In the days since a black woman was fatally shot in her Fort Worth, Texas, home by a white police officer performing a welfare check, calls for police accountability have been nonstop in a community whose trust in law enforcement has already been shaken by other police shootings and the death of Botham Jean in nearby Dallas.
Local authorities have moved quickly in their response, saying that they have every intention of taking action against the officer who fired through a home window, killing 28-year-old Atatiana Koquice Jefferson on October 12 as she stood in her bedroom with her 8-year-old nephew, who she had been playing video games with.
A neighbor had called a non-emergency police line minutes before saying that he wanted someone to make sure that Jefferson and her nephew were okay after seeing their open door so late in the evening. When police arrived, they walked around the outside of the home instead of announcing themselves at the front door, and one officer fired his weapon at a window shortly after entering the home’s backyard, striking and killing Jefferson in the process.
On Monday, the Fort Worth Police Department announced that Aaron Dean, the officer who shot Jefferson, had resigned from the department hours before he would have been terminated. That same evening, Dean was booked into the Tarrant County Correction Center on murder charges. He was later released on a $200,000 bond.
The police department has attempted to show residents that it is taking Jefferson’s case seriously and that it understands the fury her death, as yet another example of a black person being killed by law enforcement, has ignited in Fort Worth and nationally.
“To the citizens and residents of our city, we feel and understand your anger and your disappointment and we stand by you as we work together to make Fort Worth a better place for us all,” Fort Worth Police Sgt. Chris Daniel said during an evening press conference on October 14.
Dean, who was hired in August 2017 and became an officer nearly a year later in April 2018, is currently not cooperating with the investigation into the shooting and has not answered questions from investigators, interim Fort Worth Police Chief Ed Kraus told reporters earlier on Monday.
Kraus also said he has asked the FBI to look into the shooting for possible civil rights violations, adding that Dean would have been fired by the police department on Monday for failing to follow its policies on use of force and deescalation, and for unprofessional conduct. Police previously said that they plan to submit the camera footage and other evidence to the Tarrant County District Attorney at the end of the investigation.
The department says that despite Dean’s resignation, it will continue its internal investigation as if he were still an officer. Dean’s record will also show that he was dishonorably discharged from the department.
“None of this information can ease the pain of Atatiana’s family, but I hope it shows the community that we take these incidents seriously,” Kraus told reporters.
Jefferson’s family, meanwhile, has criticized the fact that Dean was allowed to resign and has maintained calls for an independent investigation into the shooting, saying that they want justice through an “independent, thorough, and transparent process.”
If you think this is over you have not been paying attention. #AtatianaJefferson deserved to live in a world where she was safe from brutality playing video games in her home with her nephew. Zion deserves more too. Let’s change this world into the one he deserves. pic.twitter.com/0JJ7SWGWSH— S. Lee Merritt, Esq. (@MeritLaw) October 15, 2019
“Fort Worth has a culture that has allowed this to happen,” Lee Merritt, a lawyer representing Jefferson’s family, said over the weekend. “There still needs to be a reckoning.”
The shooting of Jefferson in her own home has drawn national attention
At around 2 am local time on October 12, a neighbor of Jefferson’s called a non-emergency hotline, saying he was concerned about an open door at the woman’s residence and wanted to make sure she was okay. According to a statement released by the Fort Worth Police Department on Saturday, officers arrived at the home at around 2:25 am to respond to an “open structure call” and, after seeing the open door, walked around the perimeter of the residence.
The department said that while doing so, officers saw a person inside standing near a window. “Perceiving a threat the officer drew his duty weapon and fired one shot striking the person inside the residence,” police said.
That person was Jefferson, who was shot while standing in a bedroom. After firing, officers entered the home and began providing emergency aid, but the woman was pronounced dead at the scene.
The department also released body camera footage of the shooting, showing what happened outside of Jefferson’s home as well as the residence itself, which had a door open and the lights on inside. The video shows two officers walking around the outside of Jefferson’s home, looking into screen doors before walking into the backyard. Moving toward a closed window on the first floor, one of the officers, who has since been identified as Dean, quickly points a flashlight at it before drawing his weapon.
Dean then yells, “Put your hands up! Show me your hands!” before firing a shot less than a second later, seemingly while in the middle of repeating his commands. At no point in the released video do the men clearly identify themselves as police officers.
In addition to the statement and the body camera video, the police department also released edited footage of a firearm officers said they found at the residence, but it did not offer any additional information about where Jefferson was in relation to it or if the weapon was ever visible to the officers. Texas is an open-carry state and state residents are allowed to possess and carry firearms with few restrictions.
The initial release of the image immediately drew criticism, with observers arguing that the department was attempting to suggest that Jefferson’s weapon was relevant to her death. The police department later said that this was not its intention.
“Nobody looked at that video and said there was any doubt that this officer acted inappropriately,” Kraus later told reporters. “I get it. We’re trying to train our officers better.”
The shooting has left Fort Worth’s black residents devastated
Jefferson’s shooting, which is the seventh local police shooting involving a civilian since June 1 according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, has left the area’s black residents angered and confused. Community members say the shooting proves they cannot call the police for assistance.
“The Fort Worth police murdered this woman. They murdered this woman in her own house,” said Rev. Michael Bell, a local pastor who joined a group of community leaders for a Saturday press conference. “And now, African Americans, we have no recourse. If we call the police, they will come and kill us. And we know that.”
A similar fear was echoed by James Smith, the neighbor of Jefferson’s who called police after noticing the open door and lights at her home, saying he was concerned about Jefferson and her 8-year-old nephew. “I’m shaken. I’m mad. I’m upset. And I feel it’s partly my fault,” he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on October 12. “If I had never dialed the police department, she’d still be alive.”
In audio of Smith’s call released by the police department on Sunday, the man can be heard telling a police operator that the doors of the home had been open since 10 pm Friday and that he was concerned because he did not see any movement in the house.
“I don’t know what went on in the house, but I know that she wasn’t a threat,” Smith later told reporters.
Here's Smith describing why he decided to call a non-emergency police number around 2 a.m. Saturday: pic.twitter.com/JU4prCelMH— Jack Howland (@JHowl04) October 12, 2019
The shooting of Jefferson, who was born in Dallas and graduated from Louisiana’s Xavier University in 2014 with a biology degree, has quickly drawn comparisons to the 2018 shooting of Botham Jean, a 26-year-old black man fatally shot by former off-duty Dallas officer Amber Guyger as he ate ice cream in his apartment.
Lee Merritt, a local civil rights attorney who represents Jean’s family, is also working with Jefferson’s relatives. He said the weekend shooting is yet another example of black people being unable to live safely in their own homes.
“You didn’t hear the officer say ‘gun, gun, gun,’ you didn’t hear him — he didn’t have time to perceive a threat,” Merritt told reporters on Saturday. “That’s murder.”
“We expect a thorough and expedient investigation,” he added. A GoFundMe created by Merritt on behalf of Jefferson’s family was posted on October 13 and had collected more than $210,000 by Tuesday morning.
Before the shooting, Merritt says that Jefferson, who was called “Tay” by her loved ones, was playing video games with her nephew. The boy was in the bedroom with her when the shooting occurred, and stayed at the homes as Jefferson, who worked in pharmaceutical equipment sales and was saving money for medical school, was helping take care of the home for her sick mother, who was in the hospital at the time of the shooting.
Merritt says that when she went to the bedroom window on Saturday morning, Jefferson was concerned after hearing noise outside, adding that she was likely worried about the possibility of a prowler or burglar being near the home.
“Law enforcement has not said that she wielded a weapon,” Merritt told the New York Times on Sunday. “Also, it wouldn’t matter because that’s her home.”
Speaking to CNN that same day, Merritt said that while Jefferson’s family has spoken to local police, they want an independent agency to take over the investigation into the shooting. “We don’t think that Fort Worth police should be investigating it on their own,” he said.
The police department and city officials are working to show that they take Jefferson’s death seriously
On Sunday, the Fort Worth Police Department held a brief press conference to discuss the shooting but offered little new information about what transpired in the early morning hours of October 12.
The agency largely stuck to a prepared statement, saying that it shared the “very real and valid concerns” raised by local residents and Jefferson’s family.
“The tragic loss of life has major ramifications for all involved, especially the family of Ms. Atatiana Jefferson. We have communicated with the family and have shared our serious and heartfelt concern for this unspeakable loss,” Fort Worth Police Lt. Brandon O’Neill said.
The department did not answer questions about why it released information about a gun in Jefferson’s home and also declined to answer questions about the exact nature of the “threat” perceived by the officer.
However, the department did confirm some previous statements already made by Merritt and Smith, noting that Jefferson’s nephew was in the room with her when the shooting took place and that the officer who shot the woman did not identify himself as law enforcement before firing.
“What the officer observed, and why he did not announce ‘police,’ will be addressed as the investigation continues,” O’Neil told reporters.
On Monday, however, the department gave several additional updates, likely in an effort to mitigate concerns that the agency would protect Dean from punishment. Along with announcing Dean’s resignation, Police Chief Kraus said he regretted that the department shared images of the firearm in Jefferson’s home, saying she had every right to possess it.
“We’re homeowners in the state of Texas,” he said. “I can’t imagine most of us — if we thought we had somebody outside our house that shouldn’t be and we had access to a firearm — that we wouldn’t act very similarly to how she acted.”
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price has also issued several statements, including an open letter on Monday where she said that the city was “heartbroken” at Jefferson’s death. Price also denounced the initial images of a weapon in Jefferson’s home, and apologized to Jefferson’s family and to James Smith, saying that his call about his neighbor should have never culminated in her death.
In the wake of the shooting, Price says she has asked the city’s manager to hire a “third-party panel of national experts to review the police department. Everything from top to bottom.”
“Justice is critical here — but it will not bring back the life of a young woman who was taken too soon,” Price added in the letter. “This is a pivotal moment in our city, and we will act swiftly with transparency.”
Jefferson’s death has been compared to the 2018 murder of Botham Jean
News of Jefferson’s death, which comes less than two weeks after Amber Guyger was convicted of murdering Jean and sentenced to 10 years in prison, adds to already intense attention to policing in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
In recent months, Dallas residents have voiced several concerns about the Dallas Police Department, concerns that were only intensified by evidence revealed during Guyger’s trial and by the October 4 death of Joshua Brown, a black man who testified against Guyger last month. The Dallas Police Department has condemned speculation that its officers were somehow connected to Brown’s death, saying that the man was killed in a drug deal gone bad.
According to the Washington Post’s Fatal Force database, Jefferson is one of at least 709 people who have been killed by police since the start of 2019. The database notes that 32 women have been killed by police officers this year; five of those women were black.
Speaking to reporters on Saturday, members of Jefferson’s family said that it was “inconceivable and confusing” that the woman was shot by police in her home. “It’s another one of those situations where the people that are supposed to protect us are actually not here to protect us,” Amber Carr, Jefferson’s older sister, told NBC Dallas-Fort Worth, adding that she was concerned about the training given to officers.
More concerns about the shooting were raised on Sunday evening as hundreds of people gathered for a rally and vigil on the same street as Jefferson’s home. “Systemic oppression has created risks for black people to be killed,” one attendee, Michelle Anderson, told local reporters. “We talk about state-sanctioned violence — it has always been a culture for black people. So no, it’s not about the training issue.”
Similar concerns have also been raised by national politicians, including several Democratic presidential candidates who shared Jefferson’s story on social media over the weekend.
“Being Black in your own home shouldn’t be a death sentence,” Sen. Kamala Harris tweeted on October 13. Sen. Elizabeth Warren said the shooting showed the urgent need for police reform and “federal standards for the use of force.” Sen. Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, called for a federal investigation into the shooting. Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke also weighed in on the latest high-profile police shooting in his home state, saying that people “must demand accountability and promise to fight until no family has to face a tragedy like this again.”
Jefferson’s family and community say they intend to do just that and will push to hold the department accountable for the shooting as the Fort Worth Police Department’s investigation continues.
But the family also acknowledged that accountability will not erase the pain and trauma that the shooting has caused. “You want to see justice, but justice don’t bring my sister back,” Carr told reporters on Saturday before breaking down into tears.