It’s been four days since Aaron Dean, a 34-year-old Fort Worth police officer, shot and killed Atatiana Jefferson, a 28-year-old woman in her mother’s home just four blocks east of I-35 on Allen Avenue. Jefferson was killed with a single shot fired from her backyard through her bedroom window by Dean, who had not identified himself as a police officer.
We are trying to wrap our heads around how it happened, around what went down at 2:30 a.m. Saturday. Cops work in dangerous situations. Their lives can hinge on split-second decisions. They are given guns for ultimate protection. Some cops use them because they are fired by racism. Sometimes cops use them to defuse a harrowing situation or to protect innocent lives. And sometimes they use them because they are simply afraid. This looks to be a case of sheer fear coupled with a deadly weapon.
What we know is that early Saturday morning, James Smith, who stays at his sister’s home across the street from Jefferson’s house, called the Fort Worth police department on a non-emergency line. He reported that his neighbor’s front and side doors were open — with the screen doors shut — and that lights were on in the house. He thought his neighbors were home because both of their cars were in the driveway, but he was concerned because the doors had been open for several hours and he hadn’t seen anyone moving around.
“It’s not normal for them to have both of the doors open this time of night,” James told the operator.
James was simply requesting that someone check up on his neighbor because of the time.
Two officers were dispatched to check things out at 2:25 a.m., and they arrived on the scene at 2:29 without sirens and parked around the corner. They made their way to the well-kept home in a neighborhood of nice working-class houses.
Body cams worn by the officers show them looking through the open doors and peering into one of the cars before circling around to the back of the house. Both officers had their flashlights on in the dark yard, and in footage released by the Fort Worth police department, we can see Dean shine his flashlight into a rear window. A human shadow can be seen through the window as
Dean instantly shouts, “Put your hands up! Show me your hands!” A split second later, he fires, killing Jefferson, who had come into the room with her 8-year-old nephew after hearing sounds in the backyard. At no time during the course of events did Dean or his partner identify themselves as police officers.
Dean, who had been with the force for 18 months, resigned Monday morning and was arrested and charged with murder on Monday afternoon. His bail was set at $200,000. He covered that and was released later on Monday.
We are having a hard time trying to figure out how the killing happened. Why didn’t the officers, checking up on someone whose doors were open, simply announce themselves when they arrived on the scene? There were two of them already there with more officers on the way. The neighborhood is not crime-infested, so the officers should not have been overly fearful when approaching the home.
When the officers went around to the back of the house and saw the shadow of a person in the glare of the flashlight, why did Dean not identify himself then? Why did he shoot at all? Police guns are their ultimate weapon. They are to be used only when an impending threat is so great that there is no way out of the situation. In this case, Dean, even if Jefferson appeared at the window with a gun — she evidently had a licensed handgun, but it is not apparent that she had it in her hands in the body cam footage — could have eliminated any perceived threat by simply turning off his flashlight, making himself essentially invisible in the dark yard.
We reached out to several Fort Worth police officers for their takes, but none of them were willing to talk. “There is simply too much heat around this to talk” was one message relayed to us.
We also reached out to Mike Gorman, the brother of Weekly writer Peter Gorman, who was a cop in New York City for more than 30 years, more than 20 of those spent on the street, primarily in Spanish Harlem, a pretty rough neighborhood. Mike, who is now a part-time judge, was always proud that he never fired his revolver. “I probably drew it 200 times but never even fired a warning shot,” he said.
That wasn’t because he never found himself in a tough spot. He received a number of medals for bravery. The one he’s most proud of is when he and a partner went to a bar to investigate a robbery and were confronted by a man pointing a shotgun at them. “We went right at him and wrestled the gun away without shooting,” he recalled.
So what happened here? we asked.
“I wasn’t there,” he said, “but you can’t shoot somebody because you are scared. If you get scared easily and don’t want to take real risks, don’t be a cop. That’s as simple as I can make it. The reality is that sometimes a cop has to let the person behind the door have a chance to get off the first shot.”
The Jefferson killing has an eerie resemblance to the Botham Jean murder, in which Dallas police officer Amber Guyger, after working a long shift, came home and distractedly entered an apartment on a floor different from hers. She saw a man watching television. Instead of backing out of the apartment and calling for help or allowing her brain to realize that the television was different from hers, that the chair the man sat in was not hers, or even to check the apartment number, she shot to kill.
Neither of those officers was threatened in any way. Even if they panicked, they both could have gotten out of the harm’s way they perceived with little effort. That they didn’t is an indication that they should have been screened unfit during their training.
It is a good thing that Guyger recently was sentenced to 10 years in prison. The same fate might await Dean. It is important that police officers might begin to face serious consequences when their actions, like in these two cases, are so outrageous as to be unimaginable by most of us. If that can extend to brutality meted out by officers, that would be helpful, too.
Unfortunately, it will not bring back Atatiana Jefferson or Botham Jean.