DALLAS (AP) — Four Texas officers carrying handguns wait in the dim early morning light for a petite 31-year-old woman to arrive.
When Amber Guyger emerges from a black SUV, she is guarded by men with dark suits and close-cropped hair. The armed officers join them, forming a perimeter around Guyger as she walks toward a side door of the yet-to-open Dallas courthouse.
The tension is high in Dallas as the white former police officer stands trial on murder charges in the fatal shooting last September of her unarmed black neighbor, Botham Jean.
Dallas Police Association President Mike Mata said the intense media attention and controversy surrounding Jean’s death have led to threats that prompted the association to pay for additional private security for Guyger and her attorneys. He declined to elaborate on the nature of the threats.
The concern about police safety follows an attack three years ago in which five Dallas officers were killed. A man angry over the killing of black men by police across the nation opened fire at the end of a protest, in the deadliest attack on U.S. law enforcement since 9/11.
As Guyger took the stand Friday, there was anxiety that her possible acquittal could spark unrest in Dallas like that in Ferguson, Missouri, after prosecutors announced that a white policeman wouldn’t face charges in the fatal 2014 shooting of Michael Brown. The unarmed black teenager’s death helped give rise to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“There’s definitely that kind of foreboding sense of a storm coming,” said Changa Higgins, a community activist. “If this trial doesn’t get the kind of outcome that people want, and that they really need to have hope, then we may see the same type of reaction that we’ve seen historically around the country when people lose hope, and feel like they have nothing to lose and they can’t look to the justice system to get justice.”
The basic facts of the shooting aren’t in dispute. Guyger walked up to Jean’s apartment, which was on the fourth floor directly above her third-floor unit, and found the door unlocked. She was off duty but still dressed in her police uniform after a long shift when she shot Jean with her service weapon. Guyger was later arrested , fired and charged with murder.
Guyger’s lawyer’s have called the killing a “tragic, but innocent” mistake and say she fired in self-defense after confusing Jean’s apartment for her own and mistaking the 26-year-old accountant from the Caribbean nation of St. Lucia for a burglar. Prosecutors have questioned how she could have missed numerous signs that she was at the wrong apartment.
The police department has limited the time off scheduled for officers during the trial, which overlaps with the Texas State Fair, but department officials declined to comment further on the security preparations for the trial. Mayor Eric Johnson said through a spokesman that it would be inappropriate for him to discuss the case while the trial is ongoing. In January, a judge issued a gag order, barring the lawyers involved from speaking about the case publicly.
A jury will have to decide whether Guyger committed murder, a lesser offense such as manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide, or no crime at all. Even before the jurors were sworn in Monday, the strain of the case was visible.
Inside the courthouse, a crush of people passed through two security screenings before gathering outside the room where the trial is being held. Members of Guyger’s and Jean’s families were allowed in first, but reporters and activists jostled for the few remaining seats, with many being turned away. At various points, a sheriff’s deputy raised his voice to tell people not to push.
The Dallas County Sheriff’s Department, which handles security within the courtroom, has brought on additional officers for the trial. A department spokesman, Raul Reyna, declined to elaborate on the department’s security procedures.
The county’s Fire Marshal’s Office oversees security in the rest of the court building, and it assigned four officers to come in early and four to stay late during the trial, said Fire Marshal Robert De Los Santos. He declined to go into further detail about how the courthouse is secured.
De Los Santos said there have been other cases in which his officers have taken similar precautions.
Mata, the police association president, said that although other police officers have stood trial for shootings, Guyger’s is the first in which his association has had to hire extra security for lawyers or an officer.
“It has never reached the level of this,” he said.
Threats in such prominent cases aren’t unusual, said Herman Weisberg, a former New York City police detective who now works as a security consultant.
Weisberg was tasked with getting Harvey Weinstein in and out of a New York City courtroom before the movie mogul changed lawyers in his sexual assault case. He said things are “pretty comfortable” once inside the courthouse, but that coming and going through crowds of protesters and reporters can be dicey for defendants and their lawyers.
“I’ve got several cases going where the attorneys might as well have done the alleged act themselves,” Weisberg said.
Dallas photographer L.M. Otero contributed to this report.