The double-edged tragedy in Dallas, discussed here in my last post has triggered a common phenomenon seen nationwide, and even here in commentary: the natural human tendency to be tribal focuses sympathy on whichever party the onlooker most identifies with.
Having been on both sides of that doorway, as it were, with a gun in my hand I would respectfully offer the following observations. Let’s look at it from the perspective of someone in the position of Botham Jean, the young man who was killed in this tragic incident. We’ll be talking about criminal law principles, as opposed to civil law, i.e., lawsuits.
I’ve only briefly lived in a condo complex where the row of doors on each floor looked just like those on the floors above and below, and never had a problem there. However, for a long time my lifestyle has had me spending more time in hotel rooms than my own home in any given year, and that has put me in a few situations similar to this one.
Late 1970s: I was coming out of the shower in a very crime-ridden big city when I heard a key going into the lock of my hotel room door. I dove for the bed, rolled across it, and scooped up my Smith & Wesson Model 36 .38 Special, over which I saw a man with a rapacious leer on his face push the door open until it stopped on the chain lock. I barked a command not to move. His expression changed to one of horror, and he slammed the door back shut. I immediately called the front desk: no, they had no male housekeepers and had not sent anyone up to my room with a master key that would open both door lock and deadbolt as this man had. Draw your own conclusions. If Mr. Jean had a physical reaction that could be deemed assaultive, or on the “fight” side of “fight or flight” response, I can certainly understand why. From the information made public at this time, we don’t know whether Mr. Jean had such a reaction or not, as seen from the off-duty cop’s perspective.
Late 1980s: I had just finished teaching an officer survival course in a medium-sized Midwestern city, and returned to my hotel room carrying a bunch of paperwork including some late-arriving discovery material just delivered FedEx for a homicide trial I would testifying in elsewhere in a few days. (Armed, battered woman who had killed her abusive husband to save her own life; we soon won an acquittal.) Motel phone was ringing as I entered, so I kicked the door shut behind me, neglecting to double-lock it and secure the chain lock. Went to bed exhausted shortly before 11 PM. Less than half an hour later was awakened by the sound of a key going into a lock. Sat bolt upright in bed, and everything went into slow motion (there was actually time to think “Oh, wow, tachyspychia” as I saw a foot propelling the door open). Rolled out of bed scooping up my Colt Government Model .45 auto and barked a command not to move. The man and woman in the doorway bolted and ran down the outside hallway. Secured the door, called the front desk and determined the clerk had thought I had already checked out and given those folks a key to my room. I won the race to the telephone and made the first call to the police department, requesting a call back from the chief of detectives, who knew who I was. Bottom line: the couple, who wanted me arrested for pointing a gun at them, were told they were lucky to be alive. Turned out the male had pushed the door open with his foot because he had his hands occupied by the key in one hand and his overnight bag in the other. The motel apologized profusely and we all got a free night at the motel in question.
1990, airport hotel in a fairly large Eastern city where it turned out there had been enough crime that the hotel had full-time security. Curiously, their doors had a secondary lock but no chain lock. I was in town in a law enforcement capacity. I was awakened once again by sound of key going into my door. By the time it swung open, my bedside handgun, the SIG P220 .45 I was carrying on duty at the time, was in hand and leveled at the doorway. I said in command voice “Police! Don’t move!” Once again, a look of horror: he slammed the door shut behind him and ran, and was gone from the hallway when I got to the doorway. The hotel’s head of security was there minutes later after I called the front desk. There had been, it turned out, incidents of criminals having gained access to master keys and done bad things there. He kept repeating in tones of nervous relief, “Thank God he started with your room, Captain!”
All were treated as “no harm, no foul” on my part.
Some who criticize the officer claim that if the apartment resident in the Dallas case under discussion had shot the cop, he would have unquestionably hung. Au contraire. If the triers of the facts determine that the officer making entry was not identifiable and the resident fired upon them in reasonable but incorrect belief that the officer was a criminal home invader, they may well be held harmless. Here are two such cases just in the state of Texas:
There are, of course, two sides to every story. We’ll look next at the same situation from the view of the police officer who was entering what she says she believed was her own apartment when the incident went down, and she fired the fatal shot.