On Saturday, 28-year-old Atatiana Jefferson was killed in Forth Worth, Texas, when an officer, shot into her bedroom while performing a wellness check. Nationally, the shooting has added fuel to an already intense discussion of race and police violence and its effects on black people and communities. Locally, it has placed renewed scrutiny on the actions of the Fort Worth Police Department, which has faced criticism several times in recent years for its handling of other local police shootings and high-profile incidents of excessive force.
In the days since the October 12 shooting, the Fort Worth Police Department has moved to show the public that it understands and shares their concerns over the death of Jefferson, a graduate of Xavier University who was playing video games with her nephew when the shooting occurred. On October 14, the agency publicly identified the officer who shot Jefferson as Aaron Dean and announced that he had resigned hours before he was set to be terminated.
Dean was booked in jail and charged with murder that same day, but he has since been released on bond. Interim Fort Worth Police Chief Ed Kraus told reporters on Monday that he has asked the FBI to also look into the shooting for potential civil rights violations.
“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 said.
It is true that it is relatively rare for a police officer to be charged with (or convicted of) murder for shooting a civilian, but that has not reduced criticism of the police department. “I want to go ahead and dispel the myth that this is somehow a one-off — that this was just a bad-luck incident from an otherwise sound department,” Lee Merritt, a civil rights attorney representing Jefferson’s family, said at a press conference on Monday. “The Fort Worth Police Department is on pace to be one of the deadliest police departments in the United States.”
Many in Fort Worth’s black community argue that Jefferson’s death — which is the sixth fatal police shooting in the city since June and the ninth shooting this year, according to the Associated Press — cannot be separated from other instances of police violence in the area.
They point to a number of incidents in the city’s recent history, ranging from police shootings to controversial arrests caught on video to the use of Tasers on civilians, as evidence that the incident fits into a much larger pattern, one that has been disproportionately used on the city’s black residents.
The family of Atatiana Jefferson is relieved that Aaron Dean has been arrested & charged with murder. We need to see this through to a vigorous prosecution & appropriate sentencing. The City of Fort Worth has much work to do to reform a brutal culture of policing. pic.twitter.com/IG1nZLo1T5— S. Lee Merritt, Esq. (@MeritLaw) October 15, 2019
Outcry over the Jefferson shooting also comes as the city’s former police chief, the first black man to hold the position, pursues legal action against Fort Worth officials, arguing that his efforts to reform the department were hampered and that he was unfairly fired earlier this year. The city says that the firing was justified.
Taken together, these tensions support an argument that has been repeatedly made by residents of various cities and towns where high-profile police shootings have occurred in recent years: that these incidents of police violence do not happen in a vacuum and cannot be separated from other actions of local police departments.
In Fort Worth, this has led to skepticism of what has happened so far and calls for the department to go even further if it truly wants to gain public trust.
Fort Worth police have been involved in several high-profile incidents in recent years
Concerns about police violence and use of force have been present in Fort Worth since at least 2009. That year, the police department was criticized for the death of Michael Patrick Jacobs, a 24-year-old black man in mental distress who died after being tasered by police officers responding to an emergency call from Jacobs’ parents. In 2010, the city offered Jacobs’ family $2 million to settle their lawsuit against the city, but officials noted that the settlement was not an admission of liability in the man’s death.
The city also faced a wave of criticism for its handling of several instances in 2016. In July of that year, a Fort Worth officer shot a black man named David Collie in the back as he walked away from police; the officer later said that the man was a robbery suspect and that he had raised a weapon at police. Collie, who was paralyzed from the waist down by the shooting, countered that he had never threatened officers and had not done anything wrong. The charges against Collie were later dropped.
Five months after that incident, the police department found itself at the center of a national controversy after a video posted on social media showed a white Fort Worth police officer named William Martin pushing and later arresting Jacqueline Craig, a black woman who had called the police after her neighbor choked her son and accused the boy of littering. When Martin arrived, instead of approaching the neighbor, he questioned Craig about her son’s behavior, asking her, “Why don’t you teach your son not to litter?”
Craig countered that the action against her son was still inappropriate. When the exchange escalated, Martin arrested Craig and also detained her two teenage daughters, one of whom was filming her mother’s arrest. Fort Worth police apologized for Martin’s behavior and suspended him for 10 days, but it did not fire him, sparking outrage.
Less than a year later, the department fired a different officer for “unreasonable force” after he commanded a rookie to use a Taser on Dorshay Morris, a black woman who had called police for help during a domestic dispute with her boyfriend. In January of this year, that officer was reinstated after he reached an agreement with the city.
As backlash to the Craig incident mounted in early 2017, the Fort Worth leaders convened a task force on race and culture to look at racial disparities on a number of issues in the city, including in the justice system. The task force found that city residents “believe that law enforcement unfairly targets African-Americans” and issued recommendations in 2018 calling for the department to have civilian oversight and for the agency to improve officer diversity.
In September of this year, the Fort Worth City Council took steps to enact some of these recommendations by moving to create a police monitor position tasked with helping set up a civilian oversight board to oversee the department. The Council also approved starting a diversity and inclusion program in the police department. The city has set aside more than $700,000 for these efforts according to CNN.
But these actions have not lessened community concerns that officers in the city still may not face accountability for misconduct and harassment.
“We need a federal consent decree,” Rev. Kyev Tatum, a Fort Worth activist and president of the Tarrant County chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, told NBC News this week. “Fort Worth is Ferguson on steroids.”
The city is also currently facing a lawsuit from its former first black police chief
In May 2019, city officials announced the firing of Joel Fitzgerald, who had served as chief of police since 2015 and was the first African American to lead the department. In a memo announcing the firing, officials noted that Fitzgerald, who at one point was considered for leadership of the troubled Baltimore Police Department, was focusing on his “best interests instead of the best interest of the city,” adding that the former chief had shown an “increasing lack of good judgment.”
The memo also suggested that Fitzgerald had been terminated due to a lack of trust and support from others in the police department.
Fitzgerald, however, countered that he was terminated because he had attempted to hold officers accountable for misconduct, and also because he was complying with a possible FBI investigation into the city. Fitzgerald filed a lawsuit against the city in June in an attempt to get his job back. That suit is still pending.
In recent days, the former chief has strongly criticized Kraus, the current interim head of the department overseeing the investigation into Jefferson’s shooting. He’s said that there is “a vacuum of leadership” in the agency and that the leadership of the department has “facilitate[d] a system that reinforces social stratification, inequality, and hostility.”
Fort Worth police are also facing pressure after a string of recent shootings
While not all cases have been as high profile as Atatiana Jefferson’s, Fort Worth police have been involved in a particularly intense stretch of police shootings in recent months. Jefferson is at least the sixth person killed by local police this year, according to the New York Times. The Fort Worth Police department says that its officers have been involved in nine shootings this year.
In other recent shootings, including an incident where officers said that they had fired at a man holding a gun only to find out later that he was actually holding a flashlight, the department has faced both praise and criticism for how it has released information. While the department quickly released body camera footage after some of the summer shootings, locals noted that officers appeared to only release information that made them look good or supported their use of force.
This relationship is now even further strained by the Jefferson shooting. In recognition of this, police and city officials have pledged to be upfront with information as investigations move forward. In addition to Kraus asking the FBI for assistance, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price has asked the city’s manager to hire a “third-party panel of national experts to review the police department.”
“This is a pivotal moment in our city, and we will act swiftly with transparency,” Price said in an open letter to Fort Worth residents published on Monday.
But residents say that they are waiting to see the results of the city’s efforts before they offer any praise. “You know what, this is Fort Worth,” Michael Bell, the senior pastor of the Greater St. Stephen First Church in Fort Worth, told the New York Times on Monday. “Our community has experienced so much. I don’t want to go overboard and start any kind of celebration because I don’t know how it’s going to turn out.”
Some of this caution is likely due to the fact that Jefferson’s shooting is just the latest in North Texas to stain already-fragile relationships between a black community and police. In nearby Dallas, residents have voiced several concerns about the city’s police department, concerns that were only intensified by evidence of preferential treatment given to police revealed during the recent trial for former police officer Amber Guyger, and the fact that she was only sentenced to 10 years in prison for killing Botham Jean, an unarmed black man, in his own apartment.
Dallas residents have also voiced concern about the October 4 death of Joshua Brown, a black man who testified against Guyger in September. 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. Even before Guyger’s trial this year, Jean’s family had already filed a lawsuit against the Dallas Police Department, saying its policies and officer training had violated the rights of minorities in Dallas.
Miles away in Fort Worth, Jefferson’s family says they also want their police department to make changes to officer training in the wake of the recent shooting. And as the investigation into the Jefferson’s death continues, the family has continued to call for an independent body to investigate the shooting, while also pledging to work to hold the police department to its promises of a transparent process.
“Fort Worth has a culture that has allowed this to happen,” Merritt, the family’s attorney, said this week. “There still needs to be a reckoning.”