Don’t expect Amber Guyger’s conviction to change anything

By Matthew Muir | Staff Writer

Amber Guyger was a Dallas police officer. Botham Jean was a risk assurance associate and Guyger’s neighbor. On Sept 6 2018, a meeting between the two ended with Jean dead.

A jury sentenced Amber Guyger on Wednesday to 10 years in prison — though she’ll be eligible for parole in five — Wednesday for the 2018 shooting which left Botham Jean dead in his own apartment. Guyger’s defense was that she entered the apartment by mistake thinking it was hers — an honest mix-up perhaps, but a flimsy excuse for taking an innocent man’s life in a home invasion.

Guyger’s conviction is notable for more than the national attention the case captured; it finally breaks the mold of de facto immunity for police officers who kill people of color. But one murder conviction and a pathetically short sentence is nowhere near enough to rectify the wrongs of our country’s justice system.

Remember Eric Garner? Garner was killed by New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo’s chokehold — a move long banned by the New York Police Department — and the asthma attack it caused. As Garner lay face down under a pile of cops gasping his now infamous final words, “I can’t breathe,” no one came to his aid. His alleged crime? Illegally selling cigarettes. The result? Complete failure to indict Pantaleo. Pantaleo was eventually fired but remains a free man.

What about Philando Castile? Officer Jeronimo Yanez ended a routine traffic stop by shooting Castile multiple times in front of his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter. Castile had just informed Yanez he had a firearm in the car that he was licensed to carry. Yanez’s defense claimed Castile didn’t comply with Yanez’s commands. A more reasonable assessment is that Yanez panicked. Still, Yanez was acquitted. One more body, one more firing, but no conviction.

These are just two cases of police killing unarmed (or at least in the case of Castile, non-threatening) black men through excessive force and not facing justice. In the wake of these cases, it’s hard to trust the justice system to hold police accountable. Guyger’s conviction neither changes that, nor feels like retribution for those lost to police violence. One right can’t hope to undo years of wrongs.

In my life, I’ve been lucky. The few interactions I’ve had with police outside of my job writing for The Baylor Lariat have all been unremarkable and respectful, and I never felt threatened or in danger. If I weren’t white, could I expect the same outcomes? Years of killings, acquittals and non-indictments suggest not.

While I firmly believe most cops are decent people just trying to do the best job they can, the pattern of violence against African Americans in particular taints the image of every law enforcement agency across the country. When these bad cops aren’t brought to justice for their actions, be they acts of prejudice or incompetence, it sets a dangerous precedent that law enforcement is above the law, and it sends the message that the judicial system is not here to protect and serve the general public, let alone its minority members.

Amber Guyger’s conviction for the wrongful death, no, murder of Botham Jean is not a sign of changing times. It’ll take a far larger systemic shift to achieve the true justice Jean and every other black person wrongfully killed by police needs.