Very little about the shooting of Dallas resident Botham Shen Jean makes sense. The 26-year-old native of St. Lucia was at home on Thursday night when a Dallas police officer came to his door around 10 p.m., saw him inside, and shot and killed him. A neighbor captured the aftermath of the shooting on a cellphone video, which involved the officer—a blonde woman—calling authorities. Yet it took until today—four days later—for the Dallas police to release the name of the officer, Amber Guyger.
Fourteen hours after the shooting, Dallas Police Chief Renee Hall told reporters that the investigation would be turned over to the Texas Rangers, describing the situation as “very unique.” That night, when asked why no arrest had been made, Hall explained that the Rangers instructed the department to “hold off” pending further investigation. Members of Jean’s community gathered on Saturday to mourn him, even while the officer who shot him remained on the street and her name was kept from the public. Finally, nearly 48 hours later, she was arrested—in Kaufman County, not Dallas, where the shooting took place—and her name was released to the public.
Law enforcement authorities offered multiple explanations for the shooting: that Guyger lived in the same apartment building and had gone to the wrong door, that she had been serving warrants for an extended shift and was tired, that Jean’s door had been unlocked at the time that she entered, that she thought her own home was being robbed when she saw Jean in the apartment, that she simply didn’t notice the bright red doormat Jean kept outside of the door to his apartment, that Jean ignored the “verbal commands” of the intruder in his home.
Those claims may be true, but in most cases, authorities wait until the conclusion of a criminal investigation to explain the facts of a case, rather than the beginning. Regardless, it’s unusual for law enforcement authorities to offer mitigating circumstances explaining the suspect’s side of the story. (Since Guyger was off-duty and not acting in an official capacity, the incident isn’t considered an officer-involved shooting.)
It’s also unusual, in a high-profile case, for authorities to keep a suspect’s name out of reports for 48 hours. (By contrast, when Dallas police wrongly identified Mark Hughes as a suspect in the 2016 sniper attack, the department continued circulating the photo of him for more than a day, even after Hughes had turned himself in for his own protection.) Neither the facts of the case nor official statements since Friday suggest that authorities believe Guyger was misidentified as the suspect in Jean’s death. So why was her name kept out of reports?
In the absence of official information, unofficial sources have stepped in to fill the void. It’s common for amateur internet sleuths to attempt to solve crimes via crowdsourcing, which can be unreliable and even dangerous. However, anyone who wanted to know who killed Botham Jean in the days afterwards had no choice but to turn to Reddit detectives, who correctly identified Guyger as the shooter well before authorities made her name public.
Law enforcement isn’t naive about the role that Reddit, Twitter, and other online platforms play in spreading information. The same officials who decided to withhold Jean’s name for nearly two days were aware that her name was circulating online; they also knew that, along with her name, misinformation about the case was also spreading. Rumors online not only identified Guyger, they also claimed that she and Jean had been involved in a dating relationship, using a photo of Jean with an entirely different woman as proof. Had Guyger’s photo been released along with her name, it would have been easy for that rumor to have been debunked before it ever spread.
But the circulation of inaccurate information benefitted Guyger. If social media sources have obvious inaccuracies, then they come across as inherently untrustworthy. That, in turn, makes the official sources seem more valid, so when they spread a narrative painting her actions sympathetically, it benefits her—but it also erodes the public trust in the entire law enforcement apparatus, which has seemingly chosen to defend Guyger even as it prepares to prosecute her. Can we trust that the primary goal of officials who let bad information circulate by withholding her name and photo is to ensure that the public has the best and most accurate information available to them? Can we trust that their objective isn’t simply to protect Guyger from the consequences anyone else in her position might face?
The relationship between law enforcement and the black citizens like Jean, whom they’re sworn to serve and protect has been especially fraught in the Dallas-Fort Worth area for several years. Just two weeks ago, prosecutors in Dallas County successfully convicted police officer Roy Oliver for the murder of fifteen-year-old Jordan Edwards. In 2017, activist Raken Balogun was imprisoned without charges after the FBI arrested him in his home on suspicion of being a “black identity extremist.” After five officers were shot and killed by a sniper in 2016, Dallas Police wrongly identified Mark Hughes as a suspect, even after the department had killed the actual shooter; the department never apologized. In 2016, a Fort Worth woman named Jacqueline Craig was wrestled to the ground, tasered, and arrested after calling 911 to report that a neighbor had assaulted her son; the officer was suspended for ten days. In 2015, an unarmed black teenager named Christian Taylor was shot and killed by police in Arlington; no charges were filed. Earlier that summer, police officer Eric Casebolt was identified in a viral video slamming black teenagers to the ground and threatening to kill them with his service weapon for attending a pool party in McKinney; after investigating the case, the Texas Rangers turned their materials over to a Collin County grand jury, which declined to indict him.
That context is necessary for considering how the Dallas police and the Texas Rangers have acted in the days after the shooting of Botham Shen Jean. The narrative from law enforcement is extremely sympathetic to a white shooter who killed a black man in his own home, within a community where the public trust of police is already tenuous.
As in McKinney, the outcome of the Rangers’ investigation will eventually be turned over to a grand jury, this time in Dallas County. At that point, Guyger may be indicted for manslaughter, or for murder, or not at all. Meanwhile, Jean’s family—and the wider black community, aware of what could happen if the wrong officer came to the wrong door—can only wait and try to trust the authorities in the future.