Louis A. Bedford Jr. was trembling and teary-eyed when he swore in Craig Watkins as Dallas County district attorney on January 1, 2007. The retired judge and legendary black attorney—he led the fight to desegregate Dallas schools—was overcome by the moment: Watkins had just become the first black DA in Texas history.
Watkins has a charcoal drawing of the moment on a wall behind his desk, but he doesn’t need it to remind him of that day and what a big step forward it was, for Dallas and the DA’s office. He was ushered in on a tide of Democratic voters in 2006, and it didn’t turn out to be a fluke.
“My wife, Tanya, still jokes with me today that when I was sworn in, she could count the African-Americans and Hispanics on one hand that actually were lawyers in this office,” Watkins, 46, says. “And now, if you look at our office, it’s hard to even imagine that, seven years ago, it was almost impossible for a person of color to have the opportunity to even be an assistant DA. So, yeah, we’ve come a long way.”
It’s not just the district attorney’s office. “I’m noticing that you have a more diverse group of individuals that are using the opportunity to be in public service,” Watkins says. He’s correct. In fact, the top law enforcement jobs in Dallas County are held by persons of color: Watkins, Dallas Police Chief David Brown, and Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez.
Watkins has taken advantage of the opportunity he got seven years ago, garnering national attention for his efforts regarding prosecutorial misconduct and wrongful convictions. Going forward, he says he’s working to put policies in place to help the public regain its trust in law enforcement. It began with his office, but now he’s reaching further, because he knows he has the support to do so.
“The good thing about Dallas—and I think Dallas should embrace this—is that I could take credit for all this, but Dallas elected me,” he says. “And so the credit goes to the citizens of Dallas, that they saw a need for change and they put someone in with a different viewpoint in a very powerful public position. I’m returning the favor by not being afraid to implement those changes that we need to make things better.”