Texas Town Gathers to Grieve for Teenager Fatally Shot by Officer

May 11, 2017

By Patrick McGee and Manny Fernandez
The New York Times
Sunday, May 7, 2017

MESQUITE, Tex. — Many of those who filed into a church here on Saturday for the funeral of Jordan Edwards wore suits and formal attire. But some of the teenagers — classmates and teammates of Jordan, the unarmed black 15-year-old shot and killed a week ago by a white police officer in nearby Balch Springs — wore white and maroon Skeeter football jerseys.

Jordan was a Skeeter, too — a freshman on the football team at Mesquite High School, home to its mosquito-themed mascot.

The funeral at the Mesquite Friendship Baptist Church was a private service for relatives and friends. The teenager was shot in the head as he sat in the front passenger seat of a car leaving a house party last Saturday after police officers arrived to break up the party. The car with Jordan and four other teenagers, including his two brothers, initially reversed, but it was driving forward when an officer, Roy D. Oliver II, opened fire, the police said.

Mr. Oliver was charged with murder on Friday, a move praised by black residents in Balch Springs and Dallas-area civil rights leaders. The warrant said Mr. Oliver “intended to cause serious bodily injury and commit an act clearly dangerous to human life that caused the death of an individual.”

Mr. Oliver, 37, who was fired from the Balch Springs Police Department within days of the shooting, surrendered on Friday at the Parker County jail, west of Fort Worth. He was released after posting bond on a $300,000 bail.

For Balch Springs, a working-class suburb of 25,000 southeast of Dallas, the shooting has threatened to widen the divide between the majority-white police force and the community’s black and Latino residents.

In recent years, a number of black residents have accused officers of using excessive force and have sued the department in federal court for civil rights violations, but many of those cases have been dismissed. And although the city is majority black and Hispanic, only a handful of the department’s nearly 40 police officers are either black or Hispanic.

“That’s unacceptable,” said Cedric W. Davis Sr., 50, who served as the city’s first black mayor from 2008 to 2009 and is a former school-district police chief. “You can’t represent a community as diverse as this one if you don’t have anybody that can relate. They do some good work. But a lot of the people are afraid of them. They need to be more customer friendly. The persona is, ‘I’m not approachable.’”

Mr. Davis recalled, from his time as mayor, a conversation he had with the white police chief about a newly hired black officer. “He said, ‘Man, I don’t think he’s going to make it. He speaks ebonics. You need to take him under your wing and show him how to talk.’” Mr. Davis said he was stunned.

Still, Mr. Davis said he did not believe the shooting of Jordan was about race. He said he had met Mr. Oliver at community events and found him to be a deeply religious person. “You only have two seconds to make a life decision,” Mr. Davis said. “He made the wrong decision in two seconds.”

The current police chief, Jonathan Haber, has praised the conduct of his other officers after the shooting.

“They didn’t go hide,” the chief said. “They went to go interact with the community. That’s who they’re here for.” He added, “We have an honest relationship with our community.”

A police spokesman, Officer Pedro Gonzalez, said the department has had difficulty recruiting black and Hispanic officers because of a lack of resources, and because of better pay offered by nearby departments.

“We’re a 35-, 37-man department, and we don’t have money to recruit,” Officer Gonzalez said. “We recruit through Facebook. Our top-out pay is like $68,000. Mesquite, which is right next door, makes $78,000. It’s very difficult to recruit.”

Relatives who spoke at the funeral were joined by the mayor of Balch Springs, Carrie Marshall, who is black and who expressed support for the family.

One of Jordan’s schoolmates who attended the service, 16-year-old Anton Smith, talked with reporters afterward, and said his peers have little trust in the police.

“Nobody in the community trusts the police because of what they have been doing,” the teenager said, standing outside the church. “Any small incident with them can just escalate from zero to 100 real quick.”

  1. Lee Merritt, a lawyer representing the Edwards family, also spoke after the funeral and said: “The charges were big relief for the family.”

Although the family said that they do not see Jordan as a martyr, Mr. Merritt said the parents do believe his death has become part of the nation’s struggles and debates over police shootings.

“They actually do believe that he is a symbol of police brutality in the country,” he said.