Atatiana Jefferson’s shooting by a Fort Worth, Texas, police officer has made headlines since it happened last weekend. A white police officer shoots a black person in their own home… sound familiar?
Part of what makes the incident so bad is that it happened only a week or so after another white Texas police officer was convicted of murder for killing her black neighbor, Botham Jean, in his own home after she walked into his apartment.
Despite extensive evidence of racist and violent comments that she had shared on social media prior to the incident, she was sentenced to only ten years in prison. And was given a hug by the victim’s brother. And then was given a hug and a bible by the judge in her case. All of which sparked a social media debate over whether black Americans should forgive white police officers who murder black citizens…
Why do officers like the one involved in Atatiana Jefferson’s shooting default to violence? Are they trained to shoot first and ask questions later? Is there a better way?
Atatiana Jefferson’s Shooting
Apparently, a neighbor called the Fort Worth Police Department to request a “welfare check” because Jefferson’s door was left open. When officers arrived, they crept through Jefferson’s yard and around to the back of her house without announcing themselves, where officer Aaron Dean fired through Jefferson’s window, killing her in front of her 8-year-old nephew.
Just a reminder – when you call the police, whether it is for a “welfare check” or because you need help, you don’t know what they are going to do when they arrive. They might arrest you. They might violently assault you or your family. Or, they might shoot and kill you or the person you wanted them to help…
For Once, a Police Officer was Immediately Charged with Murder
Breaking from the normal routine of demonizing the victim, putting the officer on paid leave, and “completing a thorough investigation” to determine whether criminal charges are justified, the Fort Worth Police Department acted quickly to charge Dean with murder. He resigned before he could be terminated, but the police chief says, “his record will reflect a dishonorable discharge.”
Dean was arrested, booked, and released the same day on bond.
The Officer is Refusing to Cooperate with the Investigation
Dean has refused to talk to investigators or give a statement about what happened:
Dean has declined to speak with investigators since Saturday, the warrant states.
He first refused to be interviewed by the detectives in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, and his attorneys told police that he was going to provide a written statement at a later date, according to the document.
Although the article makes it sound like a bad thing, of course he is refusing to give a statement. He is charged with murder and his life is now on the line…
If he is being advised by a criminal defense attorney, he will keep silent and out of the public’s eye, at least until his case is resolved. His attorney can investigate the case, prepare his defense, and speak on his behalf, but nothing he says to investigators or to the media is going to help his case.
The Shooting Victim Pointed a Gun Out of her Window
According to her 8-year-old nephew, Atatiana Jefferson heard noises outside her window and retrieved a pistol from her purse just before Dean shot and killed her:
The boy, who was in the room with Jefferson when she was shot, told a forensic interviewer that he and his aunt were playing video games together about 2:30 a.m. Saturday when she heard noises outside their home in the 1200 block of East Allen Avenue.
Jefferson, 28, took her handgun from her purse and pointed it “toward the window” before she was shot, the nephew said, according to the arrest-warrant affidavit.
The 8-year-old saw his aunt fall to the ground. She was pronounced dead at 3:05 a.m.
Is that a defense to the murder charge? It could be for the right jury. But:
- Atatiana had a license to carry her firearm;
- She was not breaking any laws;
- The police did not announce themselves;
- It was 3:00 in the morning;
- She was with her 8-year-old nephew; and
- She heard someone prowling outside her window.
Did she have a right to defend herself and her 8-year-old nephew? She didn’t fire the weapon – she only picked it up in self-defense against an unknown person who was prowling outside her window in the dark in the early hours of the morning. Most people who own weapons for self-defense would have done the same thing.
Why Do Police in the US Keep Killing Citizens?
Why do police in our country keep killing people? Shoot first, ask questions later? Do what I say, or I will immediately resort to violence? Is that how we are training police officers? Why?
Warriors or Guardians?
A 2016 NY Times article breaks down the widespread use of “warrior training” in the United States:
The Minnesota police officer who fatally shot an African-American man during a traffic stop last week had recently undergone specialized training that critics say can lead officers to believe they are under constant threat of being harmed and can intensify encounters with civilians.
Part of the training involves showing officers videos of police officers being ambushed, shot, and killed, to impress upon them the dangers they face from criminals who appear to be ordinary citizens, teaching them that, “if you hesitate, you could lose your life.”
Training sessions such as “the Bulletproof Warrior” focus on “warfare” as much as they focus on police work. Besides the videos depicting police officers being murdered, the courses may include material on:
- Combat efficiency;
- Perceptual distortions in combat;
- Pre-attack indicators;
- Why officers need to use pre-emptive force; and
- Why officers need to use more force than they might believe is necessary in a situation.
These courses “reinforce the thinking that everyone is out to get police officers,” and “teaches officers, ‘If you hesitate, you could lose your life.’”
The booklet portrays a world of constant and increased threat to officers, despite more than two decades of declining violent crime in the United States, and the fact that the last few years have been among the safest to be an American police officer.
Should we be training law enforcement officers to see their communities as war zones that require constant vigilance and hair triggers? What happened to “protect and serve?”
In a time where the American Public has become fed up with police violence – particularly white police violence on black citizens, one police officer in West Virginia was fired for not killing a black suspect (and won $175,000 in compensation for his wrongful termination).
Of course, two other officers immediately shot and killed the suspect when they arrived on the scene…
What Can We Learn from Canada’s Police?
Does law enforcement in other countries murder the citizens they are supposed to be protecting?
In Canada, there were an average of 19 police shooting deaths per year from 2000 through 2017. For the same time period, police in the United States shot and killed an average of 982 people each year:
A recent CBC analysis found that between 2000 and 2017, 461 people were killed as a result of interactions with police in Canada. Of those deaths, 70 per cent were caused by gunshots — or about 19 police shooting deaths per year.
In the United States by contrast, an average of 982 people per year have been shot and killed by police since 2015, according to The Washington Post. Even given the larger population, that’s a per capita rate of police shootings seven times higher than in Canada.
Why? Canadian police are trained to:
- De-escalate conflicts;
- Distinguish between guns and other objects;
- Recognize attempts at “suicide by cop;” and
- Use non-lethal force whenever possible.
Even the terminology used can make a difference in how officers approach their jobs and the people they are supposed to be protecting. For example, in America we have a “police force,” while in Canada they have a “police service:”
One of the small-yet-important details that often goes overlooked when comparing Canadian and American police organizations is what those organizations are actually called in day-to-day speech. Americans are used to hearing about a “police force” being called out to deal with an emergency, catch a robber or track a suspect. Canadians, however, are protected by a “police service.” This tiny difference, of a single word, is enough to show how the philosophy psychology of the entire institution operates from the ground up.
How do we reverse America’s slip into an authoritarian police state where the excessive and repeated use of violence against citizens is tolerated, even encouraged by law enforcement officials?
SC Criminal Defense Lawyer in Myrtle Beach
Daniel A. Selwa is a criminal defense attorney in Myrtle Beach, SC.
Call now at (843) 492-5449 or send an email for a free consultation to discuss your case and how we can help.