clock menu more-arrow no yes

Botham Jean’s family wants the Dallas Police Department to be held liable for his death

Amber Guyger was off-duty when she shot Botham Jean. His family says Dallas police deserve some of the blame.

If you buy something from a Vox link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

The family of Botham Jean, a black 26 year old shot in his apartment by a Dallas police officer, filed a federal lawsuit on October 26 arguing that the Dallas Police Department is responsible for the shootin
The family of Botham Jean, a black 26-year-old shot in his apartment by a Dallas police officer, filed a federal lawsuit on October 26 arguing that the Dallas Police Department is responsible for the shooting.
Stewart F. House/Getty Images

The family of Botham Jean, a 26-year-old black man shot and killed in his own apartment by an off-duty Dallas police officer in September, recently filed a civil lawsuit against the city, arguing that city officials and leadership of the Dallas Police Department “failed to implement and enforce such policies, practices and procedure for the DPD that respected Jean’s constitutional rights.”

Jean’s parents and sister filed the lawsuit in US District Court in Dallas on October 26 according to the Dallas Morning News. Jean’s family argues that then-Dallas police officer Amber Guyger violated Jean’s civil rights and used excessive force when she shot him on September 6.

Guyger, a four-year veteran of the Dallas Police Department, argues that the shooting was an accident and that she mistakenly believed she was in her apartment. Guyger has been charged with manslaughter and was terminated from the Dallas PD on September 24.

The Jean family lawsuit argues that the Dallas Police Department’s policies contributed to Jean’s death, placing much of the blame on the way the department trains officers. “Officer Guyger was ill-trained, and as a result, defaulted to the defective DPD policy: to use deadly force even when there exist no immediate threat of harm to themselves or others,” the lawsuit says. The suit suggests, more broadly, that the DPD has a “pattern, practice, history and custom of using excessive force against minorities, including approaching them with guns drawn.”

”They want accountability,” Jean family attorney Lee Merritt told the Dallas Morning News last week. “Part of the goal of civil lawsuits is for the monetary damages to make the defendants take steps to prevent this in the future.” Dallas officials have yet to publicly comment on the lawsuit.

The lawsuit argues that Guyger used excessive force and violated Jean’s civil rights

Much of the initial coverage of Jean’s shooting was shaped by Guyger’s account, which was first detailed in a September 9 arrest affidavit filed after Guyger turned herself in to police. In that account, which was written after an interview with Guyger by the Texas Rangers (the agency tasked with the main investigation of the shooting), Guyger returned to her apartment building after her shift, unaware of the floor she was on, and attempted to use an electronic key to open the apartment’s front door. However, the door was slightly ajar, and the force of using her key pushed the door open, despite the fact that her key did not open the lock.

Guyger entered the apartment and after seeing a “large silhouette” issued verbal commands and then fired twice, striking Jean in the chest. She says she did not realize the mistake until she turned on the lights, called 911, and checked the apartment number outside the door.

Jean’s family has disputed this account, arguing that Jean would never leave his door open and that doors in the building make a specific chiming noise when unlocked, something that Guyger should have noticed that night. Merritt has said that he spoke to witnesses who heard Guyger knocking on the door and yelling, “Let me in,” prior to the shooting.

But these accounts are not included in the police search warrant or arrest affidavit because, officers said, the witnesses did not share these details with police. A neighbor of Jean’s has also called attention to details, like a red doormat outside Jean’s door, that Merritt says should have alerted Guyger to the fact that she was at the wrong apartment. Many of these points are reiterated in the lawsuit.

”After opening the door to Jean’s apartment, Defendant Guyger stated in an interview with the Texas Rangers that she drew her service weapon and began issuing verbal commands to Jean, who was lawfully in his apartment,” the lawsuit says. “Jean attempted to comply by slowly arising from his seated position. Without any lawful justification to do so and not asking the questions that a reasonable well-trained officer would have, Defendant Guyger fired upon Jean, striking him in the chest although he was unarmed and not attempting to harm her or any other person.”

According to the Dallas News, the new lawsuit will likely be left on hold until after a grand jury determines what charges Guyger will be indicted on or if her case will be dismissed. Even so, the suit still calls attention to ongoing criticism of the Dallas PD by Jean’s family and local community.

Much of this criticism has revolved around treatment of Guyger in the days after the shooting. In September, Dallas County Assistant District Attorney Mike Snipes told the Washington Post that Guyger would likely be treated as a civilian due to her being off-duty when the shooting took place. If that is the case, it would be difficult for her to employ the protections to use deadly force that officers are allowed to use in more conventional police shooting cases. But the case was initially handled like an officer-involved shooting, and Guyger was not questioned or charged until three days after the shooting, and was later released on a $300,000 bond.

In the lawsuit, Jean’s family argues that the shooting was the direct result of Guyger’s training and role as a police officer, that she unlawfully used deadly force when shooting Jean, and that the city is liable for Jean’s death. “Defendant Guyger was acting under the color of law and acting pursuant to customs, practices and policies of the City of Dallas and the DPD in regards to the use of deadly force as authorized and/or ratified by the Dallas City Council and Chief Hall,” it says.

Jean’s family has also become increasingly concerned with what police are and are not sharing about the case, particularly following reports highlighting that a small amount of marijuana was found in Jean’s apartment. The Dallas district attorney has argued that the lack of information in recent weeks is largely due to the ongoing investigation, saying that keeping evidence about the shooting like Guyger’s 911 call, Jean’s autopsy report, and details of Guyger’s policing record out of the media is necessary to preserve the integrity of a future grand jury indictment against the former officer. Jean’s parents have said they are satisfied with how prosecutors are handling the case, instead focusing their frustrations on the Dallas Police Department.

The lawsuit is not seeking a specific dollar amount, instead arguing that the family deserves “answers and compensation for their respective damages.” The suit also calls for the DPD to change how it trains its officers.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays