Editor’s Note: Issac Bailey was the 2016 James K. Batten Professor of Public Policy at Davidson College. He was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman fellow and is the author of “My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Midst of Crime, Poverty, and Racism in the American South” (Other Press). Follow him on Twitter: @ijbailey. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
The five-minute, 55-second recording of Dallas police Officer Amber Guyger’s 911 call shortly after she shot Botham Jean is gut-wrenching.
It’s difficult to listen to the call not only because it captured the life slowly exiting the body of an innocent black man shot by a white police officer in an era in which those factors almost always lead to suspicion and unrest. “I thought I was in my apartment,” Guyger said, “and I shot a guy thinking he was. …”
She couldn’t complete the sentence. The innocent man she had shot in the chest was dying in front of her.
The call underscores, like little else can, the divide of mistrust between police and vulnerable communities they are supposed to be serving.
Had there been a reservoir of trust, there would be empathy all around for Jean, a beloved young black man, for his grieving family and friends – and for Guyger, who is white.
“Oh my God. I’m sorry,” Guyger said through labored breathing.
But there is no such trust reservoir to tap. It was drained for decades as communities of color saw their cries about mistreatment by police officers fall on deaf ears. It was drained every time a police department or police union seemed more concerned with protecting their own instead of pursuing justice and truth after police shootings and incidents of brutality.
A 12-year-old is killed by police in a park for carrying a toy gun in a state in which real guns can be carried legally, and police and police defenders declare it a justified shooting. A black man is choked to death on video in New York, but no one is held accountable. A black woman is pulled over in Texas for a minor traffic violation, is dragged from her car and beaten by police, then later found dead in a jail cell, and those upset by that series of events are told not to get carried away with righteous anger. That’s why it makes it so hard to extend the benefit of doubt to Guyger despite what’s on that recording.
“Hey bud, they’re coming, they’re coming. I’m sorry, man.”
Guyger made a mistake, a fatal, irrevocable mistake that forever altered the trajectory of a family, but a mistake nonetheless. It means she was neither motivated by malice nor responding solely to the color of Jean’s skin. She believed she was in her own apartment, a fact she noted nearly 20 times during the call. She expressed sorrow and regret, tried to soothe Jean and immediately called for help. Those are not the actions of a coldhearted murderer.
“Get up man.”
That doesn’t mean she shouldn’t face consequences. She must; it’s just that the recording presents compelling mitigating factors that must be considered when trying to determine just what kind of consequences she should face. Guyger shot into a dark or near-dark apartment. That can’t be tolerated, especially from a trained police officer – the kind of person who must be held to the highest standards. Officers must be certain the threat is real before unloading their weapon. When they don’t, innocent people are killed.
That we are only hearing this recording now – nearly a year after the shooting – also speaks to the distrust. Had police released it then, the rumors swirling about Guyger supposedly purposefully going to Jean’s apartment and killing him would not have been allowed to fester. That his family wasn’t given the opportunity to hear it long ago rubs salt in a forever open wound.
That, too, is why some will pick apart what Guyger also said – “I’m gonna lose my job” – and view it in the worst light, believing it proves she was less concerned about having just shot an innocent man than about the status of her badge. They won’t care that it is likely impossible to speak all the right words, and only the right words, during such frantic moments. And they remember the leaks from last year that seemed designed to paint Jean in a negative light, even though he was the victim.
“It was more focus, in my opinion, in trying to protect herself than there was trying to make sure Botham was OK,” Jean family attorney Daryl Washington told a Dallas-area TV station after listening to the recording for the first time.
The contents of that 911 call strongly suggests that extending grace to Guyger should be a part of the community’s pursuit of justice for Jean. It’s unfortunate that prior bad acts by police departments across the country have made it harder to make this a reality.