A Double Tragedy

John Derewitz

Former Dallas Police officer Amber Guyger was convicted of murder and sentenced to prison in Dallas County in the last weeks. Guyger claimed she was in fear for her life when she entered Botham Jean’s apartment by mistake and killed him with her service weapon. After hearing powerful testimony from witnesses, the Jean family, Guyger’s family and her associates, the jury found Guyger guilty and punished her with 10 years in prison. For context, a murder conviction is a first-degree felony punishable by a minimum of 5 years in prison to a maximum of life in prison.

The trial left open several questions. How will the Jean family come to grips with the loss of a son and brother? Is the jury punishment sufficient for the family? The greater Dallas community? For some, likely not. Guyger was trained just as so many other officers are trained in Dallas and around the country. When an officer feels threatened, the use of a lethal weapon is permitted. As in most if not all police departments this is the common policy, the Dallas Police Department is not alone. Officers carry the moment life and death on their hip, just as Amber Guyger did when she walked into the wrong apartment and killed an innocent person.

As unpopular as it is at this time of injustice and cruelty, the time worn cliché that says the majority of our law enforcement officers are good cops is true. They can save you when you have fallen into a lake. They can save your child that has wrapped your car around a tree and is trapped inside. They perform welfare checks on your loved ones. But not in this case. At the crucial moment, Amber Guyger failed and proved she was not one of the good cops.

Botham Jean was killed at the hands of a poorly trained officer that had just worked a 13-hour shift. The jury found that Guyger intended to shoot Jean, which she even admitted to on the stand. Guyger was wrong the second she entered that apartment. She was wrong the second she failed to call for help. She was wrong to have her gun be the first thing that entered the room. And she was wrong to shoot an innocent person. If she believed that there was a burglar in her apartment her training should have taught her that a cooler head was needed on the scene. Indeed law enforcement testified that she did not follow proper protocol.

The questions about her punishment sentence have raised many intense debates. Is the sentence enough? Yes. Think about how, through a senseless act of violence, she has sentenced herself to 10 years in our prisons but she has given herself a life sentence of her own. Her life in our violent society has been sacrificed by her actions. She cannot ever be a cop again. Indeed, she may only get a job as who knows what, but you can be sure it won’t be as a board member at the Ford Motor company. She won’t be able to vote, to take a meaningful job, maybe even get a loan, an absolute necessity in our society. She condemned herself to life when she thought she was right to “defend her property” with her gun.

There have been calls for life without parole, exhortations to prison inmates to “make her life HELL” but, what would you have society at large do? We have fulfilled our end of the bargain as

citizens. What would these espousers of the violence that spurred Amber Geiger’s action prefer the community to do? She has been rationally charged, tried, judged and sentenced by a jury of her peers. In fact, it was an incredibly young and diverse jury that deliberated attentively throughout the proceedings.

America was founded as a country of the rule of law. That’s the system we all support. This case has been tried. The judgment handed down. The sentence executed. As I said at the beginning of this article, there are two tragedies here. Two lives have been snuffed out. One unjustly and one justly.

I do not write this to say that special circumstances exist deserving of lower punishment when it comes to murder. I write it to say that we can be upset about the outcome but must respect the process the jury went through in deciding this case.

I too am a victim. In 2001 I had a loved one brutally killed. Her killer has not, to this day, revealed where my beloved nieces remains were dumped after her murder. Her poor 23-year-old skeleton may be discovered some day in a landfill, or by someone looking into what their dog is gnawing on in the bushes during his daily walk. We will probably never know.

What I passionately believed in 2001, I still believe just as passionately now. The 18 years that separate my nieces death have only reinforced in me the belief that violence, be it physical, spoken, or bullied, is never the answer. We don’t need to love Amber Guyger or even forgive her because the memory of this atrocity has seared itself into the Guyger family’s minds and most definitely into the minds of the Jean family. They will never forget the day they were notified of this terrible crime. In my case I have never forgiven the certified psychopathic killer of my family member. That criminal pleaded guilty to manslaughter and only served 12 years out of 15 for his violent assault on my family. I have never forgotten her death but I have never debased myself wishing for his torture and death. We should not descend to howling for even more blood in the name of our culture and its laws.

If you need to vent your anger, then vent it at the system that created this mess. Amber Guyger was trained to do what she did as so many other instances of police misconduct have shown. The Dallas City councils’ underfunding of the training of the men and women that suffer from the intense psychological stress of enforcing laws leads to the inadequate training of officers in the use of deadly force. The Dallas city council has made itself directly responsible for what she did through their lack of attention to the welfare and training of their own police force. Would training have stopped this awful incident? No. Would it have helped yes. Would not allowing police personnel to work a 13 hour shift have helped. Yes definitely. No one should be in the field until they are exhausted. Especially when they have the power of a gun at hand.

Ignoring training procedures is at the root of this event. It is also responsible for the recent killing of Atatania Jefferson by Fort Worth policeman Aaron Dean. In both cases the officer’s acted before they thought. To deadly consequence. Had they been properly trained their training would have kicked in thus saving 2 innocent lives.

Our current atmosphere of bias and violence must be addressed before killings like this will recede. It is fed by not only by officer involved killings but by prosecutors and judges that disproportionally prosecute and sentence minorities to longer sentences than their white counterparts. It is, however, a system that we ourselves have put in power.

However, that which we have created is that which we must change. The vehicle to do that is to vote. Vote for criminal justice reform that is humane but just and consign Amber Guyger to the fate she has wrought. Vote for funding for your city to foster programs that address the real concerns of all our communities, community policing and law enforcement reform. We must work together so we can progress and help our communities come together as they did when they brought justice for Botham Jean.

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