Weary after a 15-hour police shift, Officer Amber Guyger made mistakes that were both sloppy and deadly.
The death of Dallas resident Botham Jean, 26, in what she mistook for a home invasion will haunt both her and the city of Dallas for years.
But if a police officer shot an innocent resident in Fort Worth, Arlington or anywhere in Tarrant County, the case might never even go to court.
Tarrant County has the state’s first “treatment court” diverting officers to a recovery program instead of criminal prosecution if they suffer from a stress disorder, mental illness or substance addiction.
Yes, in Texas an officer accused of a crime can be sent for treatment instead of prison.
Then he or she can go back to work on our streets.
“It’s designed to get someone who has a mental health issue into treatment, instead of just throwing them away,” said Charley Wilkison, executive director of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT).
(His group often represents officers in criminal cases but is not representing Guyger, he said.)
Texas already has a long list of special “diversion court” rehabilitation programs, including one for veterans.
When the Texas Legislature created the new program for first responders last year, state Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, and state Reps. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth; Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford; and Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, were among those voting no.
Burton specifically raised the concern that the way the law is written, it might apply to a murder defendant.
Stickland questioned whether it violated the Equal Protection Clause.
The law’s author, state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-River Oaks, said Tuesday the law does not prevent prosecuting police for a crime. The district attorney and judge must agree before a suspect can be diverted to a treatment program, he said.
“I find it very unlikely that anyone facing a manslaughter or murder charge would ever be approved for this,” he said.
(But that’s mostly because the DA and judge have to face voters.)
The law has been in place only a year. County Criminal Court Judge Charles Vanover volunteered to preside over the first such court.
It’s meant for first responders facing a first-time DWI or drug case, for example, Geren said.
Asked if she would approve rehabilitation for an officer involved in a shooting death like the one in Dallas, District Attorney Sharen Wilson sent back the answer: “No.”
Wilkison, the CLEAT executive, said he doesn’t blame anyone for thinking police will get special treatment.
“I think we’re in favor of looking at diversion programs for other citizens too,” he said.
He is sympathetic when officers say they’re exhausted or overworked.
“We don’t know what happened [in Dallas], but the way we push and pull law enforcement personnel and stretch them all different ways leads to problems,” he said, describing the way police work overtime hours as “scandalous.”
Ironically, CLEAT hosts state-mandated training sessions around the state to teach offices how to de-escalate confrontations and avoid shootings. One session was Tuesday in Cleburne.
“But home invasions are occurring,” Wilkison said.
He repeated that he wasn’t talking about Guyger.
“But in normal circumstances,” he said, “I’m not going to tell someone not to defend their home.”
This was Botham Jean’s home.