The Arlington Police Department has handled the death of Christian Taylor much differently than other police departments dealing with officer-involved shootings. That’s cold comfort to the family — their son is still dead — but from the moment that Taylor’s death became national news, the department’s response was to bring in the FBI to investigate, pledge transparency, and reveal information to the public when they had it.
That includes the details of the encounter between Taylor and Officer Brad Miller, the officer-in-training who responded to reports that Taylor had broken into an Arlington car dealership last Friday. Although the initial report from the department mentioned an “altercation” between Taylor and Miller, the more detailed version released Tuesday clarified that there was no physical encounter between the two men before Miller shot the unarmed black teenager four times. (Another interview given by Arlington Police Chief Will Johnson to the New York Times said the men “struggled.”)
Language like “altercation,” “scuffle,” and “struggle” is vague. It’s a characterization of an encounter, rather than a description of the actions taken by the people involved — and in this case, it was misleading to anyone who came away from those reports under the impression that Miller’s life was threatened by Taylor before he shot and killed the nineteen-year old.
Still, it’s rare for a police department to respond with an updated version of the facts before public pressure — often including video evidence — forces their hand. In the well-publicized case of Sandra Bland in Waller County, for example, the official account included that Bland had been arrested for assaulting an officer, despite the video indicating that the officer had placed her under arrest before she ever left her car.
It’s hard not to believe that the Arlington Police Department — which fired Miller yesterday and is turning over the details of its investigation to prosecutors to determine if the officer should face criminal charges — made the decision to opt for immediate transparency as a response to the increased scrutiny of police departments involved in shooting deaths of unarmed black citizens.
At the very least, it’s rare for a department to immediately fire an officer whose actions result in the death of an unarmed black citizen. The Texas Department of Public Safety has yet to fire the officer who arrested Sandra Bland. In Austin, former police detective Charles Kleinert opted to retire in the face of manslaughter charges in the death of Larry Jackson, Jr., an unarmed black man shot in the back of the head. And the officer who shot unarmed 26-year-old Jordan Baker in Houston was placed on administrative duty following the incident.
The fact that Arlington PD took immediate action, even without video, suggests that perhaps the way departments police themselves may be changing in the wake of the national movement around police violence and black lives.