A Dallas Police Officer Shot Her Neighbor, and a City is Full of Questions
September 15, 2018
DALLAS — Botham Shem Jean analyzed risk for a living at a global auditing firm. For someone in his line of work, the evening was shaping up to be as risk-free as it gets: Alone, in his one-bedroom apartment one block from the Dallas Police Department headquarters.Fresh from work, he had texted his sister his…
DALLAS — Botham Shem Jean analyzed risk for a living at a global auditing firm. For someone in his line of work, the evening was shaping up to be as risk-free as it gets: Alone, in his one-bedroom apartment one block from the Dallas Police Department headquarters.
Fresh from work, he had texted his sister his evening plans: Watching a football game on TV, the Eagles versus the Falcons. He texted a friend, apologizing for not going out with her the weekend before. Mr. Jean, 26, was from the island-nation of St. Lucia. He had a big smile, and was a big eater, winning a meat-lovers’ contest at Big Chef Steak House back in the Caribbean. He still had his ticket for a free meal on his next visit, his prize after eating a two-pound steak in one sitting.
Unit 1478 on the fourth floor of the South Side Flats apartment complex was an 800-square-foot bachelor pad: dishes piled up in the sink, with pancake syrup, dish soap and other belongings adding to the clutter on the kitchen island. It was the evening of September 6. His 27th birthday was three weeks away.
In a matter of hours, Mr. Jean would be dead. A white off-duty police officer who lived in Unit 1378 — directly below Mr. Jean — claimed that she mistakenly entered the wrong apartment after returning home from her 14-hour shift and believed Mr. Jean, who is black, was an intruder. Officer Amber R. Guyger, 30, fired her service weapon twice, striking him once in the torso.
He was later pronounced dead at a hospital, his death now the center of a mystery that has angered and puzzled much of the Dallas region.
The racial profiling of black men and women by white police officers put new phrases into the American vocabulary — driving while black, walking while black, shopping while black. The shooting of Mr. Jean seemed to demand its own, even more disturbing version: being at home while black.
The fatal shooting has become the latest, and most bizarre, confrontation between an unarmed black man and a white officer, angering many who say they simply do not believe the officer’s account. In a city with a decades-old history of racial divisions, the case has again heightened tensions. Protesters chanted and disrupted a City Council meeting on Wednesday, and threats against the police have poured in. Officers have said they believe Officer Guyger’s version of events, while many in the black community — and many white residents as well — do not. City officials and other leaders have been caught in the middle.
“This is the worst sort of situation, because we all expect to be safe in our own homes,” Michael S. Rawlings, the mayor of Dallas, said in an interview. “Everybody is heartbroken. Everybody wants the same thing — let’s get the answers. This is what the mother said to me. I was sitting there talking to her Saturday morning. And she said, ‘I’m not angry, but I just want to know why this lady shot my son.’”
Officer Guyger has been charged with manslaughter and released on a $300,000 bond, and numerous questions remain unanswered as the investigation continues. Mr. Jean’s relatives and his lawyers said Mr. Jean and the officer did not know each other. It’s not known whether there might have been a dispute between them as neighbors. Indeed much about what happened that night at the door of Mr. Jean’s apartment remains either unclear or in dispute.
The officer told investigators the door was slightly ajar and then fully opened when she inserted her computerized chip key; lawyers for Mr. Jean’s family said the door was closed. Officer Guyger said in court documents that when she opened the door, the apartment was dark and she saw a silhouette of someone she thought was a burglar. She said she shouted commands that were ignored. Neighbors, however, have told lawyers for Mr. Jean’s relatives that they heard someone banging on the door and shouting, “Let me in!” and “Open up!” before gunshots rang out. They said they then heard a man, presumably Mr. Jean, say, “Oh my God, why did you do that?”
Accounts of banging and shouting are puzzling, because Officer Guyger is single and lived alone, and it was unknown why she would have banged on the door if she believed she was at her own apartment.
In some ways, the drama unfolding in Dallas looks and feels similar to other high-profile police shootings of unarmed black men that have gripped the country in succession in recent years. Mr. Jean’s family is represented by Benjamin Crump, the lawyer who represented the relatives of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, as well as S. Lee Merritt, a lawyer for the family of Jordan Edwards, the 15-year-old freshman shot and killed by a white officer last year in a Dallas suburb. In an echo of past police killings, there has been anger over what seem to be attempts to incriminate the victim: Police released a search warrant that revealed that 10.4 grams of marijuana in multiple baggies had been found in Mr. Jean’s apartment.
“First they assassinate his person, then they assassinate his character,” Mr. Crump said.
Hours earlier that evening, managers at the apartment complex had received complaints from residents that there was a strong smell of marijuana in the fourth-floor hallways. Managers knocked on Mr. Jean’s door and at least five other doors inquiring about the smell, the Jean family lawyers said. It was unclear who on the floor was responsible for the odor.
Mr. Jean’s relatives, lawyers and supporters all say it would have been difficult for the officer to have mistaken Mr. Jean’s door: It had a large, bright-red, semicircular doormat, lying on a bare concrete floor. Officer Guyger had none. Would she not have noticed?
“My main concern is that she is lying,” said Mr. Merritt, one of the Jean family lawyers.
But Officer Guyger’s supporters say she had her hands full at the time she arrived at Mr. Jean’s door: Officials said she had with her a police vest, duty bag and lunchbox — items she might be expected to carry to her own front door, not someone else’s.
While relations between the police and black residents are strained, the case is playing out in one of the most diverse law enforcement settings in the country.
Dallas appears to be the only major city and county in the country where the police chief, the sheriff and the district attorney are all black women: Chief U. Reneé Hall, Sheriff Marian Brown and District Attorney Faith Johnson. Chief Hall was applauded by many for turning the investigation over to the Texas Rangers to ensure an independent inquiry, and both Chief Hall and Ms. Johnson attended the funeral of Mr. Jean on Thursday, as did several other officials.
But the diversity in the ranks of law enforcement has not quelled the anger over the shooting and over the police department’s handling of it.
Black activists, religious leaders and elected officials have all criticized the authorities for charging the officer not with murder but with the lesser charge of manslaughter. They also want to know why she was not immediately arrested at the scene, but was allowed to go free until she was officially charged three days later. They are demanding that Officer Guyger, who remains on paid administrative leave, be fired.
“The reasonableness of her explanation is what’s called into question,” said State Senator Royce West, a Democrat who is African-American and whose district includes the South Side Flats. “The question is whether or not she saw a black man and then decided to shoot. Regardless of whether or not he was in the right place or not, her first impulse appeared to be that she was going to fire her weapon.”
Robert L. Rogers, a lawyer representing Officer Guyger and a former Dallas County prosecutor, declined to comment. Officer Guyger has been a Dallas officer for four years and four months, joining the force in 2014 in her first job as a law enforcement officer in Texas.
Some of the officer’s colleagues and superiors said they believe her version of events, and called the shooting, as one put it, “a bad accident.” One police official said Officer Guyger was not intoxicated at the time of the shooting, and that she had a good reputation as part of the Southeast Patrol Division’s Crime Response Team, of which she was a member.
“They go out and arrest the most dangerous people in the city,” said the official, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak to the press about the case. “You’ve got to have your head on right. You’ve got to be brave, dedicated, hard-charging. She was all of those things.”
Officer Guyger was involved in another shooting last year. A man grabbed her Taser during a confrontation, and she shot him in the stomach. The man survived, and a grand jury later declined to indict her.
The official said Officer Guyger did not have any complaints filed against her accusing her of violating a person’s civil rights. The official said the length of her shift that day was a key factor in the shooting. The police officers’ union has publicly urged city officials to address the long shifts that have resulted from budget cuts, which have led to low morale and a mass exodus of officers.
“You cannot have people working that hard and not have a mistake, and it can be life-threatening mistakes,” the official said.
Officers said the shooting reminded them of a similar case in 2016. In that case, an N.B.A. player was fatally shot in Dallas after he broke into what he thought was his girlfriend’s apartment. Bryce Dejean-Jones, 23, a player for the New Orleans Pelicans, kicked open the door to an apartment in the middle of the night, startling the man who lived there, the authorities said. As Mr. Dejean-Jones kicked the bedroom door, the man shot him, the police said.
Mr. Dejean-Jones had been trying to get into his girlfriend’s apartment, which was directly above the unit he broke into,his agent said at the time.
The floors of the South Side Flats, a modern luxury apartment building with 288 units built in 2015 at the edge of downtown Dallas, have a similar design and layout: well-lighted, with whirring ceiling fans and bare concrete floors. Residents said it was easy to get confused in the halls, and some said they had gone to the wrong apartment occasionally. The light panels near Mr. Jean’s door and Officer Guyger’s door are the same color.
Hher mistake appeared to begin when she parked on the fourth floor, not the third floor where she lived, for reasons that remain unclear. She had lived in the complex for a short time, fewer than 60 days, officials said.
On Thursday, minutes after Mr. Jean’s funeral at Greenville Avenue Church of Christ in nearby Richardson, his father, Bertrum Jean, 54, stood in an upstairs dining hall and gym, leaning against a set of retractable bleachers.
He hugged those who approached him, and laughed at times. “He just wanted to be with me everywhere I go,” the elder Mr. Jean said, recalling when his son was 5. “I think I spoiled him.”
The elder Mr. Jean, who preaches at a Church of Christ congregation and works as a water and sewage inventory supervisor on St. Lucia, said he understands racial tensions exist in Dallas and in the United States, but what role that played in his son’s death, he said he was not certain.
“I believe it may have been an isolated incident,” he said. “I don’t know what to make of it, but I’m still not fearful. If my other son has to come up here to school, I will send him.”
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