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What Amber Guyger’s Conviction Shows Us About the Dallas Police Department

Trust between the public and the department is shaky. How will the police fix it?

Amber Guyger was convicted of murder last week. Attorney Daryl Washington, one of the lawyers retained by the family of Guyger’s victim, said this to the media after the conviction:

“It took us losing someone like Botham for Dallas, this entire state, and the whole world to hear what we’ve been saying all along: there are serious issues within the Dallas Police Department.”

He was speaking about training. He was also speaking about the man Botham Jean was: driven, selfless, caring, thoughtful. Botham was killed in his own apartment by a cop who was off-duty. Guyger said she mistook the apartment as her own and thought Botham was an intruder. The jury didn’t buy it. And being a cop didn’t help her case; after her training, she should have known better.

Guyger could not recall details from her de-escalation training during cross examination. Her colleagues testified that their first decision after learning an intruder was in their home would not be to charge in and shoot, as she did, but to find cover and call for backup. Guyger’s partner, with whom she was once in a sexual relationship, deleted texts from his phone after the shooting. Police Chief U. Reneé Hall launched an investigation into that, as well as the actions of Dallas Police Association president Mike Mata, who arrived at the scene and had another officer turn off the camera in the squad car where Guyger was sitting. (Mata has said he did nothing wrong.)

In the days since the conviction, rifts between the police department and the community have become more visible.

Joshua Brown, a former neighbor of Jean’s and one of the state’s most compelling witnesses in Guyger’s trial, was murdered Friday night outside his Oak Lawn apartment. Speculation started immediately, including from attorney Lee Merritt, who proclaimed Brown had been shot in the face and chest. (He had not.) County Judge Clay Jenkins contested those details. Later, police named three suspects, two of which had fled the state. The incident, police maintain, was a drug deal gone bad. The police department had a tweet for the speculating: “We encourage those leaders to be mindful because their words may jeapordize [sic] the integrity of the city of Dallas and DPD.”

Then, last night, the first meeting of the new Community Police Oversight Board devolved into shouting and shoving. Community members and activists who were present were frustrated that public comment hadn’t been included. They wanted to ask some of the appointees about their stance on the oversight board’s existence; one board member, in her failed campaign for a City Council seat, had said the board was unnecessary. Videos showed Chief U. Reneé Hall tell the audience, “I am not going to let us in this room act like animals.”

A jury—a majority were people of color—found Guyger guilty of murder. Guyger maintained she was confused and panicked upon seeing what she believed to be an intruder in her own apartment, which was exactly one floor below. She fired at the “silhouette.” In cross-examination, she admitted that she intended to kill when she fired. That was enough to meet the state’s requirements for murder. That same jury gave her 10 years in prison, which immediately led to protests outside the courtroom. This sentence came despite Guyger’s text history, which included racist messages about pepper spraying attendees of the MLK parade. She also talked disparagingly of the work ethic of her black colleagues. (To counter, her defense had a black woman testify about how Guyger had helped her kick a drug addiction.)

Before the sentence, it was tempting to say that the conviction was a new day for police accountability. That, because a jury didn’t buy her story, it shows how far the badge gets you. But the case is the case. You should narrow your gaze.

“I wouldn’t say that because Amber Guyger got convicted that it’s the beginning of complete accountability for police officers,” Cynthia Alkon, the director of the Criminal Law, Justice, and Policy program at Texas A&M’s School of Law, told me last week. “Across the country, there has been no shortage of cases where police officers have been found not guilty. If they had been in a different jurisdiction, it may have had a very different outcome.”

And as other incidents occur, the Brown family’s statement is telling: “A cloud of suspicion will rest over this case until steps are taken to ensure the trustworthiness of the process.”

That distrust is a virus for a police department. So what do we do? We look at what Guyger’s case showed us. There are ways in which the department can take the facts that were revealed during the trial and use them to aid in reforms. Or at least study what went wrong. That’s what Botham’s mother, Allison Jean, is pushing for. (She is also hoping a federal judge approves her lawsuit against the city.)

The department can investigate why Guyger was promoted to the squad that goes after high-risk criminals. Her colleagues testified that she was a good partner and officer, but her testimony showed she couldn’t retain information from her training. So how are we training our officers? Was this a one-off or is it more endemic? How are we following up after that training is complete? The department can investigate her partner’s deleted texts. And the City Council can dig further into KPMG’s recent analysis of the department, which found it wasn’t using its resources as effectively as it could, nor was it making decisions based on data.

All of these combine into a particularly noxious roux for the department to deal with.

Botham’s 18-year-old brother forgave Guyger after her sentence was issued and then asked for permission from the judge to hug her. That hug made it all over the world. But his mother’s comments in church the next day need to be considered next to that act:

“Forgiveness for us as Christians is a healing for us. But as my husband said, there are consequences. It does not mean that everything else we have suffered has to go unnoticed. We are leaving Dallas this week, but you all must live in Dallas and you all must try to make Dallas a better place.”

Last Friday, the Dallas Morning News reported that Rev. Michael Waters and Imam Omar Suleiman stood with the family and activists before a podium. They were holding signs with the names of people killed during police interactions in Dallas: James Harper, Brandon Washington, Tony Timpa, even Etta Collins, whose 1987 slaying triggered a federal investigation. During the press conference, activists called for Chief Hall to ask the Department of Justice to investigate the department. They want another department to provide independent investigators to Brown’s murder case.

Trust between the community and the department has been rattled. Attention turns now to how the department tries to mend it.

A version of this story was featured in the weekly D Brief newsletter. Sign up for it here


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