Thanks to the work of the Washington Post, we know that American police fatally shoot roughly 1,000 people every year. Many of these people are armed, some are certainly dangerous, and most of the shootings will be found to be “justified.” Justified can mean many things, particularly because most state laws and federal judicial precedent give police officers extraordinary discretion to use lethal force.
Indeed, the legal standard for an officer to use lethal force—nicknamed the “reasonably scared cop rule” by defense attorney Scott Greenfield—is so broad that almost every unjustified shooting must be plainly egregious. Atatiana Jefferson, 28, was killed in one such unjustified shooting this past weekend in Fort Worth, Texas.
Fort Worth police officers responded to a call for service at Jefferson’s home because a neighbor reported that the door to the house was open, and that was unusual for late night/early morning hours. One of the officers, Aaron Dean, walked around the house to investigate the area and do a “welfare check,” a police term for making sure everything is OK.
The body camera footage released by Fort Worth Police Department shows the moment when Dean suddenly turns toward the window, shouted “Put your hands up, show me your hands!,” and then shoots through the window of the home. Jefferson was killed in front of her eight-year-old nephew, with whom she had just been playing video games.
At no point did Dean identify himself as a police officer. It is entirely reasonable, then, that Jefferson might point a gun at Dean—as has been reported—while he appeared to be a stranger lurking outside of her home. Regular readers may recall the blog post last month about an officer who sought qualified immunity for shooting and paralyzing an armed man in his home. In that case as well, none of the officers involved announced that they were police. The judges in that case were incensed that officers would shoot someone in their own home without clearly identifying themselves as law enforcement.
Dean resigned just before he was to be fired and was later arrested and charged with murder for killing Jefferson. As is true in many headline making cases, Dean is white and Jefferson was black. But there is more.
Atatiana Jefferson was the seventh person shot and the sixth person killed by Fort Worth police since June. None of the other cases appear as egregious as hers, and from the media accounts they all are feasibly justifiable under the reasonably scared cop rule. At least one seems wholly legitimate, at least as it has been reported. But one man was killed while holding a flashlight that officers say they believed was a firearm. While that shooting may be legally justified, it’s hard to argue that shooting an unarmed man was absolutely necessary.
These police shootings can impose emotional costs throughout the communities where they happen. The neighbor who called the non-emergency line to report the open doors at Jefferson’s home gave a heartbreaking interview to local media:
I’m shaken. I’m mad. I’m upset. And I feel it’s partly my fault….If I had never dialed the police department, she’d still be alive….It makes you not want to call the police department…If you don’t feel safe with the police department, then who do you feel safe with? Do you just ignore crime or ignore something that’s not right?
The neighbor who thought he was doing the right thing is not alone. One study of Milwaukee shows that calls for service (typically 911 calls) precipitously drop in black neighborhoods after high-profile incidents of police violence against black people. Although fewer police calls may mean fewer unnecessary police interactions—generally, a good thing—the Milwaukee study also found that a surge of homicides coincided with that drop in calls. A community that fears its police will not trust its police, which increases the risks of crime and violence.
Although Texas requires police officers to take de-escalation training, the killings of Atatiana Jefferson and of Botham Jean in Dallas are glaring failures of that training to take hold. So long as officers are incentivized by policy and law to shoot when they can plausibly articulate a fear of bodily harm, de-escalation protocols are unlikely to win out in potentially dangerous situations.
Jefferson’s death may be atypical because many officer-involved shootings are not so obviously unjust, but officers—even when legally justified—are still killing people unnecessarily. Reducing the number of unnecessary police shootings through policy and law changes must be a greater public priority.