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Family of Atatiana Jefferson, Black woman killed by police, sue city of Fort Worth and ex-officer

Jerome Ekpo Escho is suing both the city of Fort Worth and the officer who fatally shot his daughter Atatiana Jefferson through a window in her home.

Relatives of Atatiana Jefferson, the 28-year-old Black woman fatally shot by a Fort Worth, Texas, police officer in her home through a window, have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city and the former officer charged in her death.

The federal lawsuit was filed Monday in the Northern District of Texas by Jefferson’s biological father, Jerome Ekpo Eschor, against the city of Fort Worth and the former Fort Worth police officer who shot Jefferson, Aaron Dean. Jefferson’s maternal aunt Venitta Body and paternal aunt Arita Eschor were also included as plaintiffs.

“Her father, Jerome, decided to bring the claim in order to help the family finally get some justice and to bring closure,” said lead attorney Tanika J. Solomon in a phone interview with NBC News. “This is not just about money. This is about vindication.”

Image: Atatiana Jefferson.
Atatiana Jefferson.Family Photo

Dean, a 35-year-old white man, shot and killed Jefferson last year when conducting a simple welfare check at her house, after a concerned neighbor noticed a door had been left ajar and called a nonemergency police line. Jefferson, according to court documents, was up late that night babysitting and playing video games with her 8-year-old nephew.

Her death — which echoes that of Breonna Taylor, the 26-year-old black woman who in March was fatally shot by Louisville, Kentucky, police in her apartment — sparked widespread public outcry, prompting calls for police accountability and racial justice in the policing system.

In December 2019, a Texas grand jury indicted Dean, who prior to his arrest resigned from the Fort Worth Police Department. He has pleaded not guilty to a murder charge. Jim Lane, an attorney for Dean, told NBC 5 Dallas Forth Worth in October 2019 that Jefferson’s shooting was a “tragedy” and that Dean says he’s “sorry” and his family “is in shock.”

Monday’s civil suit, which seeks an unspecified amount of money for damages and attorney fees, alleged that Dean's conduct “demonstrated a deliberate indifference to and conscious disregard for the constitutional rights and safety” of Jefferson.

Fort Worth police arrived at Jefferson’s home around 2 a.m. ET on Oct. 12, 2019. Dean and another Fort Worth police officer responded to the welfare check call. Instead of announcing their presence or knocking, the suit claims, the pair bypassed a gate to the property’s backyard. Body camera footage released by police show the pair then peering through a window with a flashlight, yelling at a person: “Put your hands up — show me your hands,” and then finally shooting.

Body camera footage did not show the officers identifying themselves as police, and it confirmed the order of these events.

The Fort Worth Police Department said in a press release at the time that Dean felt threatened prior to discharging his weapon.

“A young woman has lost her life, leaving her family in unbelievable grief. All of Fort Worth must surround Atatiana Jefferson’s family with prayers, love and support,” Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said in a statement at the time, adding that the police department’s police chief would be “acting with immediacy and transparency to conduct a complete and thorough investigation.”

The Fort Worth Officers Association also put out a statement at the time, supporting a “thorough and transparent investigation” into Jefferson’s killing.

“Any loss of life is tragic, but the reported circumstances surrounding this incident are heartbreaking. We join the citizens of Fort Worth in mourning the death of one of our young community members,” the association said in the statement. “We are urging the Fort Worth Police Department to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation, and through that investigation we hope to gain clarity and understanding of what exactly transpired.”

Solomon emphasized Thursday that Jefferson did nothing wrong.

“On that fateful night, Atatiana was babysitting for her nephew," Solomon said. "Atatiana was being a dutiful auntie. This was a young woman who was a law-abiding citizen, not a stain or a blemish on her record.”

The lawsuit also argued that the city of Fort Worth is complicit in Jefferson’s alleged murder for failing to reprimand Dean in prior instances of excessive force and for failing to adequately train officers.

According to the suit, the city of Fort Worth “knew or should have known that Defendant Aaron Dean exhibited a pattern of escalating encounters with the public,” and the city “encouraged policies, practices, and customs with deliberate indifference to the rights of citizens.”

The suit did not elaborate on these alleged instances of prior excessive force, and Fort Worth police did not immediately return request for comment.

“There was no good cause, no reason for that man to jump the fence and to attack her in the way that he did, except that he was not properly trained, not properly supervised, not previously reprimanded and reprogrammed,” Solomon said.

When reached for comment, the Fort Worth Police Department said they're “unable to provide any comments” due to a gag order in place.

Jefferson, who died in her home as a result of the gunshot injury she suffered, graduated from Xavier University with a degree in chemistry. She returned home after college to help family with medical issues and was planning to attend medical school.

“We believe it’s time now for Atatiana to have her justice,” Solomon said. “It’s our hope, our thoughts that this case will be one that will have a resounding lasting impact on our criminal justice system, on policing, on training in de-escalation and sensitivity.”

“The city of Fort Worth is not a big city. However, the world is watching,” Solomon said.

Following her death, Jefferson's siblings became active in the Fort Worth Community through grassroots organizations and foundations in Jefferson’s memory. Most of the proceeds from the lawsuit, Solomon said, will “allow the family to further grow and develop that community in Atatiana’s name."