Law & the Courts

The Worst Police Shooting Yet

Amber Guyger in a booking photo provided by the Kaufman County Sheriff’s Office, September 10, 2018. (Kaufman County Sheriff's Office/Handout via Reuters)
Amber Guyger’s killing of Botham Shem Jean is an unspeakable tragedy. It also highlights the need for officers like Guyger to face impartial justice.

It is hard to think of a more tragic, more senseless shooting in America than the killing last week of Botham Shem Jean, a young black risk-assurance associate at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and a member of Dallas West Church of Christ.

This is what we know so far. Jean was home alone in his apartment in the South Side Flats complex in Dallas when police officer Amber Guyger entered and shot him dead. The precise chain of events is somewhat disputed. The affidavit supporting Guyger’s arrest warrant states that she believed she was entering her own apartment, which was directly below Jean’s and laid out almost identically. When she placed her key in the lock, the door pushed open, the apartment was dark, she saw a “large silhouette” across the room, and she believed she was facing a burglar. She “drew her firearm” and “gave verbal commands,” which she claims Jean ignored. She fired twice, and only then, she says, entered the apartment, called 911, turned on the lights, and realized she’d made a terrible mistake.

These statements, however, don’t square with other testimony. One witness reported hearing a woman yelling, “Let me in! Let me in!” before the gunshots and a man’s voice saying, “Oh my God. Why did you do that?” after them.

Aside from the horrific details of the shooting itself, there are already troubling indications that Guyger’s identity as a police officer is providing her with actual, undeserved advantages in the prosecution of this case.

First, police sources are reportedly indicating that Guyger may actually try to raise the fact that Jean didn’t obey her commands as a defense. It’s not a defense. The moment she opened the door to an apartment that wasn’t her own, she wasn’t operating as a police officer clothed with the authority of the law. She was instead a criminal. She was breaking into another person’s home. She was an armed home invader, and the person clothed with the authority of law to defend himself was Botham Shem Jean.

Which brings us to the second troubling element of the story. So far, Guyger is only charged with manslaughter. But all the available evidence indicates that she intentionally shot Jean. This wasn’t a warning shot gone awry. The pistol didn’t discharge during a struggle. She committed a crime by forcing open Jean’s door, deliberately took aim, and killed him.

Texas law defines murder quite simply as “intentionally or knowingly caus[ing] the death of an individual.” Manslaughter, by contrast, occurs when a person “recklessly” causes death. Guyger’s warning and her deliberate aim scream intent. She may have “recklessly” gone to the wrong apartment, but she very intentionally killed Jean. There is a chance that the grand jury will increase the charge to murder, so the early manslaughter charge is tentative. But I ask you: If Jean had mistakenly gone to Guyger’s apartment and then gunned her down in cold blood after demanding that she follow his commands, would he face a manslaughter charge?

Finally, it’s troubling that Guyger wasn’t arrested and booked until three days after the shooting. Reportedly, Dallas police had prepared a warrant the day after the killing, but they handed the investigation over to the Texas Rangers, who put a hold on the warrant.

What’s done is done, and the delayed arrest shouldn’t have any ultimate impact on the prosecution, but when all the available evidence indicates that a cop acted outside of her lawful authority, she should receive none of the courtesies and advantages so often extended to members of law enforcement. She’s a citizen, like any other, and it is hard to imagine — again — that if the roles had been reversed Jean would have enjoyed several days of relative freedom before he was arrested and booked. He’d have been in handcuffs that night, and rightfully so.

There is need for vigorous debate about the extent of police misconduct toward black men. I am unconvinced by the “open season” rhetoric, and the data supporting claims that police are more trigger-happy when confronting black men is controversial and conflicting. Without question, that’s an issue worth serious inquiry and study, and no one single incident or handful of incidents is dispositive or even all that relevant to settling it.

At the same time, however, each individual incident demands fair inquiry and the impartial administration of justice. Yet this has too often proven difficult. Juries credit officers for their fear without properly determining whether that fear was “reasonable.” And thus we’ve seen the sad spectacle of a mistrial after a cop shot an unarmed, running man in the back; the acquittal of the Minnesota cop who shot Philando Castile as Castile was doing his best to comply with the cop’s panicked, conflicting demands; and the acquittal of the cop who shot a sobbing Daniel Shaver as he crawled on his hands and knees, begging for his life.

Indeed, the justice system is often so stacked in officers’ favor that they enjoy qualified immunity, a judge-made rule that blocks even civil lawsuits against those who make dangerous and deadly mistakes.

We ask police officers to be brave. We ask officers to face a much higher degree of danger than civilians. We ask them to show restraint even in the face of provocations and tense confrontations. There are countless among them who do all we ask, and more. But we also ask something else: that police officers be subject to the very laws they’re sworn to enforce.

That’s where the system has failed in all too many cases, wounding a family that’s already suffering and breaking the public’s trust each time. At present there’s no evidence that Amber Guyger woke up Thursday morning intending to kill anyone. One can certainly feel a degree of sympathy for a person who makes a terrible mistake. But sympathy must not be allowed to cloud the quest for justice. Guyger’s blue uniform should not grant her a single advantage in the investigation and prosecution to come.

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