There is a crying and urgent need for vigorous debate about the extent of police misconduct toward Black men
By Yvonne Sam
Social and Political Commentator
Here we go again, a community grappling with what steps to take to prevent these incidents from recurring —another unspeakable tragedy, another Black man gunned down by those sworn to protect and serve; another day of hashtag, another name added to the #Black Lives Matter Movement.
It is humanly difficult to think of a more horrendous and senseless shooting in America, than the killing, last week, of Botham Shem Jean — a Black risk-assurance associate at Pricewaterhouse Coopers — by Amber Guyger, a police officer with the Dallas Police Force.
The background to the tragic incident and the precise chain of events remains somewhat puzzling, to both the police and family, alike.
According to the affidavit for arrest or CAPIAS, issued by the County of Dallas in the state of Texas, the cop resided in Apartment #1378, directly below the deceased, in Apartment #1478, in the same building complex. Their respective interior floor plans are, in most ways, identical or extremely similar to the exterior structure and description of each other.
On the night in question, Police Officer Guyger had just completed a 15-hour shift and was still in uniform, when she parked on the wrong floor. She inserted a unique door key, with an electronic chip, into the door, which, according to the affidavit, was partly ajar, prior to her arrival, but fully opened under the force of the key insertion.
On the opening of the door, the cop noticed that the apartment was nearly in complete darkness, and also alerted her to the presence of Jean, described as a large silhouette across the room. Startled by his presence and believing that he was a burglar, she drew her firearm, and gave verbal commands that were ignored.
As a result of Botham Jean’s disregard to the verbal commands, she fired her handgun, twice, hitting him once in the torso. She then entered the apartment, and immediately called 911, requesting police and Emergency Medical Service, and also reportedly provided first aid to the deceased. On being asked for her location by the dispatcher, Amber returned to the front door to see the address, and then discovered she was at the wrong address.
Due to the interior darkness of the apartment the cop turned on the interior lights, while calling the police on her cell phone. Not surprisingly, the officer’s statement does not harmonize with other testimonies.
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. Once again, as has been the case with Blacks and the police, there are several already troubling indications that Guyger’s status as a police officer, has served to provide her with actual, undeserved advantages in the prosecution of this case.
The systemic and institutional racism that defines the killing of non-dangerous Black citizens, especially males, as some sort of sick rite of passage, must be vigorously challenged. The tragedy, in itself, accentuates the need for officers, like Amber Guyger, to face impartial justice.
The police officer was not arrested and booked, until three days following the tragedy, as, reportedly, the Dallas police had prepared a warrant the day following the killing, but the investigation was handed over to the Texas Ranger, who then put an unexplained hold on the warrant.
While the delayed arrest should have no impact on the prosecution, why should she receive the courtesies so often extended to law enforcement members, when, from the outset, the evidence clearly shows that she acted extraneous to her lawful authority? By the same token, let us not forget that had the roles been reversed, Botham Jean would have been in handcuffs that night and rightfully so. Relative freedom would not have been his to enjoy.
Another troubling element is that, for unexplained reasons, the police officer is only charged with manslaughter, although the evidence shows she intentionally shot Jean. The gun did not go off during a struggle, nor was it a warning shot gone amiss. A crime was committed when the police forced open Botham’s door, intentionally took aim, and killed him.
Under Texas law, murder is simply defined thus: “intentionally or knowingly causing the death of an individual.” Manslaughter, by contrast, occurs when a person “recklessly” causes death. The police officer’s warning and her deliberate aim, cry out intent. While she may have “recklessly” gone to the wrong floor and the wrong apartment, she very intentionally killed Jean.
The question is again asked, had the deceased mistakenly gone to the officer’s apartment and then gunned her down, after demanding that she follow his commands, would he face a manslaughter charge?
I am not buying the “open season” rhetoric, and the data, supporting claims that the police are more trigger happy when confronting Black men, is controversial and conflicting. However, in the selfsame vein, each individual occurrence calls for fair inquiry and the impartial dispensation of justice. Sadly this has, too often, proven difficult.
Time after time, juries have believed officers and their fear, without even properly determining whether or not the fear was reasonable. As a consequence, we have seen the acquittal of Jeronimo Yanez, the white Minnesota cop, who shot and killed Philando Castile, as he was doing his best to comply with the cop’s demands; and the acquittal of the cop, who shot an unarmed, running man in the back. Even video evidence of police wrongdoings, overkill, mishandlings, brutality, brings no weight to bear on the possibility of justice being eyed, rather than denied.
I am not, here, criticizing the officers who get it right, the ones who do their jobs, the ones who serve their communities the way they’re supposed to — with respect and value for human life, for all lives. This is not about them. This is about the blatant disregard of our lives and the lack of accountability of those who get it wrong, the ones who abuse their power, and the ones who have documented patterns of abuse, yet are still allowed to patrol our streets.
We ask officers to face a much higher degree of danger than civilians. We ask them to be brave and 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.
Oftentimes, the justice system is 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. This is exactly the juncture, where the system has failed in all too many cases, further wounding an already hurting family, and severing the public’s trust each time. It is next to impossible for people of color to get justice from the criminal justice system.
Currently there is no evidence that Amber Guyger woke up that fateful morning intending to kill anyone. A certain degree of sympathy can be felt 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. A nation awaits her fate.
Yvonne Sam, a retired Head Nurse and Secondary School Teacher, is Vice-president of the Guyana Cultural Association of Montreal. A regular columnist for over two decades with the Montreal Community Contact, her insightful and incursive articles on topics ranging from politics, human rights and immigration, to education and parenting have also appeared in the Huffington Post, Montreal Gazette, XPressbogg and Guyanese OnLine. She is also the recipient of the Governor General of Canada Caring Canadian Citizen Award.