How The Jordan Edwards Case is Different
It’s a familiar story with an unfamiliar twist.
On April 29, near Dallas, Jordan Edwards was killed by Balch Springs police officer Roy Oliver. The story, unfortunately, wasn’t unfamiliar. Edwards was leaving a party at which officers had been dispatched to investigate allegations of underage drinking. While Oliver and fellow Balch Springs officer Tyler Gross were inside, they heard a noise they thought was a gunshot coming from outside. They approached the car, in which the fifteen-year-old black teenager was a passenger along with his brother and two friends, and told them to stop the car. They did not, and—according to an arrest warrant that was issued late last week for Oliver—Gross shattered the window by punching it with his pistol as they began to drive forward. Oliver, at that point, used his Modern Carbine MC5 patrol rifle to fire into the car, killing Edwards. No weapons were found in the car.
The details are different, but the escalation of force isn’t dissimilar to the traffic stop that preceded the death of Sandra Bland in police custody, or the encounter in Ferguson, Missouri, that ended with a police officer killing teenager Michael Brown.
What happened next, however, diverges from similar high-profile narratives. Initially, Balch Springs Police Chief Jonathan Haber told reporters that Oliver fired his weapon at a car moving “aggressively” toward him—suggesting that the shooting was an act of self-defense. But within 24 hours of that statement, Haber explained that he “misspoke,” and that the car had actually been driving away from Oliver when he fired his rifle into the vehicle. Oliver was initially suspended, then the department announced that he had been fired. Medical examiners declared the cause of death to be homicide—a label that doesn’t indicate a criminal act, but rather that the death was caused by someone’s intentional actions. A friend of Edwards’ family told me that shortly after the examiner ruled the death a homicide, the family called him to say that “the chief is starting to do things right,” and that they were happy with the progress of the investigation.
More critically, though, an arrest warrant was issued for Oliver on Friday afternoon. Prosecutors in Dallas County charged Oliver with murder, and the officer turned himself in hours later. (He was released on a $300,000 bond later that night.) Prosecutors are often reluctant to file charges against police officers directly in these cases, instead preferring to use the grand jury system to determine if charges are appropriate. This isn’t a popular practice with advocates who would prefer to see officers in these incidents stand trial—cases involving police rarely result in indictments, which stands in sharp contrast to just about every other kind of case. A study from FiveThirtyEight found that in Dallas between 2008 and 2012, only one of 81 police shootings presented to a grand jury resulted in a criminal indictment, while federal grand juries return an indictment in 99.94 percent of cases. California passed a law in 2015 (which was overturned in court earlier this year) barring prosecutors from using the grand jury process to investigate police shootings, instead asking them to trust their own judgment.
It’s a stark contrast to the slow process of the criminal justice system in other officer-involved shootings. Mike Brown was shot in early August 2014; the grand jury decided against indicting officer Darren Wilson on November 24, 2014, three and a half months later. Sandra Bland died in police custody in July 2015; a grand jury found no cause for criminal charges in her death in December of that year (the following January, the officer who arrested her was charged with perjury). It took less than a week for Roy Oliver to be arrested for murder.
Days after Edwards’ death, lawmakers in the Texas Legislative Black Caucus gathered at the Texas Supreme Court building for a press conference to address the shooting. Oliver hadn’t yet been charged, but politicians like Senfronia Thompson, Helen Giddings, and Royce West used the word “murder” to describe what happened, characterizing Oliver’s police report as a “lie.” Names like Sandra Bland’s were invoked in the room, and they urged their fellow legislators to pursue justice on a systemic level. They wanted Oliver charged, but they also wanted criminal charges against the officers who backed his report.
Thompson praised Balch Springs for firing Oliver, but expressed concern that he’d end up at another department. (Thompson, who’s followed these issues for a long time in the House, may have recalled other times officers fired for violent behavior resurfaced with new jobs in Texas—sometimes simply making the jump from city police to the county sheriff’s office.)
The takeaway from the press conference might well be that murder charges being filed in a timely manner is both the justice system working properly and a deviation from the norm. But though murder charges for police officers are rare, murder convictions are a vanishingly small likelihood. Between 2005 and 2016, only 13 officers were convicted of murder or manslaughter after killing a civilian—roughly 1 in 5 of those against whom charges were filed, according to Bowling Green State University criminology professor Philip Stinson. That includes officers in high-profile cases like Baltimore’s Freddie Gray, in which six officers were charged with manslaughter or murder for the death of a 25-year-old black man who suffered a severe spinal injury while in a police van—none of whom were convicted of a crime. It also includes cases like that of Austin’s Charles Kleinert, who wasn’t charged in the shooting death of Larry Jackson Jr. after he pulled on the door of a bank that had been closed in the afternoon. Kleinert’s charges were dismissed after his lawyers successfully argued that he was immune from prosecution because he was a member of a federal task force at the time of Jackson’s death.
Even the filing of a murder charge at all carries risks for prosecutors. It’s satisfying for those who wish to see police held accountable to see them charged with what—as the lawmakers of the Legislative Black Caucus agreed—appeared to be murder. But for George Zimmerman—who was not a law officer when he killed Trayvon Martin—the evidentiary standard in such cases makes it difficult to secure a conviction. That can result in acquittals where convictions for a lesser charge, like manslaughter, might have been possible.
There’s still a lot left to play out in the case of Jordan Edwards. His family’s filed an excessive force suit against the Balch Springs Police Department and Oliver, and though the criminal justice system has moved swiftly so far, it’s not set up to rush an accused murderer to trial (for good reason). In the meantime, the Edwards family will be left to wait to see if this case remains unusual in terms of how it proceeds.