“The Greater Empathy” Thoughts on Guyger Trial, Week One

What if our opinions on the Amber Guyger trial comes down to a question of “who do you feel empathy toward?”

It may not come down to this. This may be a foolish question to ask. But the question keeps popping up in my head this week, as I’ve listened to the testimony…and especially as I listened to *her* testimony yesterday.

I’m a pastor, first and foremost, so creating empathy and inviting us to be empathetic toward others, is a part of my calling. So, I’ve been thinking about this question of empathy in this case, and how of our empathy is toward one or more of the “sides.”

Many people in our community have felt an especially strong empathy toward Ms. Guyger. That has been clear from months now.

First, some people feel empathy toward her because she believed she was defending her own apartment that night. They put themselves in *her* shoes.
“How would I feel if I thought an intruder was in my apartment?”

The problem, however, as I mentioned earlier in the week, is that she was *not* in her apartment. I mean that in two ways:
a) She was mistaken about where she was…it literally wasn’t her domicile, and
b) She literally was not IN the apartment when she first claims to have heard rustling noises inside.

She was not “in” the apartment when all this starts.

When well meaning observers say “that could have been me,” I believe they are mistaken. The vast majority of human beings, especially those not carrying firearms, would NOT enter an apartment…even their OWN apartment…if they heard rustling noises inside. They would call for police. They would be concerned for their safety.

Amber Guyger had a gun. She had a badge. THAT’S why she had the hubris to enter that apartment.

Secondly, many of the other people who feel empathy toward her do so because they too have made a mistake about “place” in their lives. They’ve thought they were somewhere else, other than where they actually were.
They say, “That could have been me.”

But there’s one key difference: None of them have shot someone dead because of their mistake of place.

Therefore, with all respect to those who have empty toward Guyger as a *person,* I would invite you consider this: She is not you. She did not react as you might have reacted in this situation, especially if you were an ordinary person without a gun. And finally, please don’t misunderstand…she was not “defending” her apartment, because she was not “in” her apartment when the incident began.

The second primary way people have empathy toward Amber Guyger is because she is a police officer. And being a police officer is a hard job. Some people have a natural empathy and bias toward police that allows them to excuse almost any action of a police officer.

But, I come back to this question of why she went into the apartment. The prosecution pushed *hard* on this point yesterday afternoon. Let’s review…in logical sequence…

1. She says she hears sounds inside the apartment.
2. She chooses to go inside and engage instead of calling for backup.
3. She is at a location that is literally ONE BLOCK from police headquarters.
(In other words, there are TONS of police around, even at that hour…)
4. Once she called for assistance (after the shooting) help arrives within two minutes.

I point out these factual truths because it’s important in my own assessment of how much empathy I have for her. She IS a police officer, and it IS a hard job. And I am one of the folks who has empathy for just how hard a job it is.

But…she didn’t HAVE to go into the apartment.
She had a clear “other choice” (staying outside) that would have assured her own safety, and the safety of Botham Jean inside his own apartment.

She could have stepped back, called for back up. And waited for them to arrive. Not only is it a choice she had, but had she made *this* choice, she likely would have realized her “mistake about place” while she waited those two minutes.

But, friends, this next part is also important…this next part where I remind you of her police training…and therefore, this next part is a part of my empathy toward ALL police officers.

I don’t WANT our officers to be in situations of unknown peril. For her OWN safety, and because I have empathy for her and all police, I want her to call for back up. For HER safety. As we have already covered, also for HIS.

So, yes, I have deep empathy for her. I am very sorry that she made the mistake that she made. However, SHE made mistakes that put her life, and his, in peril.

This brings me a broader point that must come out of this trial, regardless of the verdict. Regardless of the out of this trial, the conversation we must have in our city is about HOW WE TRAIN POLICE….and, even more, how they USE the training they are given.

No one needed to die that night.

But having covered my empathy for her and for all officers, there is also the empathy that I have for Botham Jean.

And that is the greater share of my empathy.

Yesterday, Amber Guyger talked about the moments she spent alone in the apartment with him after she shot him. She described this as “the scariest thing” she could imagine.

The moment she said it, I winced with anger.

Thankfully, the prosecutor pushed back on this during his cross examination.

“That’s the scariest thing you can imagine, right?” the Prosecutor asked.

“Yes, sir,” Guyger said.

“Can you imagine Mr. Jean’s perspective? An intruder barging into his apartment…And then having been shot and fallen and being alone in that apartment — can’t you imagine that being a little bit scarier than you just being alone at the moment?”

“Yes, sir,” she said.

You see?

Can you see the other’s point of view?
If not, why not?

And that’s where *I* end up.
I end up where the Prosecutor ends up.

Botham Jean was sitting alone in his own apartment, watching TV and eating a bowl of vanilla ice cream, and an unknown woman barges in the door and shoots him dead.

Then, she didn’t administer CPR. She didn’t use the combat-level gauze, or first aid kit, she had with her.

MY greatest empathy in this case is with HIM, and what must have been his terrifying feeling, dying on the floor of his own apartment, likely never understanding what had just happened.

For those who have supported Guyger through out this trial, for those who have a predilection to support the police before anything else, am not saying: “Your empathy is misguided.”

I will, however, suggest and invite you to a GREATER empathy for the victim.
I merely ask you to look up, broaden your gaze, and consider these truths…

— She did not *have* to enter the apartment.
— If she doesn’t enter, she doesn’t shoot him, and probably realizes her mistake before anything else happens.
— Her police training (what we should want for all officers) should have been to keep herself safe and wait the less-than-two minutes it would have taken for backup.

Again, you can have empathy for her (as I do now) and still believe (as I do now) that she should be held to account for her actions.

While I “hear her” when she says she feared for her life, she did not fear this until she entered the apartment. And she never *had* to enter the apartment.

SHE caused her own fear.
And she caused it because she chose to enter the apartment in the first place

Therfore, for all who have empathy toward her, I simply encourage you to broaden the gaze of your empathy toward Botham Jean too.

As the prosecutor so painfully asked: Isn’t dying alone on your apartment floor…having just been shot by an unknown intruder…isn’t THAT the “scariest thing” we can all imagine?

Yes. Yes it is.

We cannot fully plumb the depths of this case until we fully search our feelings and fully understand empathy for all “sides.”

And once we do this, we can be empathetic toward all, yet still come to logical judgments about what happened.

Nobody….NOBODY…deserves to be shot while eating a bowl of ice cream in their own apartment.

Ultimately, that’s where my greater empathy lies.

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Eric Folkerth is a minister, musician, author and blogger. He is Senior Pastor of Kessler Park UMC United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas. Previously, he was pastor at Northaven UMC in Dallas for seventeen years. Eric loves to write on topics of spirituality, social justice, music/art and politics. The entries on this blog reflect that diversity of interests. His passion for social justice goes beyond mere words. He’s been arrested at the White House, defending immigrants and “The Dreamers,” and he’s officiated at same sex weddings in his churches, in defiance of what some believe is Methodist teaching. Eric is an avid blogger and published author, and 2017 recipient of the prestigeous Kuchling Humanitarian Award from Dallas’ Black Tie Dinner. (Human Rights Campaign) Eric has led or co-led hundreds of persons on mission trips around the globe, to places such as Mexico, Haiti, Russia, and Nepal. He has worked with lay persons to build ten homes, and one Community Center, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Dallas. He’s a popular preacher, and often tackles challenging issues of social justice in his writings and sermons. His wife, Judge Dennise Garcia, is a State District Judge for Dallas, County. As judge of the 303rd Family District Court, she consistently gets high ratings from area lawyers, and was named “best judge” by The Dallas Observer. First elected in 2004, she was the first Latina ever elected to a county-wide bench in Dallas County, and is currently the longest service district judge in that district. She was re-elected for a fourth term in 2018. They have the world’s best daughter, Maria, and an incredible dog, Daisy. Find links to Eric’s music-related websites, at the top of this site’s navigation menu.

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