Commentary Magazine

The Passion of Botham Shem Jean

AP Photo/Ryan Tarinelli

A week since an off-duty Dallas police officer shot and killed her neighbor in his own home, numerous unanswered questions bedevil investigators. Among them: How and why did the officer, Amber Guyger, end up in a different flat than her own that night? Did she mistake his apartment for hers, as she has claimed, or did she force her way inside, as some eyewitness reports seem to suggest?

More questions: Did the two neighbors know each other? Was there bad blood between them from the past? Or were they like two strange vessels floating in dark waters, the one accidentally ramming the other and sinking it? What really transpired between shooter and victim in that bleak, brief, and irrevocable instant that extinguished the life of Botham Shem Jean—a professional, a stalwart of his church, a black man, a human being?

America’s adversarial system of justice will, I expect, answer most of these questions in due course. But one fact is already inescapable: Even within the four walls of his castle, his home, Jean was not safe from undue police violence. As a CNN observer argued recently, even “living while black” can, well, end black men’s lives. And this should impel those of us on the right to drop the tendency to reflexively rally behind law enforcers in such cases and our corresponding tendency to dismiss claims about racial injustice in our system.

The arguments in favor of these reflexes are well-known to me. I know that day-in, day-out, legions of American law enforcers risk their lives to protect and to serve. That the vast majority of these men and women aren’t power-tripping bigots or trigger-happy lunatics. That, on the contrary, these are well-trained but fallible human beings, whose job requires them to make snap judgments in which life and death are at stake.

I know, too, that street thuggery and “black-on-black crime” are, statistically speaking, the far greater menace to African-American lives than potentially fatal encounters with the police. That often the police officers doing the shootings, whether justly or unjustly, are themselves black or Hispanic. That family members of those unjustly shot by police have many legal means for making themselves whole.

I know that in some of the most notorious cases, the suspects increased the danger to their lives by acting foolishly, defying verbal commands, and so forth. And I know that if officers feel too hamstrung by litigation or public scrutiny, it may actually cause them to become less vigilant in enforcing the law, thereby putting yet more black lives at risk.

All of this is true. I know these arguments through and through, and I have often made them, in these pages and elsewhere. And yet, and yet, there is the inescapable fact that, one night, Botham Shem Jean came to his own apartment, probably seeking a few hours’ shuteye after a long day at work, only to be shot and killed by an off-duty officer with questionable, if not outright malicious, judgment. One minute, Botham Shem Jean was a beloved son, coworker, and church member. The next minute, he was dead. And for what? Who can say?

The typical arguments marshaled in favor of the policing status quo can’t, and shouldn’t, be used to justify or pooh-pooh the raw, awful reality of this violation. Neither procedural safeguards nor statistics about black criminality should deafen us to the cries for substantive justice that ring out from the African-American community when a black man is shot within the four walls of his own home by an intruder with a badge.

Nor should conservatives harden their hearts when African-Americans point to the persistence of a certain racial pattern in these violent encounters. Assuming Guyger’s account is true, for example, did she instantly assume she was facing a “burglar” owing to the color of Jean’s skin? If so, is that evidence that implicit bias exists? We can’t yet be sure. Officer fatigue, bad lighting, a misunderstanding, the coarseness and alienation of American urban life—all of these may have been a factor. All could mitigate or extenuate Guyger’s culpability.

But the point is this: After Botham Shem Jean, conservatives should be a little less quick to insist that we don’t have systemic problems. I know I will.

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