By Jennifer Emily and Cassandra Jaramillo
The Dallas Morning News
FORT WORTH, Texas — The Fort Worth officer who shot and killed Atatiana Jefferson over the weekend likely relied on police training that overemphasized the risk to an officer's life while ignoring basic patrol guidelines every cop learns, law enforcement experts said.
Jefferson, 28, was at her home in southeast Fort Worth when she was shot around 2:30 a.m. Saturday. She was up late playing video games with her 8-year-old nephew when a neighbor — concerned because Jefferson's door was open and the lights were on — called a non-emergency police number.
When Officer Aaron Dean and his partner arrived, they went to the backyard. Dean shot Jefferson through a bedroom window. It appears they did not yell "police" or go to the open front door, according to the snippet of body camera footage released Saturday by the Fort Worth Police Department. Both approaches should have been part of Dean's training after he joined the department in 2018, the experts said.
At the same time, Jefferson's death shows that overall police training in the United States hasn't changed much, said Johnny Nhan, a criminal justice professor at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. Police academies and departments focus their initial and subsequent training on the fact that officers can be hurt or killed at any time, said Nhan, who studies police use of force.
"It focuses on the risk, officer safety. To not get killed and go home," he said. "Whenever you have someone just out of the police academy, they have a very heightened sense of danger and risk."
Dean was arrested Monday evening on a murder charge.
Nhan said that although policing is inherently dangerous, officers tend to go into situations feeling their lives are constantly in danger.
He compared Jefferson's death to the September 2018 shooting of Botham Jean in Dallas.
Former Dallas Police Department officer Amber Guyger was sentenced to 10 years in prison earlier this month for shooting 26-year-old Jean in his own apartment. Guyger, who was off-duty but still in her Dallas police uniform, told jurors that she confused his apartment with hers and thought Jean was a burglar. She said she thought her life was in danger. Guyger is white, and Jean was black.
"That's their default mentality: 'Something is wrong and I need to prepare for it,'" said Nhan, who has written a book called "Issues and Controversies in Policing Today."
Jefferson was the sixth person shot and killed since June by Fort Worth officers. Jefferson was black, and Dean is white.
The Fort Worth Police Department is 63% white, 21% Hispanic and 12% black, according to data released by the city in June. The city is more diverse, according to 2018 census data. Fort Worth is about 40% white, 35% Hispanic and 19% black.
Law enforcement officers in the United States have shot and killed 709 people in 2019 as of Monday afternoon, according to a database kept by The Washington Post.
Texas officers killed 79 (11%) of those people as of Thursday. Only seven were women. Overall, nine were black, 18 were Hispanic, 21 were white and the race is unknown for 31.
Dean resigned Monday, said interim Police Chief Ed Kraus, who said he had planned to fire the Fort Worth officer. The chief said Dean was not cooperating with the investigation. It was not clear whether Dean had hired his own attorney, but the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas said in a statement that its legal team would represent Dean.
According to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, Dean underwent training classes for crisis intervention, a refresher on using less lethal options, and courses on cultural diversity and on conflict resolution in the past several months.
Craig Miller, a former Dallas police deputy chief who testifies in cases about police use of force, said it appeared Dean fired his weapon into the house through a window very quickly after arriving and yelling for those inside to show their hands.
"Those commands are pretty quick," he said. "They almost came at the same time as the shooting."
Miller said that it appears from the body camera footage that there was no reason for the Fort Worth officer to act so quickly.
"He had time on his side," Miller said. "He could have moved more slowly with this."
Officers usually yell police as "PO-LICE," putting the emphasis on the first syllable so they are better understood, Miller said. Said in a normal tone, "police" can sound a lot like "please."
"The video tells a story" of what happened and what didn't," Miller said, adding that he would need to see what happened before and after the officer killed Jefferson to put it into context. What came before and after those two minutes will also be of interest to both internal and criminal inquiries, he said.
Miller said Dean is likely to say that he fired into the window because he feared for his life. Using deadly force for that reason is a defense to a murder charge. If the case goes to trial, a jury will decide whether a "reasonable officer" would have acted similarly, Miller said.
When Miller was with the Dallas Police Department, he oversaw investigations into police shootings and typically went to the location where they occurred along with his detectives. He recently consulted with the defense team for Guyger, who killed Jean.
Miller said if he were investigating this shooting, he would want to see the house during daylight to compare with the lighting officers saw that night. He'd also want to trace what happened in the lives of both Jefferson and the officer to get a better idea of their state of mind before the shooting.
Miller said it's also important to know what the officer knew about the neighborhood and that particular call before the shooting, as well as what other calls he had answered and if he'd been involved in prior shootings.
Despite the months of training officers go through, how it applies in the field depends on each scenario.
Former Dallas police Officer Vana Hammond Parham, who spoke about race and policing at the Texas Tribune Festival last month, said she spent several months under the supervision of a senior corporal when she was a rookie officer. During that time, she was evaluated at different phases on what was done well and what needed improvement.
"In the world, things are fluid. They are not black and white," Hammond Parham said.
She said trainers always stressed the importance of identifying yourself as law enforcement when responding to calls.
Hammond Parham said a wellness check call — typically a low priority — is different than a call about a so-called "open structure," meaning a home or other building with doors and or windows open.
"It's usually someone calling saying, 'Something doesn't seem right. Can you check it out?'" she said.
But officers would approach an open-structure call differently, she said.
The officer will need to search the building and make sure there are no threats, she said. It's not uncommon for an officer to have his or her weapon out, but she said identification is very important with those calls.
"The first thing we do is announce ourselves because you don't know who is in there," she said.
Kraus, the Fort Worth police chief, said the officers were not aware the call originated out of concern for Jefferson's welfare. They were told it was an "open structure" call. The chief said it would be typical for officers to announce themselves on a welfare check, but not if they thought the incident might involve a criminal situation.
Officer-involved police shootings frequently lead to an outcry for better training for police officers.
The National Black Police Association in a statement Monday criticized the Fort Worth Police Department and Dean. The association also called for law enforcement to improve its hiring and training tactics.
"No innocent person should be shot by police on a welfare check and the Black community needs to feel at peace when the police are called," the statement said.
After Jean was shot and killed, his parents, Allison and Bertrum Jean, sued the city of Dallas and Guyger, arguing that police officers need better training.
Reynold Verret, the president of Xavier University of Louisiana, a historically black college from which Jefferson graduated in 2014 with a biology degree, said in a statement that there is "an urgent need to fix a law enforcement system that is broken."
Verret said that while many officers fulfill their duty to their communities, the system does not serve everyone equally.
"We should expect safety when we call on our police, whose mission is to protect and serve," Verret said. "Sadly, our fathers and mothers must caution daughters and sons on their interactions with officers. Families in our communities hesitate to call on their protectors out of fear they be killed. This should not be."
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