Today marks one year since Frank Dixon took over the Denton Police Department as chief of police. It’s also Dixon’s birthday. Most of his entire adult life has been spent working in law enforcement. But the past 365 days were different — this is Dixon’s first job as a police chief.
The first year will surely work to define Dixon’s leadership style and the course he’s set for the department’s future. So the Denton Record-Chronicle sat down with Dixon in his office last week to ask: What happened this year? What should the community expect from the department in coming years?
“It’s time for us to rebrand ourselves and really put out there it’s a new day for us as a department,” Dixon said, unveiling that the agency will soon have a redesigned patch and badge. “There’s nothing wrong with the past at all. It’s all about us finding our identity collectively as an agency as we move into 2020 and beyond.”
Likely the biggest moment in Dixon’s first year was the failed search in July for Sarbesh Gurung, the missing 2-year-old who was found dead in an SUV within the official search area after hours of searching. That case, Dixon says, has already led to changes within the agency.
“That was a watershed moment, not just for the police department but for me personally,” Dixon said.
Now in big search operations, a sworn, volunteer coordinator will work between the police and fire departments and citizens — like the hundreds who showed up for Sarbesh — to pair citizens with police officers to conduct organized searches, Dixon said. They will search every parking lot, note every car they search and note every residence they search. Vehicles will be marked with washable ink.
“We’re putting in stopgaps to make sure that we conclusively can say we searched this entire parking lot and we leave nothing to chance,” Dixon said. “We’re hoping that becomes best practice in our profession.”
Adjustments also came after another high-profile case. When a manager at Harvest House was assaulted after asking a group of people — including one man who displayed his swastika tattoo — to leave the bar, Denton police investigated but did not charge anybody with a hate crime. That decision brought criticism to the department. Months later, the agency announced revisions to how it tracks hate-related incidents.
There is now a hate incidents case code that Denton’s police officers can use to keep track of these incidents, even if no criminal charges come. There was no such case code before the Harvest House assault, Dixon said.
“We need to be able to report that, keep it, log it, so we can go back and search it later on,” Dixon said. “We track it so if you are then involved in an actual hate crime a year later ... we can go back and hopefully build a better case for prosecution.”
Before that was Isaac Warriner, the man indicted on a murder charge who allegedly decapitated his mother before fleeing to Oklahoma, where he was arrested. After it was revealed by the Record-Chronicle that friends and family were calling Denton police to warn them about Warriner’s behavior, Denton police reviewed their records and found about 12 calls wherein police officers were made aware about a troubling pattern of Warriner’s behavior, including at least one documented threat to kill himself and his mother.
Dixon said more mental health training will come for Denton police after that case, which Dixon characterized as a “worst-case scenario.”
“We need to start tracking those calls,” Dixon said, “by having our police officers being able to recognize some of the symptoms of someone that’s maybe suffering from mental illness, so we can document and hopefully get them some good follow-up to get them services before it manifests itself.”
Additional training has been a mark for Dixon’s first year. There have been new training courses for officers interacting with people with autism, animal cruelty investigations, active shooter response and strangulation investigations.
“The message is, get used to it, because training is going to be a part of this culture,” Dixon said.
If voters approve, the police department at 601 W. Hickory St. will be renovated and a substation and an indoor shooting range will be built. Denton voters will decide whether to spend $61.9 million for that on Nov. 5.
In a highly competitive North Texas region — with dozens of cities and police agencies — Dixon said his agency has about nine vacancies to fill. But during the sit-down interview, Dixon seemed optimistic that Denton is attracting qualified applicants. Just this month, the police department announced it is accepting lateral transfers, meaning peace officers already working at other agencies can more easily take a job at the Denton Police Department.
“We’re not going to shrink our standards to get more people hired quicker,” Dixon said. “We’re going to keep our standards where they’re at, or we’re going to raise them.”