The Killing of Atatiana Jefferson by a Police Officer at Her Home Renews Scrutiny on Police Training and Use of Force
- The fatal killing of 28-year-old Atatiana Jefferson by a white police officer has renewed questions over police training tactics and what exactly can be done to prevent unnecessary use of force.
- Fort Worth police department’s interim chief Ed Kraus said during a Monday news conference that the officer, Aaron Dean, had resigned from his post and could face criminal charges.
- Police departments across the country lack national training standards. Chris Burbank, a former police chief with the Salt Lake City Police Department, said that training is often too aggressive and takes on a “us against them” kind of mindset. Rather than immediately taking action, he said it’s imperative that officers engage in deescalation to avoid confrontations that could turn violent.
- In the wake of officer-involved shootings, there has been an increased push to evaluate when officers can use deadly force, with California enacting a law in August aimed at addressing this issue.
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The fatal shooting of 28-year-old Atatiana Jefferson by Fort Worth police — which occurred while she was in her home with her nephew — is again raising questions about officer training and the use of force.
The shooting occurred on Saturday night, after a concerned neighbor called a non-emergency number because he noticed Jefferson’s lights were on and her door open. While he called police so they could check in and make sure she was safe, a white officer instead fired a single bullet through a window that killed Jefferson. A press release from the department said that the officer, while searching the home’s perimeter, noticed a person standing inside near a window and, perceiving a threat, drew his weapon.
“Put your hands up! Show me your hands!” the officer can be heard saying, according to body camera footage released by the department.
Her eight-year-old nephew was at the scene and saw his aunt get shot.
The police department’s interim police chief, Ed Kraus, said during a Monday news conference that the officer, who was identified as Aaron Dean, had resigned from his post and could face criminal charges. On Monday evening, Dean was booked at the Tarrant County Jail and charged with murder, according to local news reports.
“I’m so sorry. On behalf of the entire city of Fort Worth, I’m sorry,” Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said. “To Atatiana’s family, it’s unacceptable. There is nothing that can justify what happened on Saturday morning. Nothing.”
Jefferson’s death comes less than two weeks after Amber Guyger, a white police officer in Dallas, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for killing Botham Jean, a black man who was in his apartment, while she was off-duty.
Both Jefferson and Jean’s death have striking parallels: they were both in their homes (Jefferson was playing video games, Jean was eating ice cream), they were both shot by police officers despite not posing any threats, and they were both black.
—Kristen Clarke (@KristenClarkeJD) October 13, 2019
As noted by the Dallas Morning News, this is Fort Worth’s seventh recorded police-involved shooting since June 1, embroiling a department already in turmoil and that saw its former chief, Joel Fitzgerald, fired in May.
Following Jefferson’s murder, the department is, once again, in the spotlight. Insider reached out to the department for comment on its approach to training officers, to better understand how something as simple as a call from a well-intentioned neighbor could lead to a 28-year-old woman dead. The department’s public information officer told Insider that, at this time, they are only releasing information provided during a press conference, adding, “keep in mind this is an on-going investigation and we are limited to what we can share.”
Lack of standard officer training
Recent shootings during police encounters have brought increased attention to training tactics and what exactly can be done to prevent unnecessary use of force.
Officer training varies across the country. It usually includes topics such as firearm skills, self-defense, the use of non-lethal weapons, and criminal law. As noted by Vox, however, while police academies spend around 110 hours on firearm skills and self-defense, they spend just eight hours on conflict management and mediation. CNN pointed out that in various states, it takes less training to become a police officer than a barber.
Chris Burbank, a former police chief with the Salt Lake City Police Department who now serves as Vice President of Strategic Partnerships at the Center for Policing Equity, described the lack of national standards for police training as an error of the profession that has existed forever.
“I think the training tends to be a little too aggressive, and there’s a lot of extracurricular training out there that officers are exposed to that I believe is too aggressive and takes on the ‘us against them’ kind of feeling and everyone is a threat to you and you have to act before you’re reacted upon,” Burbank told Insider. “There’s too much of that that influences police officers, too much of that that creeps into policy and procedure as far as you need to get this done.”
According to a 2017 Pew Research Center report, 56% of officers felt that being aggressive is a more effective strategy in certain neighborhoods, rather than being courteous. Younger and less senior officers are particularly likely to use these types of methods while policing. Only 31% of officers described highly publicized deaths of people of color during police encounters as signs of a broader problem, compared to 57% of black officers who believed such deaths hinted at systemic issues between police and the black community.
While codes, case law, and legal decisions, like the 1989 US Supreme Court opinion in Graham v. Connor, provide limits on what police officers can do, critics have argued that they, in fact, could protect officers over citizens.
For instance, the Graham decision decided that the court can determine whether an officers’ action was “‘reasonable’ under the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. In sum, that meant the ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”
Devon Carbado, a law professor at UCLA, noted in a 2016 article in the Georgetown Law Review that “the Supreme Court has interpreted the Fourth Amendment to protect police officers, not black people.”
A common phrase used to describe some police shootings is “lawful but awful” — because the officer is, technically, within the law by exerting lethal force, by claiming their fear of harm as reasonable, yet the shootings have led to police killings of unarmed individuals.
In the wake of shootings, however, there’s been a push to reform such standards: a new California law, for example, will require police to use lethal force only as a “necessary” response to a threat, rather than as a “reasonable” response.
“The reality is, officers rarely face consequences, and families like mine are left to wonder who is policing the police,” Kori McCoy, whose younger brother Willie McCoy was killed in February, told NPR following the signing of the California law.
Deescalation over in the moment
The Pew Research Center report found that, when it comes to the use of force, which isn’t consistent across the nation, around a third of officers found their department’s use-of-force guidelines to be useful in potential situations, while 26% of officers felt their departments’ guidelines were too restrictive. Further, 56% of officers worried their fellow officers spent too much time diagnosing a situation before acting, with black officers and administrators the only groups more likely to express concern over officers not spending enough time assessing their circumstances.
Burbank told Insider that, in use of force situations, officers often focus just on the moment, rather than engaging in deescalation tactics that could avoid such situations. He said that there needs to be more emphasis on regulating behavior — for example, not conducting searches without a warrant or probable cause to obtain a warrant to avoid possibly tense situations between officers and citizens.
“The notion that we need to deal with things immediately, that there’s a time constraint on the work that we do, that there’s an escalation that we take action, when you look at that in contrast to what we’re trying to do with d-deescalation training — we focus just on the moment, let’s focus on everything before that,” he said. “Make a different decision long time before so when it comes to the moment of crisis, when you are confronting that person, you now have an advantage because you’ve done all you can to make sure you don’t have that moment of confrontation.”
Kraus, the interim police chief, said on Monday, in the wake of Jefferson’s murder, that he has asked the FBI to look into the shooting, for possible civil rights violations. He noted that, if Dean hadn’t resigned on his own, he would have been fired for violating the department’s policies on use of force, deescalation, and unprofessional conduct.
The family’s attorney, Lee Merritt, has also demanded an outside agency investigate the officer and department practice.
“You can easily stand on the other side of the window so the person is no longer a threat, I mean there’s a much more reasonable way to do this business,” Burbank told Insider, adding, “If I can point out one thing, I believe that training needs to be more about not getting into the situation, than what to do in the middle of the situation. You still want to train them about what to do in the middle, but you need to train them let’s not get in this situation in the first place.”