Dallas Police Provide Lesson in Crisis Transparency

Thom Weidlich 09.13.18


A bizarre and tragic incident last week gave rise to an impressive example of transparency in crisis communications by the Dallas Police Department. The episode is also an example of how tough it is to grapple with information in a crisis.

On the night of Thursday, Sept. 6, an off-duty Dallas police officer shot and killed a man in his apartment. The police released a statement saying the officer had arrived at the building after her shift had ended and in full uniform. The officer lived in the building and entered the apartment mistakenly thinking it was her own, she said. She came upon and fatally shot the 26-year-old man who lived there.

The statement said the officer would be placed on administrative leave while an investigation was conducted.

Dallas Police Chief U. Renee Hall provided an update at a press conference the day after the incident. She disclosed the victim’s name, Botham Shem Jean.

“At the very early stages of this investigation — initial indications were that they were what we consider circumstances of an officer-involved shooting,” Hall said. “However, as we continued this investigation it became clear that we were dealing with what appears to be a much different and very unique situation.”

Therefore the incident was no longer being treated as an officer-involved shooting. The officer was being tested for drug and alcohol use and a warrant was being issued for her arrest for manslaughter. Hall said in response to a question that the officer’s name wouldn’t be revealed until she was arrested.

She also said her organization had called in the Texas Rangers (statewide police) to conduct an independent investigation.

Unanswered Questions

The disclosures left many unanswered questions, which the police chief admitted. It was unclear how the officer got into the apartment and if she and the victim knew each other. The episode has racial implications in that Jean was black and the officer is white. Family and others have complained she was getting preferential treatment.

The next day, Saturday, Sept. 8 at 3:50 p.m. (local time), the Dallas police provided another update (these were done on a blog site the department has called DPD Beat). The most important revelation was that the Texas Rangers had decided to hold off on an arrest warrant “until they could follow up on information that they received from the interview with the officer.”

About four hours later, the Dallas police updated again, revealing for the first time the officer’s name, Amber Guyger, despite her apparently not yet being arrested. She eventually was arrested on Sunday night, three days after the incident.

Again, people have complained that arrest took too long. But in terms of communications, it seems the Dallas police strove for transparency in a difficult situation involving one of their own and as information was evolving. It’s hard to judge because some details remain unclear.

Jean, the victim, graduated from Harding University in Arkansas. The school released a statement on his death. “The entire Harding family grieves today for the loss of Botham Jean, who has meant so very much to us,” it said.

Photo Credit: Ceri Breeze/Shutterstock

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