- - Sunday, October 20, 2019

The tragic shooting death of Atatiana Jefferson at the hands of Fort Worth police officer Aaron Dean has reignited the conversation around policing and the use of deadly force. It is clear Miss Jefferson was innocent. She should be alive today. It is also possible that mistakes were made in the police response to the call to Miss Jefferson’s home to investigate an open front door. But these facts, taken by themselves, do not mean Aaron Dean is guilty of murder.

The shooting death of Miss Jefferson marks the second time in about the last year that an African-American was shot to death in his or her own home by police in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The first such instance involved the equally tragic fatal shooting of Botham Jean by former Dallas Police Officer Amber Guyger. 

In this most recent case, then-officer Dean responded to the Jefferson home in response to a call for service. A neighbor notified the Fort Worth Police Department the front door of the Jefferson home had been left open and that was, presumably, unusual. The neighbor was concerned enough to notify police rather than go check it out himself. Two Fort Worth police officers, including Dean, responded. 

What these officers did before the encounter that resulted in the shooting of Miss Jefferson is still unclear. What we do understand is that the officers at some point began checking the perimeter of the home. That is when there was an encounter between Dean and Miss Jefferson. It seems likely, based on the publicly available evidence, that Miss Jefferson had armed herself with her handgun because she heard a noise outside that caused her concern. It was entirely reasonable and lawful for her to do so. 

An officer responding to this type of call would be expected to verify the well-being of the rightful occupant of the home. This would include a check of the perimeter of the home to see if there was any sign of forced entry or other indication that a crime had been committed. Responding officers should also try to determine whether there was anyone inside the home who needed emergency assistance.

A key question that must be answered is this case: Should responding officers have announced themselves before checking the perimeter? If it had been done, it most likely would have prevented this tragedy. But is an announcement normally made when a uniformed officer checks the perimeter of a home in these circumstances?

Do officers announce themselves, for example, when checking the perimeter of a home when a burglar alarm has been activated? Would they announce themselves if the neighbor had reported someone had broken into the home or that a suspicious person was in the back yard? The answers to these questions, in my experience, is no.

Officers are trained to enter these situations with a degree of stealth. They park away from the front of the house so as to not draw the attention of anyone who may have forced their way into the home. They also do this when responding to domestic violence calls, burglar alarms and any other circumstance in which the situation is either uncertain or dangerous. It is a near-universal element of police training. And it is a practice that has likely saved the lives of countless law enforcement officers over the years.

Tragically, it seems entirely possible that this practice contributed to the death of Miss Jefferson.

Miss Jefferson likely pointed her handgun at Aaron Dean before he fatally shot her. If she did, it was almost certainly because she mistook Dean for a burglar. But some have been critical of the Fort Worth Police Department for publicizing that fact. Some have gone further and called it “irrelevant” whether that happened or not.

That is completely wrong, dangerously wrong, even. It is hard to imagine a more relevant fact — that is, if you earnestly want to determine whether Dean is guilty of a crime. It is only irrelevant if you aren’t concerned with the facts at all and just want to send a cop to jail, right or wrong.

Determining whether a police officer’s use of deadly force is lawful is not based on a comparison of blame between the officer and the person who has been shot. This is a tragic case, but the fact that Miss Jefferson did nothing wrong, and was a wonderful person, is not a part of the legal analysis. The legal analysis is relatively straight forward: Did the officer act in a way that a reasonable police officer in his position would act?

This is an analysis done from the involved officer’s perspective considering all of the circumstances known or perceived by that officer. So, if Dean had a handgun pointed at him and he reasonably believed he was about to be shot, the use of deadly force to defend his life would, most likely, be reasonable.

If you add that he would have no way to know that Miss Jefferson was a completely innocent homeowner who, because of lighting or any number of other reasons, could not tell he was a uniformed police officer, Dean’s actions seem much more like the result of a terrible, tragic accident than a murder.

The shooting death of Botham Jean in Dallas and Atatiana Jefferson in Fort Worth are equally jarring to the conscience. Neither is to blame in any way for their unnecessary deaths at the hands of uniformed law enforcement officers. Both were in their homes and neither invited any interaction with the officers who killed them.

But each case must be reviewed with careful attention to its particular facts. Sometimes this analysis takes time. Prosecutors and other elected officials must pursue the ends of truth and justice and not fear public backlash for taking the time to do the right thing. 

Law enforcement officers are not above the law, but neither are they beneath it. They have the same right to due process and the same presumption of innocence as any other citizen. When an officer uses deadly force, the public has the right to be confident that there will be a thorough and professional investigation. They have the right to expect that when an officer violates the law, he or she will be held accountable.

But our law enforcement officers are also entitled to fairness and justice. This case gives reasonable observers reason to question whether the ends being pursued are that of justice, or political expedience. 

• Jason Johnson is a former deputy police commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department and current president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund (policedefense.org).

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