World

Fort Worth, Texas, police chief says there's 'no excuse' for officer's killing of woman

The furor in Fort Worth, Texas, on Tuesday over the killing of a black woman by a white police officer became increasingly about a gun pointed at a bedroom window. But the police chief and activists said the focus was on the wrong gun.

Frustration grows over perceived focus on victim's gun, mayor says it's 'irrelevant'

Fort Worth, Texas Mayor Betsy Price, left, speaks alongside interim police chief Ed Kraus at a news conference about the shooting death of Atatiana Jefferson. (David Kent/Associated Press)

The furor in Fort Worth, Texas, on Tuesday over the killing of a black woman by a white police officer became increasingly about a gun pointed at a bedroom window. But the police chief and activists said the focus was on the wrong gun.

Former officer Aaron Dean was arrested on a murder charge Monday in the slaying of Atatiana Jefferson. Police released an arrest warrant Tuesday quoting the victim's eight-year-old nephew as saying Jefferson had pulled out a gun after hearing suspicious noises behind her house.

Black politicians and others criticized the police and the media for bringing up Jefferson's weapon, angrily accusing the department of trying to deflect blame onto an innocent victim.

"The Fort Worth Police Department is going about the task of providing a defence for this officer," said Lee Merritt, an attorney for the Jefferson family.

Interim police chief Ed Kraus himself declared there was "absolutely no excuse" for the killing and said Jefferson behaved as any Texas homeowner would have on hearing a prowler. It wasn't clear from the warrant whether Dean even saw her weapon through the glass.

Dean, 34, resigned and was arrested Monday for firing a single bullet through a windowpane while investigating a neighbour's report about the front door being left open at Jefferson's home. Jefferson was staying up late, playing videogames with her nephew.

Police bodycam video showed Dean making his way around the side of the house into the backyard in the darkness and opening fire a split second after shouting at the 28-year-old Jefferson to show her hands. He did not identify himself as a police officer.

The killing early Saturday shocked people across the U.S. and led many black people to wonder once more whether they are no longer safe from police in their homes. Earlier this month, a white former Dallas officer was convicted of murder and sentenced to 10 years in prison for killing a black neighbour in his own apartment. She said she mistook his place for hers and thought he was an intruder.

'Throwing dirt on the victim'

In the arrest warrant, Jefferson's nephew said his aunt had taken a gun from her purse and pointed it at the window. Over the weekend, the police department also stirred anger by releasing images of the gun inside the home.

State Rep. Harold Dutton, a black Democrat from Houston, blamed the media in part.

"Why would you publicize that Ms. Jefferson had a gun in her home?" he asked. "I'm sure the police told you that. But that was her Second Amendment right, and equally as important, it had nothing to do with the incident for which we are here about. Too often, you, the media, have been complicit in throwing dirt on the victim while ignoring the real culprit, current law enforcement."

State Rep. Nicole Collier, a black Democrat from Fort Worth, likewise complained about the tendency to focus on things that could exonerate police officers, "like showing marijuana or showing a handgun when people are rightfully in their own home."

A bullet hole from the police officer's shot that killed Jefferson is seen in the rear window of her home. (Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press)

After a deadly shooting last year in Dallas, police reported finding marijuana in the dead man's apartment in what was decried by some as an attempt to smear the victim.

In the Fort Worth case, the arrest warrant notes that the other officer at the scene told authorities she could see only Jefferson's face through the window when Dean fired. Dean's own bodycam video showed that the view through the glass was obstructed by the reflection from his flashlight.

Merritt questioned whether Dean saw a gun at all, noting that the window was covered by blinds, it was dark outside, and Dean never said "gun" before firing, as officers are trained to do.

"Why do people keep weapons in their homes? Well, maybe, when there's someone prowling around in the back at 2 a.m. in the morning, you may need to arm yourself," Merritt said. "It is only appropriate that Miss Jefferson would have a weapon in that situation."

The gun was "irrelevant," Mayor Betsy Price said Monday.

"Atatiana was in her own home, caring for her eight-year-old nephew. She was a victim," she said.

Jefferson was 'in her own home, caring for her eight-year-old nephew. She was a victim,' Price said. (Atatiana Jefferson's family via Associated Press)

Out on bail 

Dean resigned without talking to internal affairs investigators, and what he saw and why he opened fire remained unclear. His attorney did not immediately return messages for comment.

The police chief did not directly address the nephew's account of the gun at a news briefing Tuesday. Police spokesperson Sgt. Chris Daniels said the information was included in court papers, so a judge would have a clear understanding of the facts of the case.

"Leaving out pertinent information could be seen as misleading; Judges DO NOT like that," Daniels said in an email.

Dean was held on $200,000 US bond and released after posting bail less than four hours after his arrest. The police chief said he would have been fired if he hadn't quit first. Police also referred the case to the FBI for possible federal civil rights charges.

Apparently close to tears, Kraus pleaded with the city of nearly 900,000 not to allow the killing to reflect badly on the entire department.

"The officers are hurting," he said. "They try hard every day to try to make this city better." He added: "I likened it to a bunch of ants building an ant hill, and then somebody comes with a hose and washes it away. And they just have to start from scratch."