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Proactive response by Dallas leaders helps stymie large-scale protests over man's shooting death

DALLAS -- Dallas police swiftly admitted that a white officer who shot a black man in his own apartment last week had made a mistake. They expressed contrition, turned the case over to independent investigators and reached out to the victim's family. That proactive approach appeared to tamp down anger in the community in the first few days after the killing on Sept. 6. There have been protests but not large-scale unrest since the death of Botham Jean, a native of the Caribbean island of St. Lucia who went to a Christian university in Arkansas and worked in Dallas for accounting firm PwC.

The killing by officer Amber Guyger -- who told officers she believed the victim's apartment was her own -- could have led to an "explosive situation" on the streets, said Frederick Haynes, pastor of a Baptist church in Dallas and vice president of the African American Pastors Coalition.

Haynes praised the actions of Dallas Police Chief U. Renee Hall, who has been in her job only a year.

"She has gone out of her way to communicate not only to the family but also to community leaders," he said, "and as a consequence that has helped keep calm."

Also, Tuesday night, Hall said she has called for a full review and plans to meet with protest leaders after learning about reports that police used pepper-spray projectiles at a demonstration over Jean's death.

Hall said in a statement that the projectiles, which are called pepper balls and usually contain the chemical in pepper spray, should only be used if there is an immediate threat to the public or if an on-scene commander calls for them to be used. The projectiles irritate the nose and eyes.

Hall said she wants to meet with protest leaders to "address their concerns."

Killings of black men in recent years have prompted protests and sometimes violence in cities from Ferguson, Missouri, to Chicago and Baltimore. Police departments across the country have scrutinized how others have reacted to learn how to manage in such times of crisis.

University of Texas-Dallas criminologist and professor John Worrall said Dallas police officials have taken steps to keep their work and data open to the public.

"As big departments go throughout the country, I've been really surprised at how open they've been with their data," Worrall said Tuesday.

The shooting of Jean happened about 10 p.m. Thursday night. Within seven hours, police released a statement that the officer erred by entering Jean's apartment. Hall then held a press conference early Friday afternoon during which she acknowledged that "there are more questions than we have answers," but also said authorities were seeking to arrest Guyger for manslaughter. She said that the officer was being tested for drugs and alcohol and that the Texas Rangers would conduct an independent investigation. She added that she had spoken to Jean's sister to express condolences to the family.

Police released Guyger's name Saturday after local media began reporting it, and she was charged with manslaughter Sunday. By Monday, four days after the shooting, Dallas County District Attorney Faith Johnson gathered at a news conference with members of Jean's family. "My commitment is that there's always going to be equal justice in this county," Johnson told reporters. She said a grand jury would hear the case and could decide on more serious charges.

According to an arrest warrant, Guyger told investigators that she went to what she thought was her third floor apartment. Instead, she went to Jean's fourth floor apartment directly above hers. Guyger says her door was "ajar" and saw a "large silhouette" inside. After giving  "verbal commands that were ignored," she fired her handgun twice, striking Jean once in the torso. It wasn't until Guyger "turned on the ... lights" and "called 911" that she realized she was "at the wrong apartment." 

Mayor Mike Rawlings also quickly reached out to community leaders about the killing of Jean.

Dallas Officer Mistaken Apartment

This Sept. 21, 2017, photo provided by Harding University in Search, Ark., shows Botham Jean in Dallas.

Jeff Montgomery/Harding University via AP

Not everyone is pleased with the response in Dallas. Lee Merritt, an attorney for the Jean family, said Guyger should have been arrested the night of the shooting and she should have left the apartment complex in handcuffs. Guyger was free until her arrest Sunday and has since posted bond and been released.

Alex Piquero, professor of criminology at the University of Texas at Dallas, said investigations can be a lengthy, laborious process that may not bring an immediate arrest.

"Whether they charge the person five minutes after it happened, five hours or five days, the outcome is still the same, the charge happened," Piquero told The Associated Press.

The balance between police and the community is a delicate matter in Dallas, where five police officers were killed in 2016 by a gunman who was seeking revenge for police shootings elsewhere that killed or wounded black men. The shootings galvanized support for law enforcement.

Dallas county also prosecuted former Balch Springs officer Roy Oliver, who was sentenced late last month to 15 years in prison in the shooting death of a 15-year-old black boy. Oliver, a white officer who responded to a house party last year, fired into a car carrying Jordan Edwards. Oliver had argued the car was endangering his life, prompting him to fire, killing Edwards.

Haynes, the Dallas pastor, said the Oliver case was an important step to instilling the notion that there's equal justice in Dallas County, but he remains cautious.

"I do believe we're finally moving in a positive direction."