Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.

Close Newsletter Signup

Atatiana Jefferson’s Death Was A Failure Of Policing

Atatiana Jefferson’s Death Was A Failure Of Policing

Spotlights like this one provide original commentary and analysis on pressing criminal justice issues of the day. You can read them each day in our newsletter, The Daily Appeal.

Early Saturday morning, Atatiana Jefferson, a 28-year-old Black woman, was at her home in Texas playing video games with her 8-year-old nephew when police officers responded to a call made by a neighbor who noticed a front door open. Body camera footage released by the police shows Aaron Dean, a white police officer, going around the back of the home and looking into Jefferson’s bedroom window with a flashlight. He does not identify himself as an officer. Instead, he shouts, “Put your hands up! Show me your hands!” immediately before firing a single bullet that killed Jefferson.

Dean resigned before he was to be fired by the Fort Worth Police Department and has been charged with murder. He was subsequently released on bail. “The shooting instantly sparked fear and outrage in Texas’ Black communities,” reports NPR. “Many drew similarities [between] this incident [and] the death of Botham Jean, who was killed in his own apartment by Dallas police officer Amber Guyger.”

NPR’s Steve Inskeep spoke to Kami Chavis, professor of law and director of the criminal justice program at Wake Forest University, about the incident. Chavis said that the neighbor’s call reporting suspicious activity was not unusual. “Officers receive training and there are policies to follow in these situations,” she said. The killing under these circumstances was, she said, “highly unusual.” When Inskeep asked whether she would recommend a change in training based on the incident, she essentially said no. She pointed out that Dean was going to be fired “based on policy violations” if he hadn’t resigned. “Officers are trained in these situations,” she reiterated.

It sounded as if Chavis, a former federal prosecutor, was saying that the police department did a fine job training its officers, and that Dean was a bad apple. This is an appealing narrative, because it means policing problems can be fixed with one-off murder charges for bad cops, but it simply isn’t true. Bad apples aren’t the cause of the problem, and murder charges alone aren’t the solution.

For starters, Fort Worth doesn’t have a police chief at all; it has an interim police chief. That’s because the former chief, the first Black man to hold the position, was fired this year. He is now pursuing legal action against city officials, saying that his efforts to reform the department were hampered and that his firing was unjustified.

And in a Vox article titled “Fort Worth police had problems way before the Atatiana Jefferson shooting,” P.R. Lockhart writes that Jefferson’s death has “placed renewed scrutiny on the actions of the Fort Worth Police Department, which has faced criticism several times in recent years” for local police shootings and high-profile incidents of excessive force. “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.”

Jefferson’s death is the sixth fatal police shooting in the city since June and the ninth shooting this year. Advocates “point to a number of incidents in the city’s recent history,” writes Lockhart, “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.” Several of those abuses are described in the article. Lockhart adds that people who live in places where high-profile police shootings have occurred in recent years have been arguing “that these incidents of police violence do not happen in a vacuum and cannot be separated from other actions of local police departments.”

But the Fort Worth Police Department seems to be treating the incident as an isolated action committed by a rogue officer. The agency publicly identified the officer, and the interim chief of police apologized to the family and asked the Fort Worth community not to allow the incident to reflect poorly on the entire police department. “The officers are hurting,” he said. “They try hard every day to try to make this city better.”

In a column for the Washington Post, Radley Balko attributes Jefferson’s shooting to “law and order rhetoric.” No reasonable person, he writes, would suggest that Aaron Dean, Amber Guyger, or other cops who have shot civilians “started their shifts intending to kill someone. …  In fact, if we could somehow read the minds of all the officers involved in these cases, I wouldn’t be surprised if we learned that all of them sincerely feared for their safety. The problem is that not one of them was actually in any danger.” Legally, police may use lethal force if they have a “reasonable fear for their safety or for the safety of others,” and when considering police officer liability, courts have consistently held that they should consider only the facts known to the officer at the time.

“But reasonable isn’t the same thing as legitimate or accurate,” writes Balko. “And if police officers are seeing threats where there clearly are none, it makes sense to start asking why. This is where the rhetoric of police groups and their supporters comes in. Law enforcement advocates such as the National Rifle Association, police unions, conservative politicians and, of course, President Trump regularly tell us there’s a ‘war on cops.’” They “fuel the mistaken belief that relatively rare incidents such as roadside ambushes are common.” Often, though, “courage is holding your fire.”

More fundamentally, Jefferson’s death has been a reminder that people, especially people in communities of color, who see something suspicious or worrisome nearby are left with a terrible dilemma: They can either do nothing and hope everything is all right, or they can call the police and hope that no one gets killed. Jefferson’s neighbor, who has expressed remorse for calling the cops, had taken care to call a non-emergency line. It didn’t make a difference.

Police have simply shown that they are not good at keeping people of color safe. Calling for trust, as the Fort Worth interim police chief did, is not sufficient when people keep getting shot, nor are attempts to change police behavior through trainings and initiatives. Even sending officers to prison does not bring about real change.

“Cop convictions are increasing, but cop killings roughly remain constant,” Derecka Purnell, a human rights lawyer, writes in The Guardian. “Prison time certainly punishes some police for past behavior, but the US supreme court grants police so much legal protection for violent behavior that most of the killings are legal, constitutional or unexamined.” This does not amount to increased safety for people of color, she says. “Safety for black people could be less about sending individual cops to prison, and more about creating the conditions where people do not rely on police to feel safe. … As police officers are transferred or sent to prison, new ones replace them, but the job description does not change. Thus, organizing around a single cop’s conviction misses the point that policing is problematic.”

“After a movement against police violence erupted in 2014, scholars, nonprofit groups and politicians reimagined police officers as youth mentorsmental health professionals, and social workersagainst the wishes of many police officers,” wrote Purnell and Marbre Stahly-Butts, executive director of the Law for Black Lives, in a recent op-ed in the New York Times. “But the police do not help vulnerable populations—they make populations vulnerable. Excessive force is the No. 1 investigated complaint against police officers, and sexual violence is the second.” Police “kill an average of nearly 1,000 people annually, and sexually assaultphysically assault, harass, and surveil hundreds of thousands more.”

Philanthropists and politicians have called for more “community policing,” encouraging police departments to develop partnerships with community groups, “but community policing is an empty phrase,” Purnell and Stahly-Butts write. “A Washington Post report showed that law enforcement use of force increased in half of police departments with consent decrees. Asking police officers to strengthen community relationships—including by doing things like playing football with children or handing out ice cream—does not reduce their power to harm anyone.”

Hope, for these advocates, comes from efforts to simply limit policing, on school campuses for example. They also point to efforts such as the Oakland Power Projects, which “trains community members in health skills and emergency response practices to reduce reliance on the police and to create the support networks needed to address the issues that cause problems in the first place.” They note that the Audre Lorde Project’s Safe Outside the System in New York creates resources for LGBTQ communities to build safe spaces without police involvement. “Systems of oppression, like slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration, must be reduced and abolished—not reimagined. Police officers, who primarily put people in cages, are the enforcers of mass incarceration. We must reckon with the reality that the police are part of the problem and stop investing money, power and legitimacy in them.”

Support The Appeal

If you valued this article, please help us produce more journalism like this by making a contribution today. From now until Dec. 31, NewsMatch will match gifts up to $1,000 each. Monthly donations will be matched at the annual rate.