On Oct. 12, it was a cooler night than most in Dallas, Texas, when one household left its front door open to allow the crisp fall air to circulate through the home. It was that open door that concerned neighbor James Smith, who made a nonemergency police line call. It was that door that an officer would walk in to shout out the words, “Put your hands up.”
It was that door that was entered that a gunshot had been fired at Atatiana Jefferson, a 28-year-old black woman. “Police are here to help us: serve and protect. But I feel like that only stands for white people. So, who do we trust? I don’t know. Each other maybe?” said Ramya Sinha, the president of Black Student Union and a sophomore business administration major.
“We have to group together and try to make a change, but at the same time, we shouldn’t even be having to do that. It shouldn’t be this way.” Aaron Dean, the officer who had been working with the Fort Worth Police Department since April 2018, was charged with murder on Oct. 13.
Dean resigned from his position only a few hours prior to his arrest and while the former officer was released on $200,000 bail, the Jefferson family and their lawyer Lee Merritt demanded justice, saying there was no probable cause to enter Jefferson’s property on the basis of the neighbor’s concern.
“It’s beyond me to begin to understand what kind of police force responds to a wellness call with the equivalent of SWAT,” Merritt said at a press conference the day after the shooting.
That night, Atatiana Jefferson was babysitting her eight-year-old nephew, playing video games with him in the early hours of Saturday morning, when officer Dean arrived to the home around 2:30 a.m. Dean wasn’t patrolling the area, but rather responding to a nonemergency call local neighbor Smith said he had made to conduct a welfare check on the home – after he took note that its doors had been left open for a few hours. Little did Smith know his phone call would lead to a closed-off investigation marked by yellow barricade tape, criss crossed over the home’s blue-porch fencing.
“I do understand the concern – there was a neighbor that called, the door was open, the police officer didn’t know what he was walking into – but I do think there could’ve been a different interaction between the people and it’s unfortunate what happened,” said Emma Wall, a junior dance major from Dallas, Texas.
This isn’t the first time a white Texan cop has killed an innocent black citizen. This event that has been marked as a tragedy by family and friends of the Jeffersons, in addition to the thousands on social media, comes a little over a week after Amber Guyger, a former Dallas police officer, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for shooting Botham Jean. Jean was an innocent black man in his home, shot after Guyger confused the location for her own apartment. Although the victim’s brother, Brandt Jean, has publicly forgiven Guyger’s actions and has wished her well, Sinha has a separate set of views.
“Forgiveness is a good trait to have, but I don’t think that should replace consequences and what needs to happen,” she said. “It’s definitely tough, especially for black communities because we’re getting destroyed; we’re getting killed. You don’t want to live with all this hate, but at the same time, it’s rightfully so. We can forgive, but definitely not forget.”
Lawrence Rosenthal, a professor at the Dale E. Fowler School of Law – who specializes in criminal law and justice, civil rights, the second amendment, search and seizure and interrogation law – said there were two main components that the officer didn’t appear to follow in terms of general police policies and training.
“It’s just sound practice to announce your office so that everybody knows the police are there,” he said. “Second, the officer in general, will not draw a weapon unless there’s been some particularized indication of danger.”
The Fort Worth Police Department said Dean had perceived a threat which led him to feel a reasonable fear to act and pull out his weapon. But Grant Oliphint, a junior television writing and production major, told The Panther that’s no reason to give Jefferson less than five seconds to react before firing his gun.
“I definitely believe racism still exists in our police department in general. That stems from different backgrounds and some people are way more defensive, and that’s where the racism shows,” said Oliphint, a Dallas-native. “Because I can tell you right now, if I was in Amber Guyger’s apartment, I wouldn’t be dead.”
Wall told The Panther that it’s unfortunate the cases of a few police officers portray a stereotype that all officers are racially biased. She cited the 2016 downtown Dallas march shooting which was meant to be a peaceful protest on raising awareness around police violence. Instead, Wall said the officers that were monitoring the event and ensuring the protestors’ safety were shot at, with five left dead.
“There are certain individuals and it’s unfortunate because those individuals will portray this whole image among all the police officers,” Wall said. “As a majority, they really truly do have good intentions of treating everyone as equals. It’s just super unfortunate that certain people have caused this stereotype for everybody.”
Raising concern for the socio-political arguments surrounding racial bias, safety and police interactions with citizens, Oliphint told The Panther that there are still very polarized actions taken when it comes to a police officer and the perceived threat’s skin color.
“When officers have weapons, they have that power on their belt and in their hands. If they’re fearful, they’re definitely going to use it,” he said. “They’re just trying to go home safe themselves, but there’s definitely bias and racism present, and in Texas, it’s definitely more prevalent.”
Sinha had one additional thought she wanted to give The Panther, concluding her interview with the notion that while questions may remain unanswered, racism stands as the predominant reason these incidents occur.
“Just because we don’t have slavery, doesn’t mean racism is gone. Clearly we can see it when black people are getting killed in their own homes,” she said. “Where can we live? Where can we exist? If not in our own homes, where?”