BALCH SPRINGS, Texas â€” The Dallas suburb where a white police officer shot and killed a black teenager as he left a party has a population that’s just 20 per cent white but a police department that’s 80 per cent white.
Balch Springs now confronts the same issues of race and law enforcement as Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore and other cities that have been thrust into the spotlight because of police killings of African-Americans.
Officer Roy Oliver was fired three days after the Saturday night shooting. But lawyers for 15-year-old Jordan Edwards’ family said Wednesday that the city must answer for more than Oliver, including a racial slur allegedly yelled at one of Edwards’ brothers moments after the shooting. The family also wants the officer to be charged with a crime.
Edwards, his two brothers and two other teenagers were driving away from an unruly house party when the officer opened fire on their vehicle with a rifle. The bullets shattered the front passenger-side window and struck Edwards.
It took a few moments for Edwards’ 16-year-old brother, who was driving, and other passengers to notice that he was slumped over in his seat. His brother pulled over and tried to call for help.
Police ordered him to step out of the car and back away. As he moved, he heard someone call him a racial slur and say he didn’t understand directions, according to family lawyers Jasmine Crockett and Lee Merritt.
“When you have a police force that’s completely the opposite the makeup of the town, I do think it’s a problem,” Crockett said Wednesday in an interview. “I do feel there’s a sense of fear that comes into a lot of officers’ minds, because it’s the fear of the unknown.”
Police Chief Jonathan Haber said in a text message Wednesday that authorities are still reviewing video of the shooting but had not heard any racial slurs so far.
Asked about the department’s racial makeup, spokesman Pedro Gonzalez said Balch Springs was “hindered” by competition from big-city police departments.
“Larger departments offer many other opportunities for advancements where Balch Springs PD is limited in advancement and salaries,” Gonzalez said.
Balch Springs is a working-class suburb of 25,000 people east of Dallas. Despite its proximity to the city, the community has plenty of open land and is small enough that visitors can easily drive through it without noticing.
The suburb has seen major demographic change during the last two decades. The population has gone from majority white to about 55 per cent Latino. Blacks make up 23 per cent and whites just 19 per cent, according to 2015 estimates. The mayor and city manager are both African-American women.
According to state records released Wednesday, 31 of the department’s 39 officers are white. Minorities comprise the remaining 20 per cent of the force â€” five African-Americans, two Latinos and one American Indian. Nationwide, about 27 per cent of local police officers were minorities, according to a 2013 federal survey.
Oliver was hired in 2011 after working in various jobs for smaller North Texas suburb, Dalworthington Gardens. A statement from the suburb said he worked there from 1999 to 2011 as a public works employee, public safety officer and dispatcher, and had a clean record. He served six years in the Army, with two deployments to Iraq, and later completed almost two years in the Texas National Guard. His attorney, Cindy Stormer, did not return messages Wednesday.
City Manager Susan Cluse did not address the department’s hiring practices, but said the police chief routinely tries to hear community concerns and had attended a “coffee with a cop” event on Saturday, before the shooting.
“We support our officers and our chief,” Cluse said in an interview. “He’s taking this to heart. We all have children. I’m an African-American mother.”
Police issued a statement Sunday, saying the vehicle carrying Edwards was backing up toward officers “in an aggressive manner.” But Haber corrected that statement after reviewing body camera video that showed the vehicle actually driving away from officers. Police have not released that video.
Attorneys for the Edwards family have issued statements discouraging protests or rallies in their son’s name.
Local activists and ministers met Wednesday with Dallas County District Attorney Faith Johnson, whose office has a unit dedicated to reviewing police shootings. The activists said afterward that Johnson assured them she was studying the case closely. The Dallas County sheriff’s office is also investigating.
Haber held news conferences Monday and Tuesday that included African-American community leaders standing next to him. On Tuesday, both men alongside the police chief said he deserved support for taking action and correcting his department’s mistake.
“We would not be standing here if we did not believe that this police department was worth backing,” said one of them, community activist Ernest Walker.
But Crockett, who praised Haber for swiftly firing Oliver, said including supportive black leaders in a news conference felt “disingenuous.”
“Black people are only looking to be treated like everybody else,” she said. “We just want you to do your job. It doesn’t really matter what colour you are.”
The same day that Oliver was fired, news broke of the Justice Department’s decision not to charge two white police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in the shooting death of a black man in 2016. And a white officer in North Charleston, South Carolina, pleaded guilty to murder in the fatal shooting of a 50-year-old black man in 2015.
“What these last few days tell us is we’ve got another thing coming,” said David Harris, a professor and criminal justice expert at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. “These issues are not gone. They were never gone. We just stopped paying attention to them for a while.”
Lauer reported from Dallas and Merchant from Houston.
Claudia Lauer, Nomaan Merchant And Jamie Stengle, The Associated Press