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Fort Worth shooting of Atatiana Jefferson exposes police training failures

As the department is scrutinized, the desire for federal standards for use of force and de-escalation training across the country are being championed.
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FORT WORTH, Texas — Huddled around a lectern at an historically black church, more than two dozen faith and community leaders unified their voices Wednesday to demand federal intervention following the fatal police shooting of a black woman while she was babysitting her nephew.

The killing of Atatiana Jefferson, 28, has become the latest flash point in one of Texas' largest cities, where members of the black community want a federal investigation for what they say is a pattern that has persisted for years of excessive force and civil rights violations.

"It's time for somebody else to take control of putting in place the right mechanism to hold the city of Fort Worth and our Fort Worth Police Department accountable," said the Rev. Kyev Tatum, an activist and president of the Tarrant County chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Tatum and others are calling for a federal consent decree, which would involve the Department of Justice investigating the Fort Worth Police Department and mandating potential reforms, as has happened in cities such as Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, where police-involved fatalities led to unrest. The faith leaders planned to send a joint letter Thursday to Attorney General William Barr.

Fort Worth defense attorney Albert Roberts, who lost a 2018 bid for Tarrant County district attorney, said the city created a race and culture committee after a previous alleged case of police abuse. The committee spent two years talking to various communities and city officials and made recommendations, including creating a citizens review board to monitor police, but none have been implemented.

"We don't need anybody to tell us we have a problem," Roberts said.

Fort Worth officials have said that a third-party panel of national experts will review the police department and that the city will hire a police monitor who would create a community oversight board.

But as the department's tactics come under renewed scrutiny, the desire for federal standards for use of force and adequate training across the country are being championed more forcefully by activists and politicians in the wake of the Fort Worth shooting.

"Atatiana Jefferson should still be alive," Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., a Democratic presidential candidate, tweeted this week. "We need real reform, now — including federal standards for the use of force that incorporate proven strategies like de-escalation, verbal warning requirements, and the use of non-lethal alternatives."

In the Democratic presidential debate Tuesday night, candidate Julián Castro, former mayor of San Antonio, Texas, brought up Jefferson's killing as he explained why he rejects a mandatory gun buyback program.

"I am not going to give these police officers another reason to go door-to-door in certain communities, because police violence is also gun violence and we need to address that," he said

Samuel Walker, a professor emeritus of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and an expert on policy accountability, said a federal standard is necessary and would go a long way to help departments that are not at the forefront of de-escalation and other policing tactics.

"There should be federal standards on use of deadly force although I worry about it getting through Congress," Walker said, "whether Congress will adopt a strong policy."

A bill that would bar police chokeholds, introduced in 2015 after the death of New York man Eric Garner while being arrested by police, remains held up in Congress.

Meanwhile, more than 30 states have passed laws related to de-escalation, Walker said, with departments adopting use of force standards that also take into consideration mental illness and are aimed at preserving life.

"The problem is in this country we have 18,000 separate law enforcement agencies. There's no national governing standards apart from Supreme Court decisions, so it's a serious problem," Walker said. "There's a lot of reform happening, but it's being done on a piecemeal basis and too often it's crisis management."

Departments can benefit from not only laying out when officers can and cannot shoot, he added, but by implementing review boards that look at shootings over a certain period and can pinpoint recurring problems.

"Are there problems with our policy, with our training? Or is it in the supervision and that's a huge issue?" Walker asked. "What you really have to have is a comprehensive approach to use of deadly force, and most departments don't meet all of those standards."

De-escalation training was being done in Fort Worth even before the latest police-involved shooting. The department said last year that its training sessions "have been modified to provide more tools to resolve police encounters that emphasize the safety of residents and officers."

Training failures?

Fort Worth interim Police Chief Ed Kraus said Monday that he had planned to fire the officer who shot Jefferson "for violations of several policies, including our use of force policy, our de-escalation policy and unprofessional conduct."

The officer, Aaron Dean, 34, ended up resigning and was charged with murder. He joined the department in April 2018. His actions during the shooting have raised questions about whether the department's training is sufficient.

Jefferson had been up until about 2 a.m. Saturday, playing video games with her nephew in her mother's home. A neighbor, concerned that the house's front door was ajar, called a nonemergency police line to ask that a welfare check be conducted.

Police body camera footage shows the officer shining a flashlight through Jefferson's window and yelling, "Put your hands up — show me your hands," before firing a single shot at her within about three seconds. The officer did not identify himself.

He and another officer responded to the call but never announced their presence even after entering the backyard, according to an arrest warrant.

The door had been left open because the family wanted to let cooler air in, the family's attorney has said. Jefferson's nephew told investigators that when his aunt heard the noises in the backyard, she went to get her handgun, and she pointed it toward the window.

But Jefferson legally owned the gun, and Kraus said she had every right to defend herself if she believed someone was prowling around the house.

Although Jefferson's neighbor in the city's Hillside Morningside section had called for a welfare check, the officers were told it was an "open structure" call — meaning the circumstances could have ranged from a homeowner who was unresponsive to something more nefarious.

LaRhonda Young, a former Fort Worth police officer from 1992 to 2004 who had once patrolled that neighborhood, said if time permits, officers must adequately scope out a scene before knocking on a door and potentially startling someone.

Young said sensory clues, such as the lights being on inside and it being one of the first cool nights in Fort Worth in days, would be signs to assume a burglary wasn't taking place. Walking around the backyard of someone's home in the dark would only make the situation more fraught, she said.

"I can understand that this is an open structure call and you need to take precaution, but it's just that — take precaution," Young said. "Take in your surroundings."

She said it's less a failure of training that an officer would respond in the way Dean reportedly did and more that Dean, a rookie officer, is likely learning from other rookies with less than five years of experience.

Craig Miller, a former deputy chief of police in Dallas, said overnight shifts in larger police departments are typically given to junior officers who have less seniority.

Young said it's incumbent upon all officers to have better relationships in the communities they serve so they can recognize the people who live there, whether they're law-abiding residents or people engaged in criminal activity.

"When I worked out there, we knew all the dope dealers," Young said. "They knew me by my first name. They didn't like me. But we had a mutual respect. Being a rookie is no excuse — you've got to study your neighborhood."

Kraus told reporters Tuesday that the latest shooting has been a blow to relations between police and the community in Fort Worth, which has seen nine officer-involved shootings so far this year, six of them turning fatal. All but two involved in the shootings were either black or Latino.

"I likened it to a bunch of ants building an ant hill, and somebody comes with a hose and washes it away," Kraus said of the relationship. "They just have to start from scratch."

The department did not respond to a request for comment about concerns from activists and calls for federal intervention.

Policing experts familiar with Fort Worth said a federal consent decree is unlikely in the city, which has been open to community policing programs, de-escalation and racial bias training. The national focus on the department has forced it to come to grips with how officers respond, Miller said.

"I just think that you have to realize we're not perfect," Miller said, "and the more training, the more prepared we can be, the better we can be as officers. It's progressive to say you want all the outside help you can get."

Suzanne Gamboa reported from Fort Worth, and Erik Ortiz from New York. Elizabeth Chuck contributed reporting from New York.