Police reform moves in fits and starts
Less than two weeks ago, S. Lee Merritt hailed the murder conviction of a former Dallas police officer who fatally shot her neighbor as a “huge victory” for “black people in America.”
Today, the civil rights attorney is representing the family of Atatiana Jefferson, another black Texan gunned down at home by a white police officer.
Not far from the Dallas courthouse where Merritt predicted a changing tide in police accountability, he described how Jefferson’s 8-year-old nephew stood in the room with her last Saturday when a Fort Worth police officer fired through her bedroom window.
The boy saw Jefferson, 28, his “Auntie Tay,” crumple to the floor and die.
“What would have happened if that little boy went to the window instead of his auntie?” Merritt asked.
Almost every deadly police shooting in America seems to amplify the clamor for sweeping police reform that started after Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was fatally shot by a white police officer in August 2014
The road from Ferguson to Fort Worth is pitted from the frustrating fits and starts of reform and accountability. The police killings of civilians — many of them black and unarmed — remain unabated even as more than 30 states have passed dozens of laws on de-escalation and use of force.
Still, the former Justice Department prosecutor who investigated the Ferguson Police Department said the initial handling of the Fort Worth case keeps the prospect for change alive.
“There are a few things about this incident that give me some hope that we have somehow managed to move forward in a positive direction but it is far from steady progress,” said Christy Lopez, a deputy chief in the special litigation section of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under President Obama.
After Ferguson nationwide protests paved the way for improved training and stricter use-of-force policies in some agencies. But few officers were charged criminally. Fewer were convicted.
As Jefferson’s family prepares to bury her — another black life cut short by police gunfire — a community struggles to make sense of the tragedy, leaving some to ask: What has changed since Ferguson?
A scholar who tracks police shootings says not much.
“I don’t feel like there’s been reform throughout policing in this country,” said Philip Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and a former police officer. “Things are pretty much business as usual.”
The case for hope
Jefferson was playing a video game with her nephew early Saturday morning when rustling outside her bedroom window startled them, according to Merritt.
A concerned neighbor had called police. Two doors to Jefferson’s home were ajar. The neighbor did not know Jefferson had left them open to circulate air through the house.
Since Ferguson, body cameras have become a mainstay in many US police departments. Bodycam footage from the morning Jefferson was killed showed an officer peering through two open doors without announcing his presence. He then crept around the house and approached a darkened window.
“Put your hands up! Show me your hands!” the officer screamed, without identifying himself as a police officer.
Within seconds, the officer fired his weapon through the glass pane. He was in the middle of saying “show me” a second time when the shot rang out. Jefferson was pronounced dead minutes later.
The officer opened fire after “perceiving a threat,” according to police. A firearm was found when they entered Jefferson’s bedroom. Police would not say whether she was holding the weapon at the time.
But Jefferson had a legally owned gun and carry license, Merritt said. She had every right to have the gun with her when she believed someone was lurking outside her home, he said.
City officials quickly condemned the shooting as unjustified. The officer who fired the fatal shot, Aaron Dean, was arrested and charged with murder within days — actions that some experts attribute to the ongoing national conversation about police killings.
“Ferguson and everything that happened after, especially the protests, have had a huge impact on public opinion,” said Sam Walker, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He credits outrage over Michael Brown’s death and other killings for what he calls an unprecedented burst of police reform.
“People have gotten aroused,” he said.
Fort Worth ‘didn’t waste any time dealing with this,’ criminologist says
After Dean’s arrest, the spokesperson for the Fort Worth Police Department, Sgt. Chris Daniels, said: “To the citizens and residents of our city, we feel and understand your anger and disappointment.”
Interim Police Chief Ed Kraus said Dean resigned before Kraus could fire him. The department has presented a preliminary case to the FBI to review the officer’s actions for possible civil rights violations.
“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.
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said the killing could not be justified.
“On behalf of the entire city of Fort Worth, I’m sorry,” Price told reporters. “To Atatiana’s family, it’s unacceptable. There is nothing that can justify what happened on Saturday morning. Nothing.”
Even skeptics about the prospects for reform call such acknowledgments a small measure of progress.
“What we have moved on to is that more people from all walks of life are paying attention to use of deadly force by police officers,” Stinson said.
“In Fort Worth, they didn’t waste any time dealing with this as if it were any other murder case. And maybe, if we’ve seen any change at all, what we’re seeing in some places is that kind of thing.”
Shootings remain steady, prosecutions rare