Protesters marched through downtown Dallas and briefly closed an interstate bypass on Friday night while expressing anger over the killing of Botham Jean in his own home by an off-duty police officer, as details of the investigative methods employed by state police in the case prompt suspicion.
Dozens carrying American flags and chanting Jean’s name rallied at Dallas Police Department (DPD) headquarters Friday evening before making their way downtown. They passed through a bus station before stopping outside three local newspaper and TV station offices. At one point along the way, a group of protesters in cars stopped traffic along I-30 and the marchers stood across the roadway for about 15 minutes before moving on.
The protests outside press shops indicates spreading frustration with how the story of Jean’s killing by Officer Amber Guyger on September 7 has developed over the past week. It took three days for Guyger to be arrested, despite DPD chief Renee Hall’s announcement the following day that her team was seeking an arrest warrant on manslaughter charges. Hall turned the case over to the state police — the Texas Rangers — after investigators determined it was not an on-duty “officer-involved shooting” but a civilian killing.
Guyger was reportedly coming off a 15-hour shift the night she walked into Jean’s apartment instead of her own and shot him. Numerous research studies have concluded that officers’ professionalism and judgment suffer when they work shifts longer than 12 hours. One academic study found that sleep-deprived officers were more prone to the widespread implicit bias that associates black skin with firearms. Other analyses conducted by law enforcement agencies directly found that officers who work longer shifts generate significantly higher rates of civilian conduct complaints and are more likely to use physical or lethal force in the ensuing week.
Since turning the case over to the Rangers, Hall’s team has largely lost control over the story. Law enforcement sources saw fit to notify local press that the Rangers had found some pot in Jean’s apartment, a detail with no clear relevance to the established narrative that Guyger simply walked into the wrong apartment and killed a man in his home because she thought he was an intruder in her own. Jean family attorney Lee Merritt has accused police of seeking to smear Jean’s character.
The Rangers’ handling of the case has left fellow law enforcement professionals in the city at a difficult pass. District Attorney Faith Johnson, who is up for re-election in November after being appointed to the job in 2016, simultaneously heaped praise on the Rangers and hinted at tensions between her office and the state investigators in a press conference earlier this week.
“I can’t speak to the Texas Rangers and what they did,” Johnson said when asked about the delay in Guyger’s arrest. “That was totally their call, that was totally their responsibility, that was totally their lead…We had a very spirited conversation. It was a private conversation. I cannot dictate to the Texas Rangers their process, their investigation, what they do, or what they don’t do.” Elsewhere in the press conference, she expressed gratitude to the state investigators for their work on the case.
Johnson now intends to put the case before a grand jury. Elsewhere in the past, prosecutors wanting to wash their hands of a police killing case have used grand juries to stall and derail criminal accountability efforts for killer officers — most notably in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
But Guyger’s killing of Jean does not fit the standard box for suspicious police killings. She was off duty, Jean was not a suspect, and their encounter did not originate in any law enforcement activity, according to the information revealed to date by local officials. Those facts leave Guyger unable to invoke the special legal protections afforded to officers accused of misusing lethal force in criminal cases.
The public revelation that Rangers found a small amount of marijuana in Jean’s apartment therefore carries particular weight in this case. Drug use is frequently invoked to suggest that a black person dead at police hands was “no angel,” but in Guyger’s case the detail could theoretically have bearing in actual court — not just the court of public opinion. Her lawyers would doubtlessly love to frame the evening as a tired cop detecting something amiss and initiating an investigation that culminated in a tragic but legally justifiable killing.
Though there has been no suggestion to date that Guyger had taken it upon herself to launch a one-woman drug bust directly upstairs from her own apartment, that story could be used to constrain a jury’s consideration of her actions. The wording of an affidavit from the Rangers to obtain a search warrant for Jean’s apartment hinted at this logic, affirming to a judge that officers believed drug materials relevant to potential other crimes were present. Though that language is likely copy-paste pro-forma detail, the Rangers declined to answer detailed questions about their warrants or investigation and referred ThinkProgress to Johnson’s office.
For Hall’s part, the DPD’s decision to take a back seat to state investigators has complicated efforts toward transparency. She has asked the city to be patient with the unusual case, and told people to judge her department based on the outcome at the end. But with her officers sidelined in favor of the Rangers and Johnson’s upcoming grand jury process, that request leaves DPD’s reputation here in the hands of others. The week’s news developments and Friday night’s protests indicate there may be quite a ways to go before Dallas knows just what to think of Hall, Johnson, and the Rangers’ decisionmaking. Guyger, meanwhile, remains free on bond.