This case was different. The murder conviction this week of off-duty Farmers Branch police Officer Ken Johnson only happened because fellow police officers worked hard to make it happen. The lead community activist, seeing that a conviction would depend on good police work, worked equally hard to make sure his movement would not come across as broadly anti-police.
“We didn’t declare war on the police,” veteran community activist Carlos Quintanilla told me. “We didn’t want to push that button. We were careful to distinguish between bad cops and good cops.”
Those different approaches by the authorities and by the community organizers made this a case that now may offer some slim ray of hope for everyone. The differences came about because of personal and strategic decisions made by leaders on both sides. Johnson will be sentenced Jan. 8.
On March 13, 2016, Johnson, then a 35-year-old Farmers Branch police officer with a record of excessive force, saw Jose Cruz and Edgar Rodriguez, then both 16, stealing from his personal vehicle at his apartment complex. When the two boys took off in a car, Johnson chased them in his SUV.
Rodriguez said later the boys knew Johnson was pursuing them. Johnson overtook them in suburban Addison. He rammed their car twice from behind, forcing it to crash. Then, in front of multiple witnesses, Johnson rushed forward and fired 16 shots into the car with a semiautomatic handgun, killing Cruz on the scene and severely wounding Rodriguez.
From the beginning, the important questions were about proper police procedure and whether anybody in authority cared. Johnson was off duty, which changed the rules somewhat, but he was still a cop.
The first indication that authorities cared about the rules and would take the case seriously came from former Dallas County District Attorney Susan Hawk. She met with the Cruz and Rodriguez families and vowed in an official statement that the case would be carefully and fully investigated.
Quintanilla says now that Hawk is the one who set the official tone. “She deserves credit for that,” he said.
Other law enforcement officials helped reinforce that tone. Farmers Branch Police Chief Sid Fuller did not hide behind pending litigation, nor did he pull punches. He spoke openly and frankly to reporters from the beginning, stating there was nothing in his department’s policy or protocol to justify the general scope of Johnson’s behavior.
Two police investigations ensued. One was carried out by the Texas Rangers, a division of the Texas Department of Public Safety, charged with investigating public integrity cases, among other things. The other was by the police department in Addison, where the death occurred.
At trial, several agencies and even former police officers produced evidence and testimony for the state and against Johnson. Johnson’s lawyers claimed he fired his gun because he was afraid the fugitives were going to shoot him first, but a former Texas Ranger told the jury that ramming the fleeing car and then racing forward to shoot into it was not the behavior of a man who feared for his life.
Two suburban Carrollton detectives trained in cellphone data extraction testified that Johnson had been using his phone in the days immediately after the shooting to search online for information about justifiable use of deadly force by police. Addison police gathered a wealth of eyewitness testimony, including photographic evidence.
Quintanilla, meanwhile, was organizing the community protest around the incident, demanding justice for the dead boy and his injured friend. He saw early on that achieving that justice was going to depend on a lot of cops telling the truth. He also knew from long experience that attacking police en masse causes them to band together.
I’ve been coming across Quintanilla in social protest stories for 20 years. He knows the pitfalls of a blunt-force attack on the cops because he’s done it. But he has a quality I have seen in certain other seasoned community organizers — John Fullinwider of Dallas, for example. They can see both sides.
They have long experience dealing with the people who allege mistreatment by the police. Over the years, they have learned that many of those people are legitimately aggrieved, but some are egregious liars.
They have the same amount of experience dealing with cops. At some point, on some late night, drinking lukewarm coffee over a negotiating table, they figured out that there are great cops — serious professionals who only want to serve and protect the community.
But how to get that message out to the street? Leaders on both sides — the community organizers and the police — have the same problem when things get hot. They can all have their armies stolen from them by people with bigger mouths.
Telling people they need to distinguish between the good cops and the bad cops is kind of a complicated message in a riot. Generally, people in that situation understand messages of “attack!” or “retreat!”
By the same token, the leaders who lead cops have a hard time telling their troops they need to toss out the rotten apples when there’s a mob outside tossing Molotov cocktails. The only message cops are going to take seriously under those circumstances is “defend the Alamo!”
That’s why Quintanilla says former prosecutor Hawk’s early signaling on this case was so important. She didn’t say whose side she was going to come down on because she didn’t know yet. But she said she was going to take both sides seriously. She treated people with respect. She didn’t slur or dismiss the pleas of the victims’ families.
Quintanilla didn’t say this to me, but I suspect Hawk’s words and the early statements of Fuller in Farmers Branch gave him the oxygen he needed to pursue a less bluntly anti-police strategy. I think guys like Quintanilla and Fullinwider have a lot in common with many cops I have known. Put them in a corner, they’re going to fight their way out. So don’t put them in a corner. When you give them some air, it’s surprising how reasonable they can be.
In fact, when we all have some breathing space and we all feel we’re being treated with basic respect, we all get how difficult these problems of violence and lawlessness are in our society. There’s nothing simple about it. We all have to pay attention to the truth.
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Yes, my heart bleeds for the family of Jose Cruz. Their son was taken from this earth. I weep for the family of Edgar Rodriguez, whose son suffered such grave injuries. But my heart bleeds, too, for the family and loved ones of Ken Johnson, a young man who set out in life to be brave and do good, whose life has been ruined and wasted even if by his own hand. We all yearn for some way that none of these people would have been in this picture at all.
The murder verdict in this case isn’t a call for kumbaya. Quintanilla and Fullinwider are never going to show up working for a police department. They’re always going to be outside looking in, and I suspect wherever they show up, there will be some level of ruckus going on.
Nor are the police going to stop fighting hard to protect their rights, prerogatives and safety in what are often the near-battlefield situations we put them in to protect us.
But I think this case offers us that small ray of hope, that bit of oxygen people need in order to find an element of reasonableness in the chaos. That narrow ray is a thing called respect. It worked here.