Dallas’ First Female Police Chief, Reneé Hall, on Maybe Succeeding Chief Craig

The ex-Detroit cop also talks about late Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon and Black Lives Matter protests
Reneé Hall
Reneé Hall

Within hours of the announcement that Detroit Police Chief James Craig would retire in June after eight years at the helm, a short list of prominent potential replacements emerged. One particularly intriguing name to surface was Ulysha Reneé Hall, now seven months removed from a tumultuous three-year stint as chief of the Dallas Police Department.

Hall, a protégé of the late Wayne County Sheriff Benny Napoleon, certainly has the Motor City cred. The 50-year-old is a city native and a 19-year veteran of the Detroit Police Department, having left a post as one of Craig’s deputy chiefs to be Dallas’ first female top cop. She also is the daughter of a Detroit police officer who was shot to death while investigating a prostitution ring when she was 6 months old.

As of early June, Hall was unsure whether she’d go for the job, which would require her to compete with interim chief and declared applicant James White. Since leaving Dallas, the ninth-largest police department in the U.S., in December 2020 amid rising violent crime and criticism of her handling of Black Lives Matter protests, she’s moved to Washington, D.C., and has focused on consulting and public speaking gigs.

She spoke to Hour Detroit about Napoleon, Craig, leaving Dallas, returning to Detroit, and more.

Hour Detroit: First things first. Chief Craig has resigned and is expected to run for governor. Do you want to be the police chief in Detroit?

Reneé Hall: I have not decided. I admire Chief Craig; I truly respect him as a leader. After rising through the ranks and becoming a deputy chief, I learned so much from him and went on to lead my own police department in Dallas. I am excited for what’s happening for him next and his life. But right now, God has me on a journey here in Washington, D.C. And so I am currently praying about whether that is an opportunity for me. When I see my name printed in the newspaper and see that people would love for me to come back and be the chief of Detroit, I’m honored and I’m truly blessed.

Have you heard from anybody in Detroit about applying for or being considered for this job? 

Yeah, a lot. 

Have you spoken to the mayor? 

I’m not going to tell you who has called me. Just know that there’s been a lot of individuals reaching out.

It seems logical that if you were open to becoming a police chief again anytime soon, it would probably be in your hometown.

That’s a theory. Right now, I’m just praying and fasting about it. I’m very happy with where I am. I’m very comfortable in my current position. I’m living in a city where I’ve always wanted to live.

If you took over any large police department, but ours in particular, what is your recipe for fixing or improving it?

The chief would have to get in and see what the issues are. Everyone has to be able and willing to look at their organizations with a fine-tooth comb and see, what are we doing that can be adjusted? What practices or what protocols are causing some challenges in the community? The other part of any recipe is going to be bringing the police officers to the table. We say in law enforcement: “Police officers hate change.” I don’t think they hate change. We don’t include them enough in the change, in understanding why we need to do things differently today than we did them two years ago or five years ago.

You left Dallas amid controversy over the response to the Black Lives Matter protests last summer and dissatisfaction over rising violent crime rates. Would that make it harder for you to get the Detroit job?

The politics in Dallas have absolutely nothing to do with my decision to be a police chief anywhere else in the country. The politics in Dallas are politics that exist everywhere in law enforcement. I always say that we hire plumbers to come to our homes and we dare not assist them or offer any suggestions on how to unclog the toilet. Yet everyone has the answers and the solution on how to run a police department better than the police. Dallas was a great opportunity and a great experience.

OK, but the City Council was unhappy with you, there was controversy surrounding the use of pepper spray during a BLM event. You even gave yourself a C-minus for handling certain things. Why would that not affect your prospects for running another police department?

Well, if you look across the country, every police department was criticized for the exact same things. We all used tear gas — it was tear gas, not pepper spray — and we used less-than-lethal ammunition. Most of us ended up with community members who were injured as a result of the response. When I gave myself that letter grade, it was not about a failure. It was telling the truth. We made a lot of mistakes, as most police departments did across the country. We had never seen the kind of civil unrest that we were experiencing. We were outnumbered. We had Molotov cocktails being thrown at the officers; they trapped officers in vehicles and tried to set the vehicles on fire. All of these things were happening simultaneously in multiple areas. That is not an excuse. There were a lot of mistakes made, not because I was an incompetent chief but because when you have this level of civil unrest take place in multiple areas throughout your city, even the best of plans get destroyed. I didn’t wait for anyone to do an assessment, we did an assessment of ourselves, we did an after-action report that I presented to the council with everything we did right and everything that we did wrong. That shows my integrity.

When you went to the police academy in 1999, were there other Black women?

Yeah. Maybe eight to 10. Detroit historically — and you can credit Benny Napoleon for this — always saw a great representation of women both in leadership and throughout the ranks. Under Benny Napoleon’s reign, there were so many women and so many Black women that were deputy chiefs and commanders.

Your mother was against you being a cop because of what happened to your father. What persuaded you?

It wasn’t my first love, but it truly did become my passion. I always wanted to be a lawyer. I was supposed to be a Supreme Court justice in my mind. So, I finished my criminal justice degree at Grambling State University and I wanted to go to law school, so I was doing some clerking at a law firm in downtown Detroit. The goal was to get a master’s and a juris doctorate from the University of Detroit Mercy, and I met Sheriff Benny Napoleon, may he rest in peace. He was teaching class and we would have these discussions about law enforcement, community, race, and he was very intrigued. He said, “You really need to join my police department.” And I bantered back and forth with him for an entire semester saying, “I don’t want to be the police.” And then I told him the story about my father. He said, “You are so sharp, you’ll be a lieutenant in seven years. If you join the police department, I guarantee you you’ll be a chief. I can see it in you.” So, he finally talked me into it, and from that point, it seemed like everything I touch, I was very successful.

You must miss Sheriff Napoleon a lot. 

Yeah. Outside of God and my mom and grandmother, I credit him with my success in law enforcement. He always was there whenever I had challenges, even in Dallas. I always called him and made sure that he knew and could provide me the best information and advice that one could have.

You became deputy chief under Chief Craig in 2014. What did you learn from him about managing Black Lives Matter issues that you took with you to Dallas in 2017?

Chief Craig was very intentional about meeting with individuals who were antagonistic and adversarial. He wanted to meet with those individuals before there was any challenges. He came into the city asking who we had challenging relationships with. He wanted to bring those individuals to the table, create advisory boards with them, give them an opportunity to work alongside of the police department so that when a situation arises, you’re not trying to build relationships. I learned that very quickly from him because whenever there were challenges across the country, and protests happen, whether it was Black Lives Matter or any other group, usually they had an opportunity to sit down with Chief Craig as well as myself and the rest of the command staff and air their differences, and we had an opportunity to make some concessions. That was definitely something I took to Dallas. One of the first things that I did while I was there was meet with the people we had challenging relationships with and create an oversight board.

Was being a Black woman running a law enforcement agency at a time when law enforcement is under a great deal of criticism difficult or challenging for you?

I am Black and I am blue. What we saw with George Floyd was absolutely tragic and should never happened. I was embarrassed, I was broken and hurt to be a law enforcement officer and executive and watch someone wearing the same uniform that I put on every day kneel on a man’s neck and murder him. But he does not represent all of law enforcement. And if we are truly honest with ourselves, this is not new. Although I’ve been blue for 23 years, I’ve been a Black woman for 50 years. There has been so much work done by law enforcement leaders over the years to change the culture of law enforcement, to change the history of what happened, but it’s still not enough. Still, to create a dichotomy — that if you are a police officer you can’t support Black Lives Matter and be pro-Black — is ludicrous. I love police officers, but also love my community. We have to address the issue that somehow Black individuals encountering police is more deadly than any other race that encounters the police. There are nearly 18,000 police departments in this country, and no two are the same, so you have to examine your police department, your hiring practices, your training practices, and all the things that are going on in your agency and identify those things that don’t look like a great partnership between the police in the community.

Do you think, particularly the past year, that the BLM protests have accomplished anything?

I would ask you. What do you think they’ve accomplished?

I’m not an expert. You are.

I respect the fact that a social movement has brought forth a conversation that has to be had. It’s also brought to light the fact that police chiefs have a challenge. They’re fighting these things on the inside of their police departments where there’s a political force and a unionized effort that pushes out a police chief that identifies too many problems in a police agency. Black Lives Matter has had the opportunity and they’ve accomplished the conversation and the dialogue and getting that platform to the White House.

Are the phrases “defund the police” or “abolish the police” counterproductive? 

What is challenging is, what do those phrases mean? These things need to be defined because they mean different things to different individuals. When I was a police chief, 88 percent of my budget was salaries and benefits. And the other 12 percent of my budget was the operational costs to run the police department. Police officers are doing so much more than they should be — handling homelessness, handling mental health calls, parking enforcement. Those are the kinds of things that should be shifted to other individuals to do that work. Should there be money associated with that to help a city to pull those resources away from the officers and make sure that someone else is responsible for doing those things? If that is what we’re discussing, we’re not defunding the police, we’re shifting responsibilities and the allocated resources. But if you’re saying take money from the police department and decrease the number of officers, I don’t agree with that. And a lot of people do not feel they need less police officers. In some instances, they feel that they need more. 

Why didn’t Detroit explode in violence the way many other cities did last year? 

A lot of it has to do with who Detroit is. Detroit is a city that is resilient — a comeback city. I love the city of Detroit. Detroit burned its own city down in the 1960s and I watched it struggle to be rebuilt. So, there may have been some lessons learned. I don’t want to take anything from Chief Craig because I believe the relationships that he had built with the community with the activist groups played a large role. But Detroit is a predominantly Black city. I spent almost 19 years in the Detroit police force, and we just did not have those kinds of racial issues that other cities have had over and over and over again.

Do you empathize with the perspective of other non-police Black people? Were you ever profiled or mistreated by police?

I am a Black woman in America, so I understand Black people are treated differently. While being in the police, I bought my first home on the border of Livonia and Detroit. At the time, very few Blacks lived in that area. Police used to follow me in my vehicle until they stopped me one day and found out that I was a police officer. But they were following me because of the kind of vehicle that I was driving, the fact that I was a Black woman, and the fact that I was in an area where very few Black people were. So, do I know that there are some legitimate concerns between Black people in law enforcement? I absolutely do. 

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Steve Friess is news and features editor at Hour Detroit and a contributing writer for Newsweek. A Long Island native who earned a journalism degree at Northwestern University, Friess worked at newspapers in Rockford, Illinois, Las Vegas, and South Florida before launching a freelance career in Beijing, China, where he served as chief China correspondent for USA Today. After his return to the U.S. in 2003, he settled in Las Vegas, where he covered the gambling industry and the American Southwest regularly for The New York Times, Playboy, The New Republic, Time, Portfolio, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. During that time, he created and co-hosted two successful and groundbreaking podcasts, the celebrity-interview show The Strip and the animal affairs program The Petcast. In 2011-12, Friess landed a Knight-Wallace Fellowship for mid-career journalists at the University of Michigan. That was followed by a stint as a senior writer covering the intersection of technology and politics at Politico in Washington, D.C., In 2013, he returned permanently to Ann Arbor, where he now lives with his husband, son, and three Pomeranians. He tweets at @SteveFriess and can be reached at sfriess@hour-media.com.