefighters are trying to grapple with a very difficult population.”
Fort Worth leveraged its federal COVID-19 emergency assistance dollars to help with the crisis, but that money is now running out. As those coffers run dry, the city is focusing on a multi-pronged approach, including investments in permanent supportive housing, its HOPE team, and a community land trust.
“We’re pouring millions of dollars in cooperation with the police department, our fire department, code, and our social workers across the city to clean up encampments as fast as possible, because it’s about human dignity,” she said. “No one should live like that.”
Noakes said for a long time, police departments believed they had everything handled on their own and refused to work with other organizations. Those days are over.
“We were so wrong,” he said. “We have to be able to partner with organizations that have resources that can help people who are unhealthy, because we may not have those resources ourselves. But who encounters that community more than anyone else? It’s us.”
The city allocated millions of dollars across its neighborhood services department, code compliance department and the police department in its 2024 budget to help reduce homelessness.
“Our hope is they all get back on their feet,” Noakes said. “And they don’t have to worry about where they’re going to live, what they’re going to eat or what the next day is going to be like for them.”