Race issues loom over Dallas suburb after police killing


BALCH SPRINGS, Texas (AP) — The Dallas suburb where a white police officer shot and killed a 15-year-old black boy as he left a party has a population that’s just 20 percent white but a police department that’s 80 percent white.

Balch Springs now confronts the same issues of race and law enforcement as Ferguson, Baltimore and other cities that have been thrust into the spotlight because of police killings of African-Americans.

Officer Roy Oliver was fired three days after the Saturday night shooting. But lawyers for Jordan Edwards’ family said Wednesday that the city must answer for more than Oliver, including a racial slur allegedly yelled at one of Edwards’ brothers moments after the shooting. The family also wants the officer to be charged with a crime.

Edwards, his two brothers and two other teenagers were driving away from an unruly house party when the officer opened fire on their vehicle with a rifle. The bullets shattered the front passenger-side window and struck Edwards.

It took a few moments for Edwards’ 16-year-old brother, who was driving, and other passengers to notice that he was slumped over in his seat. His brother pulled over and tried to call for help.

Police ordered him to step out of the car and back away. As he moved, he heard someone call him a racial slur and say he didn’t understand directions, according to family lawyers Jasmine Crockett and Lee Merritt.

“When you have a police force that’s completely the opposite the makeup of the town, I do think it’s a problem,” Crockett said Wednesday in an interview. “I do feel there’s a sense of fear that comes into a lot of officers’ minds, because it’s the fear of the unknown.”

Police Chief Jonathan Haber said in a text message Wednesday that authorities are still reviewing video of the shooting but had not heard any racial slurs so far. He did not respond to questions about his department’s racial demographics.

Balch Springs is a working-class suburb of 25,000 people east of Dallas. Despite its proximity to the city, the community has plenty of open land and is small enough that visitors can easily drive through it without noticing.

The suburb has seen major demographic change during the last two decades. The population has gone from majority white to about 55 percent Latino. Blacks make up 23 percent and whites just 19 percent, according to 2015 estimates. The mayor and city manager are both African-American women.

According to state records, 31 of the department’s 39 officers are white. Just five are black and two are Latino. Nationwide, about 27 percent of local police officers were minorities, according to a 2013 federal survey.

City Manager Susan Cluse would not comment on the police department because she said Haber reports to the city council, not her. But she said Haber routinely tries to hear community concerns and had attended a “coffee with a cop” event on Saturday, before the shooting.

“We support our officers and our chief,” Cluse said in an interview. “He’s taking this to heart. We all have children. I’m an African-American mother.”

Police issued a statement Sunday, saying the vehicle carrying Edwards was backing up toward officers “in an aggressive manner.” But Haber corrected that statement after reviewing body camera video that showed the vehicle actually driving away from officers. Police have not released that video.

Attorneys for the Edwards family have issued statements discouraging protests or rallies in their son’s name.

Local activists and ministers met Wednesday with Dallas County District Attorney Faith Johnson, whose office has a unit dedicated to reviewing police shootings. The activists said afterward that Johnson assured them she was studying the case closely. The Dallas County sheriff’s office is also investigating.

Haber, who did not return messages Wednesday, held press conferences Monday and Tuesday that included African-American community leaders standing next to him. On Tuesday, both men alongside Haber said he deserved support for taking action and correcting his department’s mistake.

“We would not be standing here if we did not believe that this police department was worth backing,” said one of them, community activist Ernest Walker.

But Crockett, who has praised Haber for swiftly firing Oliver, said including supportive black leaders in a news conference felt “disingenuous.”

“Black people are only looking to be treated like everybody else,” she said. “We just want you to do your job. It doesn’t really matter what color you are.”

The same day that Oliver was fired, news broke of the Justice Department’s decision not to charge two white police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in the shooting death of a black man in 2016. And a white officer in North Charleston, South Carolina, pleaded guilty to murder in the fatal shooting of a 50-year-old black man in 2015.

“What these last few days tell us is we’ve got another thing coming,” said David Harris, a professor and criminal justice expert at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. “These issues are not gone. They were never gone. We just stopped paying attention to them for a while.”

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Lauer reported from Dallas and Merchant from Houston.