TEXAS VIEW: Tarrant jail death video is revolting, but here’s how it can inspire justice, change

The overwhelming reaction to watching Tarrant County jailers brawl with Anthony Johnson Jr., to one subduing him with a knee, to Johnson’s cries that he can’t breathe, is revulsion.

Revulsion that, whatever happened, a young man had his life snuffed out, that Johnson was failed by our patchwork approach to mental health and the criminal justice system that so often has to absorb the fallout.

Then there’s anger over deputies, doing an admittedly difficult job but erring so badly. There’s incredulity at a veteran supervisor who wouldn’t or couldn’t step in to prevent a move as harmful as driving a knee into Johnson’s back after he’d been restrained.

There’s shock and sadness for Johnson and his family. His mother, his sisters and others who love him will have these images seared into their memories, as if losing their beloved son and brother so young wasn’t bad enough.

There’s disgust on behalf of the public, which depends on officers to walk a fine line to keep us and themselves safe. We ask them to deal with dangerous people and somehow protect their charges and themselves and their colleagues at the same time.

Then there’s shame on behalf of the good officers who work hard and play by the rules and will suffer reputation damage over something few would condone.

And there’s bitterness, too, that we yet again confront the shortcomings of a broken system that intertwines mental health treatment and the criminal justice system to the detriment of both.

Sheriff Bill Waybourn did the right thing in showing the public the video last Thursday, although it — and he — left plenty of questions unanswered. While we wait, though, we can already think about what must come next: justice for Johnson and change that ensures his death is not entirely in vain.

Waybourn and the state Department of Public Safety’s Jeremy Sherrod, speaking on behalf of the Texas Rangers investigating the case, stressed that the investigation is not complete. But at an absolute minimum, we see enough to ask a Tarrant County grand jury to charge Detention Officer Rafael Moreno and Lt. Joel Garcia. They knew or should have known that Moreno’s behavior would endanger Johnson.

We still don’t know the extent to which possibly life-saving care was delayed by their actions. If those delays amount to neglect or worse, it’s not an exaggeration to say grave crimes may have been committed.

Beyond the specific case, though, there may never be a better prompt for county commissioners to finally take seriously the state of the Tarrant County Jail. Waybourn runs it, but commissioners fund it, and it’s time that everyone with a hand in the jail makes it a top priority for county government.

As is common in such cases, the question comes down to how much to blame individual officers and how much needs to change about training, procedures and cultures.

It’s not enough to fire Moreno and Garcia, though that appears to be a thoroughly appropriate and necessary step. An investigation must determine how many jailers understand the specific rules of using dangerous restraints.

Other commanders need to be assessed for their knowledge, too, and perhaps as important, their willingness to step in on behalf of an inmate even when that person has caused danger to officers. Emotions can run high in such situations, and leaders have to rise above that.

And we’ll reiterate that the entire jail operation demands a sweeping review and an honest assessment of needs. County Commissioner Manny Ramirez has called for policy changes to ensure transparency in cases such as Johnson’s. That’s a good start, but it’s not close to enough. The Commissioners Court must examine the jail top to bottom, employing independent expertise as necessary. And it must be prepared to approve smart new spending on training, better staffing and perhaps even facilities changes.

Waybourn clearly understands that Johnson’s tragic death is a bruise on the operation he’s led for eight years. We applaud his steps toward transparency. Now, we need to see similar embrace of change.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram