A Fort Worth Police Department officer resigned Monday and was charged with murder for fatally shooting 28-year-old Atatiana Jefferson in her home at 2:30 a.m. Saturday on what was supposed to be a harmless welfare check. Her neighbor had simply called the police nonemergency line because he noticed Jefferson's door was open and the lights were on, which he said was unusual.
When someone calls the police, hoping that the police will check on the well-being of their neighbor, and the police kill that neighbor, that destroys a community's trust in law enforcement. The man who called the police, James Smith, now realizes that if he hadn't called the police, Jefferson would still be alive.
At that point, we have a tragic and volatile situation in Fort Worth, Texas, just 30 miles west from where former Dallas Police Officer Amber Guyger murdered 26-year-old Botham Jean in his own apartment because she wasn't paying attention to where she was going. She was just convicted two weeks ago. The wounds are still fresh.
What the Fort Worth Police Department did next only made things worse. The department released an initial statement that said the officer, Aaron Dean, "perceived a threat" as he was sneaking around the back of Jefferson's house unannounced, and that's why he shot her.
The statement also mentioned that a gun was found in the home. Police later released a photo of the gun, with no real context. It's important, again, to remember that this was a welfare check. The officers were supposed to go make sure she was okay. She was not a criminal suspect. She was in her home. It was 2:30 in the morning. Armed strangers were in her backyard.
The Second Amendment grants the right to bear arms. The laws of the state of Texas allow citizens to defend themselves, their families, and their homes using those arms. So Atatiana Jefferson had a gun. Good. Clearly she was justified in believing she needed one, as the intruder in her backyard killed her on sight. In fact, ex-Officer Dean should count himself lucky he wasn't shot for the way he approached her home.
According to Jefferson's 8-year-old nephew, who was in the house, they were playing video games when they heard something in the backyard. Like most people would, she suspected that there might be an intruder. She pulled a handgun out of her purse and moved toward the back of the home.
Officer L. Darch, the other officer who was at the scene, said she could only see Jefferson's face at the time Dean began screaming at her to show her hands seconds before killing her. Nobody identified themselves as law enforcement. There was no time given for Jefferson to respond or comply. She was presumed to be a threat in her own home, and she was killed.
It was supposed to be a welfare check.
The Fort Worth Police Department's initial reaction was to make sure the public knew that, yes, an officer killed an innocent woman in her home. But they also wanted to shape the narrative by letting us know that the officer perceived a threat, and that she had a gun. The statement didn't outright say she was partially responsible for her own death, but it's not terribly hard to read between the lines and see the idea that is being suggested.
It should be alarming to anyone who values and exercises their right to defend their home with a firearm when police try to use a gun in the home to justify deadly force against an innocent person. It happened in South Carolina, when a Greenville County Sheriff's deputy shot a man while responding to a medical alarm at his home because he had his gun. The sheriff's office had to apologize for issuing a false statement about how the shooting occurred.
When people resent, or distrust, or fear the police, these feelings are not voluntary or malicious. There is no joy in feeling that way about law enforcement. There is no inherent desire in law-abiding citizens to be antagonistic toward police officers. Who would want to feel that way about those on whom we rely to protect and serve us?
But trust is shattered when an innocent man is shot in his own apartment by a police officer, and the judge suggests during the trial that jurors can consider whether the Castle Doctrine applies to the murderer who walked in the victim's home to commit the crime. Or when the lead investigator says he doesn't believe the murderer even committed a crime because she had a reason to feel threatened.
And trust is shattered when police kill a woman on a welfare check at her home and immediately begin spinning the case as "police officer encounters armed threat."
Yes, Aaron Dean is no longer on the force. Yes, he has been charged with murder. Hopefully, justice will be served for the family and loved ones of Atatiana Jefferson. But the trust that has been lost between the Fort Worth PD and the community they serve will take much longer to rebuild. And the department bears responsibility for that.
"I likened it to a bunch of ants building an anthill and then somebody comes and washes it away, and they just have to start from scratch and build over," Fort Worth Police interim Chief Ed Kraus said.
Yes, the police must try to build over. Build over the dead body of Botham Jean. Build over the dead body of Atatiana Jefferson. Build over the pain of mothers, fathers, siblings, nephews, and the fear of those who wonder about what might happen if police ever visit their home, even if they have done nothing wrong. It is a necessary, but potentially impossible task, because even the forgiveness of the family or a sentence handed down does not replace what has been lost. Neither the lives, nor the trust.