In the last decade or so, as police shootings of unarmed black men and women have become more thoroughly scrutinized, I’ve kept my own private accounting of the worst of them. The 2014 death of Tamir Rice in a Cleveland park ranks high on that list; he was a 12-year-old boy carrying a toy gun. So does the 2014 shooting of John Crawford III in a Walmart in Beavercreek, Ohio; he was killed after he picked up an unpackaged BB gun in the store’s sporting goods section, carrying it as he continued shopping.
Then there was the 2017 death of 15-year-old Jordan Edwards, killed when a Texas police officer fired into a car full of teenagers. None were armed. Roy Oliver, formerly of the Balch Springs, Texas, police department, was found guilty of Edwards’ murder last month. The mere fact that Oliver was convicted is a testament to the reckless malevolence with which he behaved.
But those outrageous acts of police violence have been joined by another that may be even worse: 26-year-old Botham Shem Jean was shot dead several days ago in his Dallas apartment by off-duty police officer Amber Guyger, who claims she mistook his apartment for her own, which is located one floor below Jean’s. Guyger told investigators that she shot Jean after he ignored her “verbal commands,” according to an arrest warrant.
Let’s take Guyger at her word, for now. She claims she mistakenly entered Jean’s unlocked apartment after finding the door ajar and the lights out. She saw the outline of a large figure and believed he was burglarizing her apartment. That’s her story.
Now consider it from the lawful occupant’s point of view. Even if she is telling the truth, Jean was under no obligation to obey her “verbal commands.” She was an armed assailant committing a home invasion. What must he have thought when a stranger barged into his house pointing a gun and started barking orders?
There is no evidence Guyger knew that Jean, an immigrant from the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, was black or that racial animus provoked her. But her supervisors certainly knew a police officer had invaded a law-abiding citizen’s home and shot him dead. Whatever the class, color or religion of that citizen, the officer should be held to account.
Yet, it took Texas Rangers three days to issue a warrant for her arrest. Adding stereotype to stupidity, Dallas police, who started the investigation before turning it over to the Rangers, obtained a warrant that allowed them to search Jean’s apartment for narcotics and other “contraband” in addition to evidence of Guyger’s crime. Why? Were they hoping to find evidence to blame the victim?
This shouldn’t matter, but let’s be clear about who Jean was and was not: He wasn’t a criminal. He wasn’t a drug addict. He was the scion of a prominent family in St. Lucia, the son of a former government official. He came to the United States to go to school, and he graduated from Harding University, a small religious institution in Searcy, Arkansas, where he studied accounting. In Dallas, he worked for PricewaterhouseCoopers, an internationally prominent accounting firm. None of that saved him from being shot dead in his own home by a Dallas cop.
Even if Texas authorities manage to muster the sense of justice that this case demands -- some righteous indignation from the prosecuting attorney would be a start -- the odds are against a conviction for Guyger. Police are rarely charged with a crime even when they shoot an unarmed citizen, and they are unlikely to be convicted if they are charged. In Cleveland, a grand jury declined to indict Officer Timothy Loehmann for the shooting of Tamir Rice, though he was later fired. In Beavercreek, a grand jury declined to indict any of the officers who killed John Crawford III, though security video footage revealed police had lied about the circumstances of the shooting.
Perhaps Jean’s death will have a different outcome. Perhaps the shooting of a young man in his own home will give justice a boost. Maybe President Donald J. Trump will tweet his outrage about the death of a law-abiding black immigrant at the hands of a white police officer.