The officer, Aaron Y. Dean, who is white, resigned earlier on Monday, hours before the police chief had planned to fire him amid the growing anger and frustration in the community that the woman, Atatiana Jefferson, had become yet another black person killed by the police, this time in the safety of her own home.
Police officers were responding to a call from a concerned neighbor when Jefferson, 28, was shot through her bedroom window.
The case resulted in a rare murder charge against a police officer only hours after the interim Fort Worth police chief, Ed Kraus, announced that the department was conducting a criminal investigation into the officer’s actions and had reached out to the FBI about the possibility of starting a civil rights investigation.
“I get it,” Kraus said of the widespread public anger that followed the release of body camera video in the case. It showed that Jefferson had been given no warning that it was a police officer who had crept into her backyard, shined a light into her bedroom window and shouted, “Put your hands up! Show me your hands!” immediately before firing a single fatal shot.
“Nobody looked at that video and said there was any doubt that this officer acted inappropriately,” the chief said.
The unusual and rapid developments, which followed a similar case in nearby Dallas where a black man was shot by an off-duty police officer in his own apartment, highlighted long-standing tensions in Fort Worth, where residents have frequently complained about abuse at the hands of the police. Since June, Fort Worth officers have shot and killed six people.
“A murder charge and an arrest is a good start — it’s more than we are used to seeing,” S. Lee Merritt, a civil rights lawyer who is representing Jefferson’s family, said on Monday night. But like many others, he said he was waiting to see how the case was prosecuted.
“Fort Worth has a culture that has allowed this to happen,” he said. “There still needs to be a reckoning.”
In interviews on Monday, community members recited prior episodes with authorities from memory: In 2009, a man with a history of mental illness died after Fort Worth police used a stun gun on him after his family had called for help.
In 2016, a mother called the police to report that a neighbor had choked her young son for littering, but the mother herself ended up getting arrested. In the video-recorded encounter, the mother, Jacqueline Craig, was forced to the ground and placed in handcuffs; her teenage daughters were also detained.
Community activists also cited the seven police shootings since early summer, six of them fatal, including the killing of a man who the police thought was carrying a rifle but was actually pointing a flashlight at officers after barricading himself inside a house.
“We’re beyond anger,” said the Rev. Kyev Tatum, a pastor at New Mount Rose Missionary Baptist Church in Fort Worth. “It’s trauma now. It’s unaddressed, toxic stress.”
Dean had been with the Fort Worth Police Department since April 2018, after graduating from the police academy a month earlier, according to documents provided by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, a state regulatory agency.
On Monday night, he was being held in the Tarrant County jail in lieu of $200,000 bond.
Jefferson had recently moved home with her mother, who was in declining health, and was selling medical equipment while she studied to enter medical school. She had been playing video games with her 8-year-old nephew in the early hours of Saturday morning when a neighbor called a police nonemergency line at 2:23 a.m., saying he was concerned that the front and side doors of Jefferson’s house had been open for several hours.
The authorities said Dean did not identify himself as a police officer before firing a fatal shot at Jefferson through the window.
Jefferson died in her bedroom after officers tried to provide medical assistance, according to the Tarrant County medical examiner’s office. Her nephew was in the room when the shooting occurred, the authorities said.
Kraus said he regretted that the Police Department had released photographs of a gun found on the floor below the window in Jefferson’s bedroom after she was killed — though he declined to say if she was holding it, or if the officer saw it before he shot her.
She had every right to have a gun in her bedroom, the chief said. “We’re homeowners in the state of Texas,” he said. “I can’t imagine most of us — if we thought we had somebody outside our house that shouldn’t be and we had access to a firearm — that we wouldn’t act very similarly to how she acted.”
A small group of neighbors and activists who had remained outside Jefferson’s home on Monday night cheered when they learned of Dean’s arrest. Some of them gathered to pray. But others remained skeptical, citing what they saw as a historical reluctance to prosecute and fairly punish police officers.
“You know what, this is Fort Worth,” said Michael Bell, the senior pastor of the Greater St. Stephen First Church in Fort Worth, who said he was among those waiting to see how the case was prosecuted. “Our community has experienced so much. I don’t want to go overboard and start any kind of celebration because I don’t know how it’s going to turn out.”
Jefferson was killed less than two weeks after the conclusion of the case in Dallas, in which Amber R. Guyger, a white former police officer, was convicted of murder. Guyger shot her unarmed black neighbor, Botham Shem Jean, in his apartment last year, claiming she thought the apartment was her own. The former officer was sentenced to 10 years in prison this month after a highly publicized trial.
That case took place in a neighboring county under a different district attorney. Still, many who had been following it could not help but draw comparisons. Though Guyger was convicted, activists have complained about what they saw as a lenient sentence.
“After watching what happened to Botham Jean and 10 years for taking his life, how excited can we be?” Bell said.
In 2017, after the controversy that followed the arrest of Craig and her daughters, the Fort Worth City Council appointed a task force to examine issues of race and culture. The task force presented a series of recommendations last year, including an avenue to involve citizens in oversight of the Police Department and recommendations to diversify the police force.
The City Council in September took action on several of the task force recommendations, including creating a police monitor position, setting up a police cadet program and beginning a diversity and inclusion program.
Over the weekend, activists who earlier this month stood outside the Dallas County courthouse to demand justice in the case against Guyger came to Fort Worth for a vigil for Jefferson.
“I saw many of the same faces,” said Omar Suleiman, an imam and activist in the Dallas area.
He said the latest shooting contributed to a feeling of exhaustion in the North Texas community, which experienced trauma anew with each new shooting, each new arrest and each new trial.
“We literally have not had a chance to recover,” he said. “There is just this deep anger and hurt in the streets that you can’t be safe in your apartment, you can’t be safe in your home, you can’t be safe in your car.”
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