After Roy Oliver’s Verdict, What’s Next for Police Reformers in Dallas County?

After deliberating for more than five hours Wednesday night, a Dallas jury sentenced former Balch Springs police officer Roy Oliver to 15 years behind bars and a $10,000 fine for fatally shooting 15-year-old Jordan Edwards last year. He was convicted of murder a day earlier.

The jury’s murder conviction alone is remarkable for Dallas County and the nation at large. Police officers rarely face trial for shooting civilians, and convictions are even less common. Most police-perpetrated shooting deaths, including in other high-profile cases like Philando Castile’s and Alton Sterling’s, have ended without an indictment or eventually in an acquittal. Further, even other cases involving young boys like Michael Brown and Tamir Rice led to “no bills” from grand juries that refused to bring criminal charges against police.

“I think it’s a just [conviction], but I think no one wins with the verdict. His family doesn’t win; my family doesn’t win. Everybody loses,” said Eric Lamont Williams, Jordan Edwards’s second cousin. Still, he ultimately sees jury’s decision as “for the better good of the nation so that we can send a message that this police brutality should come to an end.”

Jordan’s mother, Charmaine Edwards, told reporters Wednesday night that Oliver’s 15-year sentence is not enough, and she would have liked to see a sentence of at least 25-30 years. “[Oliver] actually can see life again after 15 years,” she told CNN. “And that’s not enough because Jordan can’t see life again.”

Oliver’s sentence is the second conviction obtained by prosecutors in Dallas County this year in police-perpetrated shooting deaths. Former Farmer’s Branch police officer Ken Johnson’s 10-year sentence in January for fatally shooting 16-year-old Jose Cruz broke a 45-year paradigm in Dallas County, which had not seen a criminal conviction against an officer in a police-perpetrated shooting death since former Dallas police officer Darrell L. Cain fatally shot 12-year-old Santos Rodriguez in 1973, sparking an uprising in the city.

Police Reformers in Dallas County Move Forward

For police reformers in Dallas County, this week’s high-profile conviction and sentencing opens a path forward in arguably one of the most pro-police areas of the nation, especially after gunman Micah Johnson killed five Dallas police officers during a shooting spree on July 7, 2016.

“The decision in this case is like a decision for the future,” said John Fullinwider, a co-founder of the Dallas-based Mothers Against Police Brutality (MAPB). “There’s a lot of things in it that we can build off of to try to increase the size and effectiveness of the [police reform] movement.”

Fullinwider hopes the case motivates younger activists in Dallas and around the nation, giving them cause to join organizations focused on police reform work. Additionally, he told Truthout, the group hopes to lift up recent prosecutions to educate the public in Dallas County during the upcoming district attorney’s race this November.

“This case will help awareness. It’ll help us organize. It’ll help us educate public officials and it should energize the movement. Nothing will bring Jordan Edwards back to his family or to the community, but as far as the issue goes, it’s better than an acquittal,” Fullinwider said.

Williams believes the case may help activists move forward in terms of reforming Dallas’s citizen review board, whose 15 members are appointed by city council members and provide a means for citizens in the county to communicate their concerns about police violence and misconduct.

“Review boards are very important, but the only problem is they don’t have subpoena power, and that’s one of the things I’ve been fighting for,” Williams said.

Another major demand of police reformers in the city of Dallas proper is for police chief U. Reneé Hall to rescind the controversial 72-hour review policy, which allows officers to remain silent for 72 hours after a police-perpetrated shooting before making an official statement.

MAPB, working in tandem with other groups, set the stage for some of the changes in Dallas County that made this week’s conviction possible. As Truthout has previously reported, the district attorney’s more independent Civil Rights Unit, which investigated Edwards’s shooting, was proposed and created under former Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins after years of relentless pressure from MAPB and other community organizers amid a national spotlight on police violence.

According to Jason Hermus, chief of the Dallas District Attorney Office division that encompasses the Civil Rights Unit, the unit underwent a shakeup under current District Attorney Faith Johnson, who described Oliver as a “killer in blue” during her closing statement Wednesday.

“That unit, that structural change, the putting of a special unit in place to prosecute police crimes had a lot to do with this [case],” Fullinwider says.

But he cautions that the case could be just another “aberration,” and that it remains to be seen whether it will provide an opening in cases of other shootings, where, perhaps, the victim is less sympathetic in the public’s eye — especially in the aftermath of Micah Johnson’s July 7 shooting.

“The shooting on July 7, 2016, brought out a deep well of sympathy for the cops,” Fullinwider says. Still, “The public is demanding more when a police kills someone. Even here, even now, a couple years after July 7.”

Still, Fullinwider says, “The factors in this case, outside of the extraordinary virtue of the victim, have been present in many other cases, and they haven’t led to the kind of accountability that we want. … Even if you’re non-virtuous, you don’t deserve to be shot to death by a police officer, but because Jordan was such an extraordinary young person, I think that helped a lot.”

He points to other political factors that came together in Oliver’s trial to produce this week’s unprecedented conviction, saying Dallas District Attorney Faith Johnson went “all in” on the case, and that, because she “was appointed by [Gov.] Greg Abbott … and because she’s been consistently endorsed by the Dallas Police Association, she had the room on her right flank to prosecute police in a way that Craig Watkins never did.”

A Tale of Three Dallas County Boys

This week’s conviction is only the second against an officer for a police-perpetrated shooting death since former Dallas police officer Cain’s fatal shooting of Santos Rodriguez in 1973.

Yet, any charge, let alone conviction, against police officers has been rare in Dallas County’s history, although that has changed in recent years. Several officers in the county have been criminally charged since 2013. Before former Dallas police officer Amy Wilburn was indicted in a non-lethal shooting captured on video in 2014, not a single officer in the city of Dallas proper had been criminally charged for a shooting in more than 40 years.

Like Balch Springs, other cities in the county have seen indictments since 2013, including former Garland Officer Patrick Tutor, who was indicted on manslaughter in 2013 for firing 41 shots at a man during a high-speed chase, three of which struck and killed him. Before Tutor’s indictment, no Dallas County grand jury had indicted any officer in an on-duty shooting in more than 15 years.

The first conviction in the county since the death of Rodriguez was obtained in January against former Farmer’s Branch police officer Johnson after he fatally shot 16-year-old Jose Cruz, another young boy.

For the Rodriguez family, though, this week’s more high-profile conviction is bittersweet. In 1973, former Dallas officer Cain was sentenced to five years in prison, and he got out on parole in only two-and-a-half years. The family never received an official apology from the city of Dallas, only an informal apology from Mayor Mike Rawlings, according to Cynthia Cordova, who is caregiver to Santos’s mother, Bessie, and friend and spokesperson of the Rodriguez family.

Cordova told Truthout the Rodriguez family felt Oliver’s 15-year sentence was too lenient. Similar to the scenario during Edwards’s shooting, Santos’s brother also watched helplessly from a car as his brother was shot in front of him.

On July 24, 1973, officers picked up the brothers for questioning, suspecting them of stealing change from a soda machine. During the interrogation, which took place in a squad car, Cain held his firearm directly to Santos’s temple, threatening him Russian-roulette style. When he pulled the trigger the second time, he fired a bullet into Santos’s skull, killing him instantly.

Filmmaker Byron Hunter shot and directed a new documentary about Santos’s life called Vive Santos, which is having its last Texas-based screening at the Texas Theatre in Dallas on September 16.

The Dallas Peace and Justice Center and other community groups are working to bring a public monument dedicated to Santos to Dallas’s Pike Park. After decades of public requests for a memorial, City Council member Adam Medrano set aside $74,185 from discretionary funds for the monument this summer. The Office of Cultural Affairs received public input on potential artists and designs for the monument, with its submissions deadline closing on Friday.

Cain’s trial and sentence “was a mockery,” says Hadi Jawad, a member of the Peace and Justice Center. “People are still upset. People are still angry. People are still hurt. … We cannot, as human beings, detach ourselves from our past, and the same is true for the city. … Wherever we go, our past goes with us.”

Jawad told Truthout that meetings are planned in September between artists and Cultural Affairs staffers to discuss the monument. Another aim of the Peace and Justice Center’s project, he says, is providing financial support to the Rodriguez family, since, according to Cordova, they never received a dime from the city. Reparations, Cordova said, should be paid.

Cordova and police reform activists in Dallas drew connections between Santos Rodriguez, Jose Cruz and Jordan Edwards — the only deaths that eventually led to convictions against police officers in Dallas County in 45 years. The cases all involved extremely sympathetic, young boys, leaving activists skeptical about whether a conviction against an officer can occur in other, more common cases of police-perpetrated shootings in the county.

“What happened to those [victims] in between” these three boys, Cordova asked. “They just fell through the cracks, or [the police and district attorney] just didn’t care.”

Still, Williams, Edwards’s second cousin, remains hopeful. To get a murder conviction in Edwards’s case “tells me the state of things are hopefully changing, and hopefully for the better,” he said.

Ultimately, though, the police reform activists want an even deeper structural reform when it comes to police-perpetrated shootings and how police in those cases are tried: federal prosecutors who are not beholden to the local police force.

“Many cases deserved to go to trial that never went to trial. Just look from Santos Rodriguez to now, that’s a pretty long experiment in local prosecution, in local juries and local grand juries,” Fullinwider says. “It’s an experiment, that as far a police accountability goes, has failed, and it’s not that dissimilar around the country.”

Editor’s note: The reporter initially left out the conviction of Ken Johnson in January of this year in the fatal shooting of Jose Cruz. She regrets the error.