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Not Even the Police Union Could Save Amber Guyger

She has become one of the rare cops to be convicted of murder, despite a system that often works in their favor.

Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News/Pool/AP

Last September, one of Amber Guyger’s friends told her that she should adopt a German Shepherd—although the dog “may be racist,” the friend texted. “It’s okay.. I’m the same,” Guyger replied.

Two days later, coming home from work and still in her Dallas police officer uniform, Guyger entered what she says she thought was her own apartment. Upon seeing a black man inside, she shot him twice—thinking he was an intruder, she later said. Botham Jean was 26. He was killed in his own apartment—one floor above Guyger’s. As she entered, he was seated on his couch, a bowl of vanilla ice cream on the ottoman.

This week, a Dallas jury convicted Amber Guyger of murder. On Wednesday, she was sentenced to ten years in prison, eligible for parole in five. While the sentence is conspicuously short, she now joins a very small but growing number of law enforcement officers who have faced any criminal charges for shooting and killing a civilian. Some racial justice advocates and legal experts hope Guyger’s conviction could signal a shift in how the police are policed.

Between 1973 and 2016, no Dallas police officer faced murder charges for killing a civilian. Starting in 2014, grand juries began handing down indictments to police who killed, but for lesser charges. It was not until the case of former Farmers Branch police officer Ken Johnson, who shot and killed 16-year-old Jose Cruz in March 2016, that an officer in Dallas was charged with murder.

Like Guyger, Johnson was off-duty at the time of the shooting. He was convicted
in 2018, as was former Balch Springs police officer Roy Oliver for shooting and killing fifteen-year-old Jordan Edwards. Farmers Branch officer Michael Dunn was charged with murder this June, and remains on administrative leave while awaiting trial for shooting and killing 35-year-old Juan Moreno. Moreno’s family and supporters in the community occupied the Farmers Branch police station until the mayor agreed to meet with them.

Guyger, then, is only the third officer Dallas juries have convicted for murder in more than forty years.

Law enforcement officers in the United States killed more than 1100 people in 2018, according to the Mapping Police Violence Project. Twenty-five percent of those killed were black, despite black people making up only 13 percent of the population. Unlike the murder of Botham Jean, many of these victims’ stories will never be heard by a jury at trial.

Philip Stinson, who runs the Police Integrity Research Group at Bowling Green State University, helped create one of the first national databases tracking police violence. According to his research, of the 900 to 1,000 police shootings per year, fewer than eight, on average, result in indictments. Since 2005, he has counted only three officers who were convicted of intentional murder and had the conviction stand—prior to the Guyger case.

The odds are clearly stacked against police violence accountability, then. It starts at the scene of the crime.

Shortly after police arrived at Botham Jean’s apartment that night in 2018 and attempted to revive him, they were joined by the head of the Dallas police union. By then, Guyger had been escorted away from the scene and placed in a police vehicle. As captured on body cam video, Dallas Police Association President Michael Mata asked another officer to turn off the dash cam which could record his conversation with Guyger.

“Why am I thanking Mike Mata?” activist Changa Higgins said at a protest last week. “Because, basically, during this case, he exposed what we’ve been saying about his ass all along. The DPA has too much power in policing in this city.”

Prosecutors wanted to make the point that not only was Guyger being treated differently because she was a police officer, but that Mata had asked another officer to go outside of policy—by requesting the camera be turned off—in order to give her this special treatment. Across the country, Police union officials commonly get preferred access to officers who kill. They get to hear their stories before they make formal statements. They also get to help shape those stories.

Police unions exert pressure on policymakers, too, opposing and obstructing transparency efforts, and thereby maintaining control of what the public knows about police violence. When California enacted a law this year requiring police departments to share misconduct records, police slow-walked requests, and then still withheld documents.

Now, the Long Beach police union has proposed new contract language stipulating officers be informed when records pertaining to them are requested, and to be given five days to review the records before they are released. The new policy would also require that the name and organization of the person who requested misconduct records be disclosed to that officer. Legal experts fear these kinds of proposals will proliferate throughout the state, discouraging people from seeking misconduct records.

This is a national problem. More than 100 newsrooms across the country spent over a year in 2018 and 2019 trying to collect police misconduct records in a nationwide project coordinated by USA TODAY. “Dozens of police agencies ignored repeated requests made under states’ open records laws,” they found. “Other agencies denied requests, saying sharing the information with the public violates officers’ privacy rights or is not in the public’s best interest… In state after state, USA TODAY had to employ the assistance of its lawyers to gain access to the public records.” In the end, these reporters found at least 200,000 instances of alleged misconduct, and more than 30,000 officers who had been decertified by state oversight agencies.

When police unions act in order to protect a co-worker, that can put them at odds with protecting public safety and civil rights. It has also put them at odds with those in police leadership who want to better serve the public interest. In Phoenix, when a police chief pushed back on the city’s disciplinary review board for routinely overturning his recommendations to discipline officers, the police unions organized a no-confidence vote in him. After the chief held a news conference criticizing the union in 2014, the city fired him. Internal attempts at accountability can end in punishment, perhaps more often than the misconduct itself—although measuring that for certain would require access to the records police departments so often withhold.

Police killing cases that make it to trial, then, traverse an obstacle course which favors police: the union, the internal investigation, the secrecy. A prosecutor who routinely works with police to make criminal cases has to now make a case that compels a grand jury to indict a police officer—in proceedings themselves which are unknown until their conclusion, if at all. If a grand jury recommends an indictment—and “if the prosecutor wants an indictment she or he is probably going to get one because they do have so much control over the grand jury,” as law professor Andrew Leipold told The New York Times—then the prosecutor can charge the officer, and then, finally, there’s the trial itself.

With the Guyger case, it ultimately depended on the jury in her criminal trial. In the end, they weren’t permitted to watch the video of Guyger and her union president trying to get her to talk without being recorded. Maybe it didn’t matter. It could already have been clear to them that Guyger got special treatment. The members of this jury might also have been more aware of the problem than others have been—seven were black, five were non-black people of color, and four were white. In the end, they did something that should be routine: they returned a verdict holding a police officer to the same standard they might hold a civilian who shot and killed someone on sight.