In Arlington, How Not to Respond to a Police Shooting

The Arlington Police Department's bumbling response to the death of O'Shae Terry has only inflamed community tensions. Meanwhile, the DA has gone radio silent ahead of the election.

Deputy Chief Carol Riddle and James Hawthorne, chairman of the Arlington NAACP's criminal justice committee.
Deputy Chief Carol Riddle and James Hawthorne, chairman of the Arlington NAACP's criminal justice committee. Michael Barajas

The meeting started cordially enough, but quickly turned sour. Angry community members lobbed question after question at a representative of the Arlington Police Department: “How do I know your police officers are not going to kill my child?” “How can we expect cops in the field to know the rules if you don’t?” “Why are you even here?”

On October 9, about 50 people gathered inside Arlington’s New Life Fellowship church for an NAACP meeting on the investigation into the September 1 death of O’Shae Terry, a black man killed during a traffic stop he’d attempted to flee. Deputy Chief Carol Riddle, tasked with fielding questions, answered almost none of them. At times, Riddle was tone deaf — as when, in response to one woman explaining that it scares her that police frequently stop her sons, Riddle stressed the importance of traffic enforcement and identifying anyone who comes in contact with officers.

arlington
Carol Riddle  Arlington Police Department

The crowd audibly groaned at other responses, like when Riddle refused to explain even general police department policies around traffic stops.

“I’m not going to stand up here and talk about the policy because I don’t know it word for word, and I don’t want to not know it word for word by memorization, and then be accused of not knowing my own policy later on,” she sputtered. The crowd, incredulous by that point, kept pressing.

Anger over Terry’s death has simmered as the weeks have dragged on with few answers or explanations from officials. Like many departments, Arlington police essentially investigated the matter themselves, forwarding whatever they found to Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson. Wilson, a Republican who’s up for re-election in November, hasn’t issued a public statement or answered media questions about Terry’s death, despite the unease the killing has caused in Arlington’s black community.

So far, the reaction to Terry’s death stands in stark contrast to neighboring Dallas County, where DA Faith Johnson, another Republican running for re-election, has proudly prosecuted officers for on-duty shootings. After a Dallas cop shot a man to death inside his own apartment last month, Johnson gave several interviews and press conferences on the case. The police chief, who tapped an outside agency to investigate the death, has since proposed changing how Dallas responds to officer-involved shootings.

While those steps can ease tension between police and policed after a controversial killing, officials’ response to Terry’s death has only inflamed it. The crowd gathered at New Life Fellowship ultimately left their meeting with Arlington police angrier than when they’d entered. Arlington NAACP President Alisa Simmons called the meeting “a colossal waste of our time.”

O’Shae Terry’s death has mostly been background noise to a series of other troubling North Texas police shootings. Four days before Terry’s shooting, a Dallas County jury convicted officer Roy Oliver of murder for killing 15-year-old Jordan Edwards when Oliver shot up a car full of unarmed teens. Five days after Terry’s death, Dallas police officer Amber Guyger killed Botham Jean, once again generating international headlines about police violence in America.

Local activists have called all three killings examples of deadly and unnecessary police escalation. On September 16, casket-carrying protesters blocked traffic outside AT&T Stadium before a Dallas Cowboys game. Earlier this month, they disrupted a community meet-and-greet with Arlington police. Each protest called for accountability in the deaths of both Jean and Terry.

arlington police shooting
Passenger Terrance Harmon, left, and Lee Merritt, the attorney representing Terry’s family, at the NAACP meeting.  Michael Barajas

People at the NAACP meeting said Terry’s killing, like Jean’s, fits a larger pattern, one where police smear victims publicly while remaining tight-lipped about the officers who kill them. In Terry’s case, Arlington police issued a statement hours after his death that implied he’d fled a traffic stop with an officer’s arm stuck in the window. The following day, police publicized photos of drugs, a handgun and an extended magazine they’d found inside Terry’s car after the shooting. Lee Merritt, an attorney for the Terry family, insists the items were out of reach, in a bag in the back seat, and says they don’t justify what he continues to call an unarmed shooting.

For several weeks, Arlington police wouldn’t name the officer who killed Terry, Bau Tran, due to alleged threats against him. However, the department quickly released footage from Tran’s body camera, which the NAACP played during its community meeting. Terrance Harmon, the 24-year-old passenger inside the car with Terry, attended the gathering with Merritt and even narrated parts of the encounter as the room watched in stunned silence. The video shows the officer climbing onto the running board of the SUV as Terry starts the ignition and rolls up the windows. The officer reaches inside the passenger window with his right arm, pulls it out to grab his pistol, then sticks it back inside to fire several rounds at Terry, who runs the car into a ditch.

Police experts have already questioned whether Terry’s killing was justified. Jerry Staton, a former Austin police detective who testifies frequently in such cases, told me this week, “There’s nothing obvious in the video that would justify what we saw, that would justify any use of deadly force.”

View body camera footage of O’Shae Terry’s shooting here. Courtesy/Arlington Police Department. 

Terry, whose arrest record didn’t include any violent offenses, had been stopped for an expired registration tag. Tran, the cop who shot him, had been called as backup because the officer who initiated the stop said she smelled weed. That such an encounter could so quickly escalate into deadly force made the crowd uneasy. Does department policy allow cops to shoot at suspects who flee from traffic stops?

The crowd kept asking, but Deputy Chief Riddle told them to file a records request if they wanted to know. I did so the next morning. As of this writing, the department still hasn’t provided its policies.

When I reached Lieutenant Christopher Cook, the Arlington Police Department’s public information officer, or PIO, he seemed to realize they’d botched the NAACP meeting.

Cook explained that he and Arlington Police Chief Will Johnson didn’t make the meeting because they had been at a conference in Florida — Johnson to be sworn in as VP of a police chiefs union, Cook to win what he called the “PIO of the year” award. He insisted the department continues to learn how to better handle shootings and the community outrage that sometimes follows them. He said that’s why the department released video of Terry’s death, which it legally could have withheld. “Nowadays, you don’t sit on video,” Cook told me. “You push it, whether it’s good, bad, indifferent.”

arlington
Christopher Cook  Twitter

Cook said the department placed Tran on “restricted duty,” leaving him on the payroll but seizing his gun and badge. “He’s in the property room,” Cook assured me. “No contact at all with the public.”

Cook also explained that Arlington police essentially investigate themselves for on-duty killings. An internal “administrative investigation” determines whether the officer broke any department rules. On Friday, Arlington police announced that they’d finished their separate “criminal investigation” into Terry’s death. Tran wouldn’t provide a statement to detectives investigating whether the killing was a crime.   

The criminal investigation now sits with Tarrant County DA Wilson, a Republican who faces re-election next month and declined numerous requests for an interview. Despite community anger over Terry’s death, the DA hasn’t issued a public statement about it more than a month and a half later.

In fact, Wilson appears to have gone radio silent ahead of next month’s election. This month’s NAACP meeting was originally scheduled to be a forum for Wilson and her Democratic challenger, Albert Roberts, a former prosecutor running on a progressive platform. Simmons, the NAACP chapter president, says she only invited Arlington police to talk about Terry’s death after the DA canceled. When Simmons asked for another date with the DA, Wilson’s scheduler said she’d be happy to meet with the group — in 2019.

When the crowd asked about Wilson, Simmons said she’ll keep pressuring the DA to show up before election day. “Stand by your record,” she said. “What are you running from?”

At the NAACP meeting, Simmons reminded the crowd that Terry’s killing followed the deaths of three other black men in Arlington police custody over the past three years, including the shooting of an unarmed 19-year-old college football player. “In each of those cases, we did not get what we wanted and what those families and victims deserved, which was justice,” she said. According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Tarrant County hasn’t indicted a police officer for a fatal shooting in more than 20 years.

Roberts, who faces Wilson in next month’s election and has taken numerous positions opposite her tough-on-crime stance, attended the meeting though the DA had canceled. He addressed the crowd, emphasizing the role district attorneys play in both police accountability and ending mass incarceration (which Wilson, by contrast, has said doesn’t exist in Texas).

arlington, police shooting
Albert Roberts (center).  Michael Barajas

“What you heard in that room was frustration that’s been building over time,” Roberts told me. “The community doesn’t trust how the DA’s office will handle the case. You have to be willing to sit in rooms like that and answer questions.”

When asked about Terry’s shooting, Wilson’s office emailed me a statement saying she doesn’t comment on pending investigations. When I asked how the office handled such cases, Wilson wouldn’t comment on that either. When I showed up at her office, near the county jail in downtown Fort Worth, Wilson wouldn’t meet with me, not even for a minute. Her spokesperson, Sam Jordan, eventually came out to the lobby to explain that Wilson “isn’t someone who does a lot of interviews … Local media is very used to that.”

Still, I asked one more time: How does Wilson decide which cops to prosecute? Does the DA’s office conduct its own investigations into police killings? Who polices the police? Jordan shrugged off the questions, which people asked repeatedly at the meeting about Terry’s death.

The spokesperson did, however, assure me that the DA’s office has what she called a “Law Enforcement Incident Team” that handles certain cases against cops. She declined to say how it operates or what cases it takes; discuss its track record when it comes to indictments or convictions; or answer any other general questions. Those details can apparently wait until after election day.

Michael Barajas is a staff writer covering civil rights for the Observer. You can reach him on Twitter or at [email protected].

Get the latest Texas Observer news, analysis and investigations via FacebookTwitter and our weekly newsletter.

Enter your email


 

You May Also Like:

Published at 11:00 am CST
Top