Cops On Trial, Understaffed and Under Fire: North Texas Criminal Justice in 2019

Nathan Hunsinger
Former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger walks with her attorneys into the Frank Crowley Courts Building.
Among a few other things, 2019 in North Texas was the year of the crime story. On a weekly basis, cops, crime and courts took center stage, dominating local news, Dallas' municipal elections and conversation.

As the calendar turns over to 2020, let's take a look at the stories to remember, and the ones too easily forgotten that made Dallas' year in criminal justice.

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In remarks following the sentencing of Amber Guyger, Allison Jean spoke pointedly about the issue of police training.
Meredith Lawrence
1. Former Dallas Police Officer Amber Guyger is convicted of murder, sentenced to 10 years in prison by Dallas County jury.

How we reported Guyger's conviction:

Former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger is guilty of murder, jurors decided Tuesday morning after about four hours of deliberation, rejecting her contention that she acted reasonably when she shot Botham Jean by mistake in his apartment in 2018. The same jury will decide on her punishment this week. She faces between five and 99 years in prison.

Following the verdict, Guyger sat at the defense's table in the courtroom weeping. Jean's family hugged each other and celebrated with prosecutors.

The jury got the case Monday afternoon, following about a week of testimony. The state's case focused on Guyger's decisions leading up to her shooting and killing Jean, who she believed was an intruder in her apartment. Jean was actually in his own home. Guyger, then a Dallas Police Department officer, had parked on the wrong floor and walked home to Jean's fourth-floor apartment, rather than her own third-floor unit.
And her sentencing:

After less than two hours of deliberation Wednesday afternoon, a Dallas County jury sentenced former Dallas Police Department officer Amber Guyger to 10 years in prison for the murder of Botham Jean.

Guyger killed Jean, a 26-year-old accountant, after she entered his apartment in the Cedars, believing it was her own. Guyger heard movement inside Jean's apartment, she said at trial, and went inside believing she was about to confront a burglar.

After District Judge Tammy Kemp read Guyger's sentence, activists flooded the seventh-floor atrium at Frank Crowley Courts Building, where TV cameras have posted up for the duration of the now eight-day trial.

"When it comes to a black person getting justice, in this system, this is what we see continuously," the Next Generation Action Network's Dominique Alexander said. "Is this enough for a life being taken?"

Back inside the courtroom, Jean's family spoke directly to Guyger.

"I don't want to say twice or for the hundredth time what you or how much you've taken from us," said Brandt Jean, Botham Jean's brother. "I hope you go to God with all the guilt and all the bad things you've done in the past. Each and every one of us may have done something that we're not supposed to do. If you truly are sorry, I can speak for myself. I forgive you."

Brandt Jean said he loves Guyger just like any other person and wants the best for her.

"I wasn't ever going to say this in front of my family or anyone. I don't even want you to go to jail. I want the best for you because that's exactly what Botham would do," Brandt Jean said. "I don't wish anything bad on you."

Brandt Jean then asked Judge Kemp for permission to hug Guyger and embraced a weeping Guyger.
2. Mesquite cop Derick Wiley shot an unarmed man in the back. A Dallas County jury found him not guilty of aggravated assault. 

Wiley shot Arlington's Lyndo Jones after responding to a call about a car alarm going off in a parking lot on Town East Boulevard.

When Wiley arrived, he ordered Jones out of a pickup. Wiley thought Jones was trying to steal it. Jones was actually trying to disable the alarm on his own vehicle. Footage from Wiley's body cam painted a vivid image of what happened.

Jones gets out of the truck, and Wiley orders him to get on the ground.

"Stay on the ground before I fucking shoot you," Wiley orders Jones.

"Yes, sir, I'm on the ground," Jones says.

After Jones gets on the ground, Wiley climbs on top of him and starts pulling Jones' hands behind his back. At one point, Wiley's knee appears to be on Jones' knee. That's what made Jones stand up and run away from Wiley, according to Lee Merritt, one of Jones' civil attorneys.

As Jones runs away, Wiley shoots him.

From July 22, 2019:

Throughout the (trial), Wiley and his defense team argued that the officer only shot Jones because he feared for his life. The video, they said, didn't tell the whole story.

“The miracle is in the detail and the analysis and having to break down 56 seconds of somebody’s life-threatening decision-making process,” defense attorney Rafael Sierra said.

Wiley told the jury he thought Jones was armed when he began to run away.

"I thought I was going to die out there," Wiley said, according to reporters in the courtroom.

Prosecutors claimed that Wiley's aggressive behavior made the shooting inevitable.

“This is a case of a reckless police officer, who from the minute he showed up was hellbent on violence. He committed a crime," Dallas County prosecutor Bryan Mitchell told jurors. "When you commit a crime you get prosecuted.”
3. Dallas police catch flak for right-wing social media posts

In early June, the Plain View Project, a database put together by a collective of Philadelphia lawyers, went online, detailing social media posts by police officers that the group believed "could undermine public trust and confidence in police."

Dozens of posts from Dallas police dotted the project, sporting Confederate symbols, racist language and the rhetoric of "Three Percenter" militia members.
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Facebook posts from current and former Dallas Police Department officers
Plain View Project
4. Dallas gets answers, but not the ones it really wants, from long-awaited police staffing survey. 

For the last couple of years, as complaints have grown louder and louder from residents, politicians and police officers that the Dallas Police Department is dangerously understaffed, the city has done everything it can to boost the department's ranks. Raises have been given out. Starting salaries have increased and recruiting efforts have been upped.

This year, Dallas finally got a look at the results of one of its most significant efforts — a staffing study commissioned to address the crisis. Members of the City Council were a little unsatisfied with the results.

From August:

The vibe coming from Dallas City Council on Monday morning as they were briefed on the long-awaited Dallas Police Department staffing study was recognizable to anyone who's ever disappointed someone with a Christmas gift. Council members appreciated what KPMG, one of the United States' biggest auditing firms, had done for them, sure. But they were less than blown away by the end product.

Ian McPherson and Caoimhe Thornton, KPMG's two lambs to the City Hall slaughter, did their best to inoculate their $500,000 work product from criticism before the council got rolling.

"It is too simple to say it is just a number," McPherson said. "You're dealing with a very complex organization that's been built over many decades."

The problem, as McPherson and Thornton soon found out, is that many on the council wanted "just a number" — a magic hiring recommendation that would tell the city just how many officers it needs to add to DPD to make the department, and the city, whole again.

"We heard for a long time that this study was going to give us the number that we needed," council member Adam McGough said, questioning city staff. "Was there a certain time when either the scope or the focus shifted?"

Rather than a simple answer, KPMG presented three scenarios that could get the department close to its goal of responding to every Priority 1 911 call in under eight minutes. At current staffing levels, according to the report, the police department can leverage 806 weekly overtime hours and meet 98% of demand. It can hire 703 officers and meet 100% of demand without giving out any overtime work, or spread 881 overtime hours around and meet all of Dallas' demand by hiring 348 more officers.

It's just up to the City Council to decide what its priorities are.
5. Chief Hall disappears. 

Dallas' mystery of the summer was the status of police Chief U. Renee Hall. Hall took medical leave in July, and the rumor mill took over, as Observer columnist Jim Schutze described in August.

I’m not going to repeat the rumors here for a couple of reasons. One, they’re rumors. Secondly, probably more important, my own suspicion based on the meager amount of information I have been able to glean is that Chief Hall really is recovering from a very tough medical procedure that requires long debilitating convalescence.

Piled on top of what she may be going through physically, the rumors, if she heard them, could be devastating. I’ll give you one hint: Take every crazy, dark, loony, corrupt, asinine thing that really has happened at Dallas City Hall in the last decade, roll it all up in one big ball, apply it to one person and you’ve got a fair approximation of the rumors flying ’round about Chief Hall right now.

I blame that 100% on (Dallas City Manager T.C.) Broadnax, for his screw-you attitude, and on The Dallas Morning News for their attitude, which, when you peel the onion, is, “We know, but we dastn’t share.”

How do they imagine people are going to react? How else could people react but by going straight to the rumor mill? Why do they think there is such a thing as a rumor mill?
Later in August, Hall was back on the job, but the questions about her job security remain.

6. Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson cries foul over Dallas' murder rate. 

In December, Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson sent the proverbial strongly worded letter to Hall and Broadnax, demanding a concrete plan to address Dallas' murder rate, which has seen to stark, year-over-year increases. Here's Schutze, again:

Last week Johnson publicly released a letter to the city manager insisting that he and the police chief do something. He starts off: “I have exercised patience with respect to our city’s crime fighting efforts in the months since I was elected mayor …”

Wow, he thinks he’s the one exercising patience? Somebody needs to tell him. The whole city has been exercising extreme patience, along with fear, anger, frustration and confusion. The highest murder rate in a dozen years tends to do that.

“I have not heard anyone articulate a concrete plan to reduce violent crime in our city by a particular amount and by a certain time,” he says in his letter.

Yes, well, Mr. Mayor, that’s the sort of thing most of us were hoping we might hear from you. You know. As mayor?

“Accordingly,” he says “I hereby request that you instruct the police department to produce a comprehensive written plan to reduce violent crime in Dallas by a time certain. This plan should include clear and numerical violent crime reduction goals and timelines, specific strategies for achieving these reductions and an analysis of the trends and drivers of violent crime in our city.”

Sure. And if the police department can pull that off, I personally would like also to see the cops turn water into wine, multiply fishes and loaves and make the Empire State Building disappear. While they’re at it.

7. Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot aggravates almost everyone with his decision not to prosecute low-level theft offenders

From April:

Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot defended his recent decision to stop prosecuting certain quality-of-life crimes over the objections of members of the Dallas City Council's Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee on Monday. The reforms, Creuzot said, are meant to make Dallas a safer, more equitable city, not to enable those who commit low-level offenses, as critics of the new policies have accused Creuzot of doing.

Following an April 11 memo issued by the district attorney, Creuzot's office will no longer prosecute those busted for marijuana possession for the first time, those caught with just a trace amount of drugs or misdemeanor criminal trespass cases that do not involve someone trespassing on residential property. Most controversially, Creuzot also plans to decline prosecuting anyone caught stealing $750 or less worth of necessary personal items, like baby formula, diapers or food.

"What we are focusing on is not on processing cases, it’s on reducing recidivism and reducing cost and we're doing so based on data and research," Creuzot told the committee. "What we intend to do is to make a safer city."

Everyone from Dallas' police unions to state officials like Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton have criticized Creuzot for his changes, charging him with everything from giving criminals a license to steal to stereotyping the poor as criminals.

"Reform is one thing," Abbott and Paxton said to Creuzot in an April 18 letter. "Actions that abandon the rule of law and that could promote lawlessness are altogether different."

Abbott, Paxton and Dallas Police Association President Mike Mata have accused Creuzot of trying to usurp Texas' legislative process.

"If there's something that needs to be changed legislatively, then he can run for a legislative office and change it in Austin for the whole greater good of the state of Texas," Mata said last week. "I think you get on a very, very slippery slope when you start to legislate from the bench."
Michael Dunn
Seagoville Police Department
8. Another Dallas County cop, another murder indictment. 

From our cop trial roundup released in September, just before Amber Guyger went on trial:

On June 12, Michael Dunn and other Farmers Branch Police Department officers were watching a truck they believed to be stolen in a Dallas parking lot. When Dunn and the other officers began walking toward the truck, according to police, the driver of the truck, Juan Moreno Jr., began to pull out of the parking lot. Dunn then pulled his gun and shot and killed Moreno.

A Dallas County grand jury indicted Dunn on murder charges in June, outraging Dallas' police unions, who believed the eight-day police investigation before the case was handed over to the district attorney's office was too short.

"My biggest concern is how we got there," Dallas Police Association President Mike Mata said. "How did we get to that grand jury? I know from my 25 years on this department ... We have never had an investigation completed in less than eight days ready to hand over to the DA. Never."
9. State troopers come to Dallas. 

As violent crime boiled up this summer, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott sent state troopers to areas identified by Hall and the police department's command staff. The troopers were not received with open arms.

"I want to be clear that I support the police and appreciate all of the sacrifice and hard work that is put into keeping our city safe," Dallas City Council member Adam Bazaldua said on Aug. 2. "Right now, we have a situation that is making my community feel not only unprotected but targeted and profiled. We cannot stand here and pretend that a tone has not been set on a national level that has understandably created divisions with communities of color and our law enforcement."

Abbott ended the special trooper deployment in late September.

10. Brandoniya Bennett gets caught in the crossfire

Nine-year-old Brandoniya Bennett died on Aug. 14 as she sat in her apartment, an innocent bystander caught in a shootout.

According to Dallas Police Maj. Danny Williams, the first link in the chain of events that led to the girl's death was a dispute between two teenagers. The rappers — police identified one of them, Tyrese Simmons, as a suspect — got into an argument at the Roseland Townhomes. Simmons turned himself in to Dallas County jail Thursday night.

After bystanders broke up the fight, Williams said, Simmons, 19, returned with a gun, looking for his rival. When Simmons' intended target didn't come to his apartment door, Simmons ran around to the back of the complex, Williams said, and shot into what turned out to be the wrong apartment, hitting Bennett.
Simmons later turned himself in and remains in Dallas County jail. Davonte Benton, also 19, was arrested and charged with capital murder in September.

11. In Fort Worth, Atatiana Jefferson is killed by police after a night at home playing video games with her nephew. 

"Atatiana Jefferson, 28, was playing video games with her 8-year-old nephew in October when a neighbor called a non-emergency police hotline after noticing the home's front door was open," Observer editorial fellow Lucas Manfield wrote last week, after Fort Worth Police Officer Aaron Dean was indicted for Jefferson's murder. "Dean responded, and shot and killed Jefferson after she came to the window to investigate."

"Body cam footage of the incident released by the Fort Worth Police Department showed Dean walking around to the back of the home before seeing Jefferson approach the window. He shouted, 'Put your hands up! Show me your hands!' before immediately shooting through the window. In the video, Dean never identifies himself as a cop."

12. Muhlaysia Booker became a victim, then she became a martyr. 

In April, Edward Thomas assaulted Muhlaysia Booker after the two got into a fender bender in the parking lot of the Royal Crest Apartments in the 3500 block of Wilhurt Avenue in Dallas.
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Kendrell Lavar Lyles
Collin County

After the wreck, the two argued about the accident before Thomas began beating Booker. Others joined in the attack and could be heard shouting homophobic slurs. Video taken by onlookers went viral and Booker, a transgender woman, became a symbol for the multiple attacks suffered by members of Dallas' trans community in 2019.

Five days after the assault, Booker thanked her supporters at a rally.

"This time, I can stand before you, where in other scenarios, we're at a memorial," Booker said.

A month later, Booker was dead.

Cops found Booker, 23, laying face down on Valley Glen Drive near Ferguson Road just before 7 a.m. May 18. Booker wasn't carrying ID, leading to a delay in her identification. Two days later, when police announced who she was, the uproar was immediate.

DPD arrested Kendrell Lavar Lyles, 34, for killing Booker in June. He remains in jail.