#BlackLivesMatter Faces Backlash After Deputy’s Slaying

Houston Justice Coalition members Durrel Douglas, center, and Shekira Dennis meet with Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman in June.
Houston Justice Coalition members Durrel Douglas, center, and Shekira Dennis meet with Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman in June.
Courtesy of Durrel Douglas

Last Friday night, Harris County Sheriff’s Deputy Darren Goforth walked out of a northwest Harris County Chevron store toward the pump where he was gassing up his cruiser. It was then that, authorities say, Shannon Jaruay Miles, 30, ran up behind Goforth, who was in uniform, put a gun to the back of the deputy’s head and pulled the trigger. When Goforth fell to the ground, authorities say, Miles stood over him with his .40 caliber semi-automatic pistol and emptied the clip, 14 more rounds, into Goforth’s back.

Officials say it was nothing less than an assassination of a police officer in a public place.

Authorities have yet to determine what motivated the slaying that has shocked local law enforcement, the public and even the nation. Court records indicate that Miles has in the past been homeless, and on a judge’s orders, he spent time in a state psychiatric hospital just long enough for him to regain competency to face charges for a violent assault that left another homeless man with a broken vertebra. That means Miles suffered from mental illness in a state that’s near dead last when it comes to funding community mental health services. Authorities haven't yet said how Miles acquired the gun used to murder Goforth.

As reported by the Houston Chronicle yesterday, deputies pushed through their grief Friday night and within minutes of Goforth’s slaying, began to chase down leads to find his killer. Within four hours of executing a law enforcement officer, officials say, Miles had been tracked down by investigators. By Saturday morning, Miles was brought in for questioning and ultimately charged with capital murder.

At a press conference Saturday that was aired on national cable news networks, Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson and Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman, both Republicans, grieved for Goforth’s family, which lost a husband and father, and for the law enforcement community that lost one of its own. Anderson’s eyes were glassy, as if holding back tears, as she addressed the media before a cadre of grieving officers.

In fact, there’s been a groundswell of support for law enforcement in general and for Goforth’s family in particular following his tragic slaying, from the local (a stunningly large crowd turned up to the gas station where Goforth was murdered for a Saturday vigil) to the state (Gov. Greg Abbott ordered flags be flown at half-mast on Monday in remembrance of the fallen deputy) and the national levels (President Barack Obama reportedly called Goforth’s widow to personally offer his condolences).

At the Saturday press conference, Anderson also spoke in blunt, heated terms that echo the growing criticism, particularly in conservative and law enforcement circles, lobbed at the Black Lives Matter movement to reform how law enforcement agencies police communities of color.

“There are a few bad apples in every profession,” Anderson said. “That does not mean that there should be open warfare on law enforcement.” She called Goforth’s killing “an assault on the very fabric of society.”

Hickman, who cited the “dangerous national rhetoric that’s out there today” surrounding policing, was even more explicit. This increased scrutiny of law enforcement (or “rhetoric,” as Hickman put it) has led to the “calculated, cold-blooded assassination of police officers,” Hickman said. Further drawing a line between Goforth’s murder and the Black Lives Matter movement, Hickman later said in an interview with CNN, “it isn’t a very far stretch to believe that that kind of rhetoric could influence someone” to do what Miles has been accused of.

There has indeed been increased attention paid to instances of police misconduct and police shootings of unarmed citizens, particularly men of color, over the past year in light of the deaths of Eric Garner (the Staten Island man choked to death by an officer, on camera, because he argued with officers who’d stopped him for selling loose cigarettes on the street), Tamir Rice (the 12-year-old Cleveland boy shot to death by a cop for playing with a toy gun) and Samuel Dubose (who was unarmed when a University of Cincinnati police officer shot him in the head, without warning, during a traffic stop). Anderson's and Hickman's comments Saturday echo the growing sentiment that such heightened, critical attention to policing has put officers in danger.

The Bexar County Sheriff’s Office this week chastised the media for even reporting on one such incident, suggesting such media attention only endangers law enforcement officers. San Antonio TV station KSAT paid $100 for a bystander video that appears to show Bexar County sheriff’s deputies shooting and killing a 41-year-old suspect after he’d put his hands up.

While, for most journalists, paying a source for such information is at least an ethical gray area (the fact that KSAT paid for exclusive rights to show the video in the San Antonio market triggered a mild Twitter dust-up between San Antonio Express-News reporters and KSAT staff, who defended the decision), the sheriff’s office had this take, somehow combining criticism over the station’s paying for information with outright condemnation over the station’s decision to air the footage at all:

What often accompanies this sentiment is the notion that #blacklivesmatter is too narrow and should be replaced with something like #alllivesmatter. Some have even felt the need to reiterate that #whitelivesmatter on Twitter. Hickman on Saturday put it this way: “We’ve heard black lives matter, all lives matter. Well, cops’ lives matter, too. So why don’t we just drop the qualifiers and say lives matter. And take that to the bank.”

Perhaps Anderson and Hickman have grown alarmed by some of the more acerbic language coming from the black community, which has borne the brunt of aggressive policing and over-incarceration for generations, the kind of language that’s become the fixation of conservative outlets like Breitbart Texas (when they’re not trying to out Black Lives Matter activists for not being black enough, that is). But the Black Lives Matter activists Anderson and Hickman have personally met with, the ones they’ve invited into their offices over the past year, have expressed nothing but support for law enforcement and flatly condemned Goforth’s slaying almost immediately after news of his murder broke Friday.

Still, activists like Durrel Douglas, with the Houston Justice Coalition, have faced an online backlash following Anderson's and Hickman’s comments. “I’ve had emails from folks saying, ‘This is on your head, I hope you’re happy now,’” Douglas told the Houston Press. “Someone wrote saying we (Black Lives Matter activists) should all be hung.”

Douglas and others with the Houston Justice Coalition insist there are legitimate questions that need to be asked of law enforcement. How do cops decide when they can or cannot shoot unarmed citizens? Further investigation in Bexar County might ultimately prove that the deputies acted appropriately when they shot the man at the center of the recent video — that they were somehow, despite the suspect's raised hands, justified in using deadly force against a man who reportedly wielded a knife against a woman and a child.

In his meetings with Anderson, Hickman and other local law enforcement officials, Douglas has pointed to cases like that of Jordan Baker, an unarmed black man who was shot and killed by an off-duty Houston police officer patrolling a northwest side strip mall in January 2014. HPD officer Juventino Castro claimed, according to police, that he stopped Baker because he matched the description of a suspect who’d broken into several stores (the description being of a black guy in a hoodie).

Still, it’s unclear why Baker would engage in a “brief struggle” with the officer, then flee, stop, turn around, reach into his waistband and charge at Castro, as HPD later claimed. Police have said there’s no reason to believe Baker had anything to do with the burglaries around the strip mall. He had no real criminal record to speak of (just a misdemeanor pot possession and an evading arrest charge when he was a teenager, charges that prosecutors ultimately dismissed). Baker’s mother, Janet Baker, says her son was in school to become a welder so he could better support his own son.

Nearly a year after Baker was shot and killed, his case finally went to a grand jury shortly after Janet Baker confronted Anderson at a public forum on community/police relations. Douglas and other Black Lives Matter activists accompanied Baker to the grand jury proceedings. “We weren’t even saying he (Castro) was guilty of anything,” Douglas says. “We just wanted charges, a jury trial, a full public hearing of the facts.”

At last check, an HPD internal investigation into Baker’s shooting hasn’t yet been completed, so the department has released little information about the case. A grand jury ultimately cleared Castro of any charges.

Douglas has pointed to cases like Baker’s while meeting with law enforcement officials to push for reforms such as department-wide body cameras, which officials from across the law enforcement spectrum — from prosecutors to police unions — have begun to embrace, in part because the technology can be used to quickly clear officers wrongly accused by a citizen of misconduct.

Still, Douglas says the call to replace #blacklivesmatter with some other, broader iteration, such as #alllivesmatter, misses the point. “Of course all lives matter,” Douglas says. “'Black Lives Matter’ simply points out that the system hasn’t recognized that for a long time." Douglas agrees that Goforth's murder is a stark reminder that, as Hickman put it, cops' lives matter, too. So do black lives. These aren't mutually exclusive or threatening statements, Douglas says.

Yet, to some, like Anderson and Hickman, only the latter has become a dangerous sentiment, one that they insist presents a growing threat to law enforcement. Whether that means their doors are now closed to activists and reformers like Douglas and the Houston Justice Coalition remains to be seen.


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