Why Dallas is One of the Few Places Killer Cops Could be Held Accountable
Something extraordinary happened in Dallas County this month: A grand jury returned a murder indictment against a police officer who shot and killed someone.
On April 29, Balch Springs police officer Roy Oliver fired his assault rifle into a car full of black teenagers driving away from a high school party. Court records show Oliver fired at least four bullets into the vehicle, one of which shattered the front passenger window and struck 15-year-old Jordan Edwards in the head. The impact threw him toward the driver’s seat, where he slumped on his brother’s shoulder and died. None of the boys were armed. Oliver, who remains out on a $700,000 bond, provided his most detailed public account yet of the shooting in a court filing last week, blaming his actions on “perceived danger” and claiming he fired at the car of teenagers out of “fear for himself and others.”
The swift action taken against the officer who killed Edwards is rare. Two days after the Balch Springs Police Department told reporters that Oliver fired on the boys’ car because it reversed toward him and another officer “in an aggressive manner,” Chief Jonathan Haber revealed that body camera footage, which officials haven’t publicly released, instead shows the car was “moving forward as the officers approached.” Haber terminated Oliver the next day, and within a week of Edwards’ death, Oliver had turned himself in on a murder charge filed by the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office.
The charges against Oliver, including four counts of aggravated assault for each of the boys in the car with Edwards that night, were filed in a county with a recent history of criminal justice reform. According to number-crunching by the Texas Tribune, the case is nothing short of anomalous: Of 656 police shootings in major Texas cities between 2010 and 2015, only seven cops were indicted, none for murder. It’s also a shooting case spearheaded by prosecutors who have vowed to hold rogue cops accountable, one where officials say video evidence contradicts the officer’s story.
In a press conference last month, Michael Snipes, Dallas County’s first assistant DA, explained why prosecutors took the almost unheard-of step of filing an arrest warrant for Oliver before a grand jury even heard the case: “We knew right off the bat that we had probable cause.”
Edwards’ case is being handled by a Dallas justice system that has seen dramatic change over the past decade. Dallas County DA Craig Watkins was known as a reformer who rooted out wrongful convictions before scandal pushed him out of office. Last year, his successor, Republican Susan Hawk, resigned after less than two years in office, citing mental health issues.
In December, Governor Greg Abbott appointed Faith Johnson to finish out Hawk’s term, which runs to the end of 2018. She’s the county’s first black female DA, and since taking office in January she’s secured criminal indictments against two Dallas-area cops who killed people while firing at moving vehicles.
At a late June press conference, Johnson announced that a grand jury had indicted Dallas Police Department officer Christopher Hess on an aggravated assault charge. Hess is one of two officers who fired 13 bullets into Genevive Dawes’ car in January, killing the 21-year-old mother. To understand how uncommon that is, consider that Hess is only the third Dallas cop to face criminal charges in a police shooting since the 1970s. (The other officer who fired at Dawes’ car, Jason Kimpel, hasn’t been charged.) Snipes also credited body camera footage that he said contradicts Hess’ account of the killing, calling the technology “a game changer” when it comes to investigating police shootings.
The same day that indictment was announced, Dallas County also unveiled fresh charges against Oliver stemming from a fender bender two weeks before the officer killed Jordan Edwards. As the Dallas Morning News first reported, Monique Arredondo claims Oliver held her and her sister at gunpoint after she rear-ended his car on April 16. DPD cops who arrived at the scene determined Oliver, who was off-duty at the time, had done nothing wrong. In a statement to the Morning News in May, a DPD spokesperson said Oliver told Dallas officers he’d only kept his gun out in a “low ready” position and identified himself as an officer out of fear the driver “may be reaching for a weapon or attempting to flee.”
The new Dallas County DA not only thought the incident was worth bringing to a grand jury for felony charges, but also cited it as a reason for a judge to increase Oliver’s bond on his murder charge. When asked why Dallas police dismissed an incident involving an off-duty cop that was serious enough to warrant first-degree felony charges, a DPD spokesperson declined comment and said there’s “no new information on the case.” Balch Springs officials were similarly mum when asked whether Dallas police bothered to let them know one of their cops had pulled a weapon on a local motorist.
“That’s that blue wall of silence right there,” said Daryl Washington, an attorney representing the Edwards family in their wrongful death lawsuit against Oliver and Balch Springs. “What’s more troubling is that this is how a department that’s largely been lauded for its reform efforts treated this troubling behavior from a fellow officer,” Washington told the Observer. He insists Jordan Edwards would still be alive if DPD higher-ups had dealt with Oliver’s troubling behavior toward Arredondo.
Washington, who’s also representing the Dawes family, says it’s not yet clear what message this summer’s indictments will ultimately send. On one hand, it’s a sign that Dallas County prosecutors are increasingly serious about police misconduct. At a press conference last week, Johnson, the Dallas County DA, called Oliver’s murder indictment a warning to bad cops: “If you do wrong, we will prosecute you.”
On the other hand, Washington says the charges highlight how officials still only seek justice in the most egregious cases. He calls the Edwards and Dawes shootings “almost identical,” pointing out that both officers killed people after shooting at moving cars and, if you believe authorities, later lied about why they opened fire.
“It’s not OK to treat these as if they’re isolated instances,” Washington said. “This summer has certainly shown that.”