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Botham Jean And Police Accountability


We'd like to turn now to that disturbing story out of Dallas - the shooting death of Botham Jean, a 26-year-old man who was shot and killed in his Dallas apartment by an off-duty police officer, Amber Guyger. Guyger has claimed that she mistakenly walked into Jean's apartment thinking it was her own and killed him believing that he was an intruder. She's been charged with manslaughter and released on bond. And, amplifying the matter, of course, is that Botham Jean is African-American, and Amber Guyger is white.

But the victim's family and other members of the community have expressed concern that authorities will not investigate the matter thoroughly given that the shooter is a police officer. We wanted to look into that question and ask whether police officers are treated differently in the criminal justice system, so we called Philip Stinson. He is a criminologist, a former lawyer and a former police officer. He has compiled data on police shootings and crimes committed by officers, and he is with us now.

Professor Stinson, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

PHILIP STINSON: Well, Michel, it's good to be with you.

MARTIN: Could you just give me your first impressions of this story from what you know so far?

STINSON: Well, the facts as I've heard them don't seem to add up. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense. There's a number of things that are troubling to me. One of the things that I noticed first off is that the officer while off-duty has completely lost situational awareness. She's not aware, apparently, of what floor she's on in her own apartment building. Apparently, she parked on a floor that's different from where she usually parks in the parking garage.

And then the next thing that I find that's sort of interesting is that the officer - apparently, again, off-duty - was still in full uniform, wearing her badge and her gun and, you know, seemingly acting in the role of a police officer. And I think that really helps us get to her mindset. You know, police officers are often socialized into a subculture that's based on an us versus them mentality whereas the good guys are the police officers and everyone else is potentially a bad guy.

MARTIN: Now, one of the things that you told us is that you said that officers are definitely treated differently than civilians - that if a civilian shot somebody, the law enforcement would start with the assumption that it was homicide but that if a police officer shoots somebody, they start with the assumption that it's justified. But you're saying that that assumption of justification carries forward even if an officer is off-duty, as Amber Guyger was in this case.

STINSON: Absolutely. And I think that responding patrol officers and investigators who respond to the scene in an aftermath of a fatal police shooting involving an off-duty officer - I think they start with a different set of assumptions than if you or I walked out of the studio today and shot and killed somebody. You know, if you or I did that, they'd start with the assumption that it was a criminal homicide and that it was probably murder. And they'd protect the shooting scene, the crime scene. They - there's integrity with the investigation.

But there's just a different set of assumptions when it involves one of their own, when it involves a police officer. Now, here, she's off-duty, but she's in uniform, and I think that also helps set the stage, if you will, for investigators to think, well, this is law enforcement-related. She was acting in her role as a law enforcement officer.

MARTIN: What are some of the other ways that police in particular or law enforcement officers in general are treated differently? For example, are they questioned differently? Do they have - I don't know how else to describe this - more rights?

STINSON: Well, they do in many places. So usually, where we see this, it's jurisdictions or states that have public sector collective bargaining. And you'll find that a collective bargaining agreement, a union agreement will provide certain procedural safeguards where an officer can't be questioned for so many hours or so many days after the officer was involved in a shooting. And the idea there is so that they have an opportunity to meet with their union representatives so they have the opportunity to meet with legal counsel.

And it's kind of complicated, but there are other considerations that come into play. For example, there's a U.S. Supreme Court case from the 1960s called Garrity v. New Jersey. And, in that case, the court held that if an officer is going to be questioned about something administratively, they're going to be required to answer questions as part of their job, the statements that an officer gives cannot be used against the officer criminally. In other words, they'd have to elect - they'd have to build their criminal case in some other way.

MARTIN: So you are - you wrote that more than 900 officers are arrested annually and that about 60 percent of the crimes for which they are arrested occurred when they're off-duty. Why is - what do you think that's about?

STINSON: Well, you know, it's difficult to draw a bright-line distinction between off-duty crimes and on-duty crimes of police officers. And when I look at the phenomenon of police crime - crime committed by sworn law enforcement officers - you have to consider the fact that police officers carry their guns and badges with them when they're off-duty. They have the training and experience of working as a law enforcement officer. They have a type of job that you just don't turn off when you go home at the end of your shift.

MARTIN: Well, talk though, if you would, about - does your data offer any conclusions about policy steps that should change going forward? Like, you were telling us that there are - you kept cases in your database of officers using their guns in some weird ways - like, you know, pulling a gun in a dispute over where a neighbor puts their trash can, you know, pulling a gun on a stepdaughter when she didn't do her homework. I mean, things - you've got, you know, some really weird...

STINSON: Those are actually real cases.

MARTIN: Yeah, I know. I mean, I understand. So I guess what I'm asking is, does that suggest anything to you?

STINSON: Well, with those off-duty crimes - and we call those bizarre violence incidents, incidents you just cannot rationally explain, doing strange things with a gun that nobody - no rational person would do. You know, it leads me to the conclusion that it's time to perhaps reconsider the policies of police departments across the country that encourage if not require off-duty officers to carry their guns with them. I don't know that it's a good idea.

And, you know, when we look at the off-duty gun violence, 42 percent of the cases where an officer's arrested for an incident that involves off-duty gun violence, 42 percent of those cases are also alcohol-related offenses. In other words, the officer was intoxicated at the time they committed some sort of crime of violence involving a firearm while off-duty. And that's troubling.

So I don't know that it's simply a matter of better training or more training or changing policies. But I think we have to look at this and say, is this where we want to be? Do we really - is it really important that officers have their guns and be prepared to step into their law enforcement officer role at all times 24/7? Or have we come to a point in our society where we want to have people step back from their jobs and have real off-duty time? And I think that's an important question to address.

MARTIN: That's Philip Stinson. He's an associate professor in the criminal justice program at Bowling Green State University. He also leads the Police Integrity Research Group.

Philip Stinson, Professor Stinson, thank you so much for speaking with us.

STINSON: Well, thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.