The white Fort Worth police officer who fatally shot a 28-year-old black woman in her home over the weekend has been charged with murder, authorities said Monday.
Authorities moved quickly to arrest Dean after he shot Atatiana Jefferson through a closed window in her Fort Worth home while responding to a welfare call in the early hours of Saturday morning. In fatal officer-involved shootings, police seldom face criminal charges, and they are rarely charged with murder.
The prosecution of the officer is likely to serve as a stress test of relations between law enforcement and the black community in the region, which is still reeling from the fallout of an earlier case involving a white officer who shot a black neighbor in his apartment. Local leaders have called for a probe of the department, and Jefferson’s family and their attorney want an independent review of Jefferson’s killing, saying they worry race may have played a role.
A police spokesman, Christopher Daniels, acknowledged those concerns in a brief news conference Monday night. “To the citizens and residents of our city, we feel and understand your anger and your disappointment,” he said. “And we stand by you as we work together to make Fort Worth a better place for us all.”
The family’s attorney, Lee Merritt, said Jefferson’s parents and siblings were relieved Dean had been arrested. “We need to see this through to a vigorous prosecution & appropriate sentencing,” Merritt tweeted. “The City of Fort Worth has much work to do to reform a brutal culture of policing.”
Police said Dean had been with the Fort Worth Police Department since April 2018. Had he not resigned on his own, he would have been fired for violations of the department’s policies on use of force, de-escalation and unprofessional conduct in connection with the shooting, Fort Worth Police Chief Ed Kraus said Monday afternoon.
The department has also asked the FBI to review Dean’s actions for possible civil rights violations, according to the chief.
“None of this information can ease the pain of Atatiana’s family, but I hope it shows the community that we take these incidents seriously,” Kraus said. He apologized to the family on behalf of the department, saying he has “not been able to make sense of why she had to lose her life.”
It is not clear whether Dean has an attorney.
The swift condemnation of the shooting and the speed with which authorities announced the charge reflect efforts by city officials to ease tensions between police and black residents, which flared around the recent trial of Amber Guyger, a white former Dallas police officer who fatally shot her unarmed black neighbor, Botham Jean, in 2018.
Earlier this month, a Dallas jury convicted Guyger of murder and sentenced her to 10 years in prison. The details of that shooting bore some parallels to the shooting of Jefferson: Both victims were young, black and in their homes when they were killed by police. Jean, 26, was sitting on his couch in his apartment eating ice cream when Guyger entered and opened fire, apparently believing it was her own unit.
Days after Guyger’s sentencing, Joshua Brown, a key witness in the case, was fatally shot, stoking rumors that he was targeted because of his testimony. Police attributed Brown’s death to a drug deal gone awry and emphatically denied a connection to the Guyger case, but that has not quelled anxiety among some local officials and activists, who have called for an independent investigation, as The Washington Post has reported.
Jefferson was a graduate of Xavier University who worked in pharmaceutical equipment sales, her family said. She had recently moved into the house in Fort Worth’s Hillside Morningside neighborhood to help care for her mother, who was in poor health.
“She was a smart, ambitious, kind person with a nurturing spirit,” Jefferson’s older sister, Ashley, said during a Monday news conference. “Any parent would be proud to call her daughter.”
Officers were dispatched to Jefferson’s home around 2:25 a.m. Saturday after receiving an “open structure” call, according to police. A neighbor dialed a non-emergency line to request a welfare check because he noticed the door was ajar and the lights were on, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported.
While searching the outside of the house, police said, an officer saw someone standing near a window, and, “perceiving a threat, the officer drew his duty weapon and fired one shot striking the person inside the residence.”
Jefferson was pronounced dead at the scene.
Merritt, the family attorney, said Jefferson was playing video games with her 8-year-old nephew Saturday when she thought she heard a prowler outside the house. When she went to the bedroom window to see what was going on, he said, the officer opened fire.
On Monday, Merritt demanded an outside agency investigate the officer and the department’s practices. He said he believed the fact that Jefferson lived in a predominantly black neighborhood led officers to respond to the call more aggressively than they might have otherwise.
“This is a pattern for that department, and it seems common when dealing with people of African American descent,” said Merritt, a prominent civil rights attorney who also represents the Jean and Brown families.
A two-minute body-camera video released by police showed the moments leading up to the shooting of Jefferson. In the footage, two officers could be seen walking quietly around the side of the house and peering through screen doors, then moving down a driveway into a backyard.
One officer approached a closed first-floor window and shined a flashlight inside, then quickly raised his gun.
“Put your hands up! Show me your hands!” he yelled. A moment later, he fired through the window. He did not identify himself as an officer in the footage.
Along with the body-camera video, police released images of a firearm officers said they found at the scene.
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price has since told people to disregard the weapon. “The gun is irrelevant,” she said in Monday’s news conference. “She was in her own home caring for an 8-year-old nephew.”
Price acknowledged that the shooting of Jefferson had contributed to a breakdown in trust between the community and police. She said the city was taking steps to bring in a panel of third-party national experts to review the department’s policies and training practices. The city is also preparing to interview candidates for an independent police monitor position that was recently approved by the city council, officials said.
“We are all heartbroken today. Atatiana was a beautiful, smart, amazing young woman, by all accounts, who was unjustly taken from her family,” Price said. “There is nothing that could justify what happened Saturday morning.”
Price also apologized to James Smith, the neighbor who called police to Jefferson’s home for a welfare check. “I know you’re hurting today as well,” Price said. “You were being that wonderful neighbor, the one that we would all want next door to us.”
Jefferson is one of at least 709 people in the country who have been killed by police officers in 2019, according to a Post database that tracks such shootings. Of those, fewer than three dozen were women, five of whom were black.