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Botham Jean, Then Atatiana Jefferson: Outrage in Texas as Police Kill Another Black Resident at Home

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Image Credit: Twitter: @KristenClarkeJD

A white police officer in Fort Worth, Texas, has been arrested and charged with murder, after he shot and killed an African-American woman who was inside her own home. Officer Aaron Dean was responding to a non-emergency call for a wellness check after a neighbor had called the Fort Worth police to report that 28-year-old Atatiana Jefferson’s front door was open at around 2:30 in the morning on Saturday. Soon after the officers arrived, Dean, who never identified himself to be a police officer, shouted through Jefferson’s bedroom window to put her hands up, and then immediately opened fire, killing her. Minutes before the shooting, Jefferson had been playing video games with her 8-year-old nephew, who witnessed the shooting but was not physically injured. Atatiana Jefferson is the seventh person since June who has been killed by one of the police department’s officers. From Dallas, we speak with Lee Merritt, a civil rights attorney representing the family of Atatiana Jefferson.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin in Fort Worth, Texas, where a white police officer has been arrested and charged with murder, after he shot and killed a 28-year-old African-American woman who was inside her own home. Officer Aaron Dean was responding to a non-emergency call for a wellness check after a neighbor contacted the Fort Worth police to report that Atatiana Jefferson’s front door was open at around 2:30 in the morning on Saturday. Soon after the officers arrived, Dean shouted through Jefferson’s bedroom window to put her hands up. He then immediately opened fire, killing her. He never identified himself as a police officer. Minutes before the shooting, Jefferson had been playing video games with her 8-year-old nephew, who witnessed the shooting but was not physically injured. Fort Worth Police Sergeant Chris Daniels announced the arrest of officer Aaron Dean on Monday.

SGT. CHRIS DANIELS: The Fort Worth Police Department would again like to express our deepest condolences to Miss Jefferson’s family. We understand that this is a tough and tragic event, not only for her family, but for the community. We value the trust that we’ve had with our community. We will continue to build that trust. And we will continue to be as transparent as possible in all police matters. Concerning the status of the criminal investigation, at approximately 6 p.m., Aaron Dean was arrested for the murder of Miss Jefferson.

AMY GOODMAN: Officer Aaron Dean’s arrest came just hours after he resigned from the police department amidst growing outrage. Atatiana Jefferson’s family also held a news conference Monday, before Dean’s arrest. This is the family’s lawyer, Lee Merritt, addressing reporters.

LEE MERRITT: I want to go ahead and dispel the myth that this is somehow a one-off, that this was just, you know, a bad luck incident from an otherwise sound department. The Fort Worth Police Department is on pace to be one of the deadliest police departments in the United States. They’re in need of serious systematic reform. We are asking that the federal government comes in, the Department of Justice comes in and takes a conscious look at the policies and procedures that allowed something like this tragedy to happen. … They created a deadly situation, and they responded in a way that is not unique to the city of Fort Worth. In the last six months, they’ve had 10 officer-involved shootings, seven officer-involved deaths. That’s more than most nations for a single city in Texas. It represents a serious problem that must be addressed.

AMY GOODMAN: Atatiana Jefferson is the seventh person since June who’s been killed by one of the police department’s officers. Her killing comes after white off-duty police officer Amber Guyger was convicted of murder for killing her black neighbor, Botham Jean, in his own apartment in nearby Dallas. She said she thought it was her apartment.

Well, for more, we’re joined by civil rights attorney Lee Merritt, who’s representing the Jefferson family.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Lee Merritt. Why don’t you lay out exactly what you understand took place?

LEE MERRITT: Tay Jefferson’s neighbor — and, I’m sorry, the family calls her Tay — that’s Atatiana Jefferson’s neighbor called law enforcement. He called a non-emergency number because he noticed that the doors were open. The doors were open because the family was inside. Tay and her nephew Zion were inside. It was a cool night, and they were enjoying the first fall breeze in the Texas area. But he was concerned that the owner of the house, Ms. Yolanda, who had a heart condition, may have been suffering an emergency, and so he called the non-emergency number to say — to check on her wellness. He gave them the information that you have, that he was concerned because the door was not usually left open.

The city of Fort Worth responded by sending out a tactical unit, their equivalent of SWAT. They parked their cars around the corner. They crept up to the property. They passed two open doors — two open and lit doors — and went around the back of the property, with unmarked officers, without announcing themselves, with wearing black uniforms because of their tactical position. As they were creeping around the back of the house, Tay, from the inside, and her nephew Zion heard noises. Tay went to the window to investigate. And the next thing that she knew, there was an officer, who was someone she wouldn’t have known to be a police officer, shouting commands. And within 0.6 seconds — I had an expert break down the video — 0.6 seconds after the command, he shot her.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Mr. Merritt, in terms of what you said in the press conference and what people are aware of, there have been 10 shootings in basically less than six months, seven of them fatal, by the Fort Worth Police Department. This is a police department that has less than 1,700 officers. This is an astonishing number. What is your sense of what’s going on in Fort Worth?

LEE MERRITT: Well, that’s really the important question. It’s significant at this point because I believe that they’re going to try to scapegoat this officer, who has been with the force for less than a year. He is a problem; he should be prosecuted. What he did was criminal. But who gave him the order to show up to this private home with a tactical unit? And what’s going on in the policing culture in Fort Worth that is allowing for deadly force to be used so often? Is there de-escalation training? Are they recruiting the appropriate individuals to serve as police officers within this community? Are they responding differently to black communities than they are to predominantly white areas within the city? All of these things need to be brought into question as we move on not only from this tragedy, but figure out how to stop these things from reoccurring.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to get your response to former Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald, who released a statement Sunday criticizing the city’s handling of the shooting. He said, “Yesterday, a different officer shoots an innocent woman in response to a welfare check call. In response we have been presented with blurred pictures of an alleged weapon, a five-minute press conference with no details from a lieutenant who, to his chagrin, presented no solutions. During this time of crisis, where is the interim police chief? Where is POA President Manny Ramirez? Where is Mayor Price? Why weren’t they at Sunday’s [press] conference? Why was no substantive information provided? On May 19, 2019, when my department successfully rescued an abducted girl from a kidnapper, they raced to the microphone to seek credit and fame. Yet today, when our community needs them more than ever, they are noticeably and inexcusably absent. There is a vacuum of leadership and these individuals must be held accountable.”

Now, that’s a statement from the former Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald, who is African-American, was fired in May after a confrontation with the president of a Texas statewide police union during a conference and is fighting to get his job back. His supporters say police shootings of African Americans have skyrocketed since his firing. And his attorney, Stephen Kennedy, said in a statement, “Had Dr. Fitzgerald been reinstated months ago, Atatiana probably would be alive today, and the number of police shootings would not be in double digits.” Lee Merritt, are you also calling for his reinstatement? And do you share his assessment?

LEE MERRITT: I share his assessment, but the numbers weren’t significantly better during Chief Fitzgerald’s tenure. I look forward to leadership within the Fort Worth Police Department that reflects the words that he’s saying, but the policies that he pursued while the chief of police did not reduce incidences of brutality significantly.

I was first introduced to Mr. Fitzgerald in the case of Jacqueline Craig. Now, Fitzgerald did do the right thing in that incident, where a mother called the neighbor — I’m sorry, called the police after her neighbor choked her 8-year-old son. And instead of helping that mother with that incident, a white police officer arrived and brutalized that mom and her teenage daughters. Chief Fitzgerald suspended that officer for 10 days, and that was the end of his punishment. And then Chief Fitzgerald went about punishing black police officers who he believed made statements, derogatory, towards the department concerning how this case was handled by the city. So, he is now speaking some of the same language as those department chiefs that he punished during that incident.

I say all that to say the rhetoric is popular right now, but we need people who are actually going to pursue plans, policy procedures, training, and take real steps and pursue significant initiatives to actually change the policing culture. Chief Fitzgerald sounds like he’s reformed and he’s ready to make some changes, but we need to see that manifest itself in actual action.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Lee Merritt, I wanted to ask you about this whole issue of the police unions. In many cities, the police unions are the ones that have enormous influence over the politicians in how they deal with police conduct. What’s the situation there in Fort Worth with the influence of the police unions? Because, obviously, it is kind of strange that neither the mayor nor the chief of police attended the press conference to talk about this particular issue.

LEE MERRITT: Yes, the police union in Fort Worth, just like the police union in the city of Dallas, where Botham Jean was killed just last year, exercise an enormous amount of influence, and that influence normally or typically comes down on behalf of police misconduct. And so, they work pretty hard to ensure that there won’t be accountability for officers who are engaged or found responsible for malfeasance. So, yeah, the police unions have blood on their hands, to speak frankly, and it’s that culture that share in the blame for the staggering numbers that you see coming out of Fort Worth.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to James Smith, Tay Jefferson’s neighbor who called the police — actually, called a non-emergency line. He’s speaking to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

JAMES SMITH: Two o’clock in the a.m., I got a call from my niece, and she alerted me that my neighbor’s door was open. Both her doors — both her front doors were open, which was unusual for the neighbor. So, I came over to see if there was anything wrong. I noticed that all the lights in the house were on. I didn’t see any movement. So, instead of going in, I went back home, and I called the Fort Worth Police Department to come out and do a welfare check to make sure my neighbor was OK. Fifteen minutes later, I heard a loud noise, and I saw five or 10 police officers surround the house. And I don’t know what happened on the inside of the house. All I know is my neighbor is dead. They came out and got a statement from me because I was the one that called them. They took my statement. They told me that the detective would come talk to me and tell me what was going on. I have yet to see a detective.

AMY GOODMAN: Again, that was James Smith calling for a welfare check, what’s known as a wellness check, to check that everything is OK. On Monday, Atatiana’s sister Amber Carr spoke at a news conference. Her young son was with her sister Tay playing video games, when the former Fort Worth police officer Aaron Dean opened fire, killing her with one shot.

AMBER CARR: My son, who was there to witness the event, you would think that, you know, he would show some type of sadness or emotions. But the first time I actually got to see him and pick him up from a facility for children, the first thing he told me was he was sad. And I asked him why was he sad. And he told me because the police had killed his — had shot his aunt. And at that time, I knew nothing about that. So he was the one who actually told me what happened. But at this time, he’s my motivation, and he’s my biggest encourager. In the middle of the night when I’m crying, he wakes up and tells me to breathe, in my nose and out my mouth. He holds me. He hugs me. And these are the things I should be doing for him.

AMY GOODMAN: Again, that was Amber Carr. It was her little boy, 8-year-old Zion, who was with his aunt, Tay. They were playing video games in the bedroom when the police officer, Aaron Dean, simply opened fire within a second of looking in that window. Now, apparently, the police department was about to fire him, but he resigned first, and then he was charged with murder. Lee Merritt, that’s very unusual. Can you talk about your response to this charge?

LEE MERRITT: It again shows that the Fort Worth Police Department is aware of how not only bad this incident is, but how really on the brink the community is. If they hadn’t made an arrest with an appropriate charge, there was going to be civil unrest in the city — and appropriately so. Not only is this murder devastating to this community, it came at a time where people are beginning to realize throughout the Dallas-Fort Worth area that policing culture is out of control. That clip of 10 officer-involved shootings in this one really small city in the state of Texas is unacceptable. And as you all know, it’s just indicative of a policing culture throughout the United States that represents one of the deadliest police cultures in the modern world. There’s not too many nations that can compare with the United States in terms of what we allow for the use of force. It’s something that the community is awakened to and they’re not going to continue to tolerate.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Lee Merritt, what about the issue that there were — at least in this instance, there was videocam footage of the officer’s camera? Had there not been, then it would have been, basically, whatever the officers on the scene claimed happened would have had a lot more credence. To what degree do you think this was important or critical in this particular case, and the fact that it was released so quickly? Often police departments hold back on releasing such video.

LEE MERRITT: The bodycam footage, and bodycam footage throughout the United States, has played a pivotal role in holding police officers accountable. Some of the times where we don’t see the community investment is when those videos are withheld from the public until public outcry dies down. So it was critical that that video was released so quickly, that we could learn what happened, because, as you mentioned, otherwise it would be the word of an 8-year-old versus that of the law enforcement community of the city of Fort Worth.

And I spoke with Zion the day after this happened, and he recalls in vivid detail everything that happened that night. Unfortunately, he is going to probably play a pivotal role in this case, because this officer is not going to simply accept that he is responsible for his actions. But this will likely result in a trial. And Zion is going to have to endure that, and his family, of course, is concerned about his psychological well-being, making sure that he receives the treatment that he needs during this time.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to Fort Worth Pastor Kyev Tatum speaking Monday.

PASTOR KYEV TATUM: [If this was] the only one, I guess we could say, “Hey, you know, a mistake is a mistake.” But we’re going back to 2009, when Michael Jacobs was killed with 55 Tasers on a welfare check. We’re talking about “Ra Ra” Thomas, who was taking his children for their birthday. Police pulls him over, shoot 12 times in the car. We’re talking about Kevin Goldstein, who was going to the store, blocked in the front and the back, shot over 12 times. We’re talking about so many others. Since May the 20th, 2019, we’ve had 10 — not nine — 10 police-involved shootings, with over seven of them being African-American, and the last three were all under 30.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Pastor Kyev Tatum. Now, Lee Merritt, I also want to ask you about the neighboring city, about Dallas, about the recent killing of Joshua Brown, who was a key witness in the murder trial of former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger. Brown lived across the hall from Botham Jean, the black 26-year-old accountant who was shot and killed in 2018 inside his own apartment by his neighbor, Amber Guyger, who was a white officer, off duty at the time. During the trial, Brown gave emotional testimony about hearing gunshots the night of Botham Jean’s murder. Two days after Guyger was sentenced in the case to 10 years, Joshua Brown was shot to death outside his apartment. Dallas police have arrested two suspects and have identified a third in Brown’s murder, which they characterize as a drug deal gone bad. The Dallas NAACP is calling for an independent investigation. Lee Merritt, you represented the Botham Jean family in the trial. Now you also represent the family of Joshua Brown. Can you give us the latest?

LEE MERRITT: Well, the Dallas Police Department is chugging forward with an investigation that will be held suspect by the Dallas community, and really by the national community, until they hand it over to a disinterested third-party investigator. They have found witnesses and evidence, and they’ve presented that to the public. And for a significant sector of the community, they’ve simply rejected their findings, because Dallas, whether they like it or not, whether there’s even evidence of it or not, is implicated in this murder, because it came at the time, two days after a conviction for a Dallas police officer during a trial that revealed corruption within the city of Dallas.

You ask yourself: Is the Dallas Police Department capable of murder? Well, yeah, there was a police officer who was just convicted of murder. Are they capable of this level of corruption? Well, yeah, during the trial, you learned that the Dallas police officer association president Mike Mata actively covered up for the murderer Amber Guyger. You learned that her partner, who remains on the force, was actively deleting text messages and other evidence as it relates to this case. So, Dallas Police Department is simply not qualified to perform this investigation.

I have a vested interest in ensuring that the conclusions of their investigation into the murder of Joshua Brown is reliable to the community, because I don’t want the chilling effect of individuals afraid of testifying against police officers, in fear of retribution. And so this investigation must be done thoroughly, but it must be done by someone who is not implicated in the case.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Mr. Merritt, you wrote on social media that the state knew Joshua Brown didn’t want to testify due to concerns for his safety. He even flew to California when the trial began, and they threatened him with jail if he didn’t return. He went straight from the airport to the court. Dallas County had a duty to protect him, and they failed.

LEE MERRITT: That’s right. And so, that’s actually what the family has hired me to investigate, is how much did the city know. And I’ve learned that not only Joshua Brown reported to the DA that he was not interested in testifying in this trial, but that his mother, who is a bit of a helicopter mom, said she told the DA herself, when they were looking for him to present during the grand jury testimony, that he was afraid to testify in this trial. When you have that kind of concern from a citizen that you’re asking to speak, you have an obligation to provide them every protection necessary. It’s important to note that Joshua Brown’s testimony, while emotionally jarring and powerful, was duplicative. It was not necessary in this trial in order to obtain a conviction. Everything he testified to was brought in through other witnesses. He’s been widely reported as a key witness because of the compelling nature of his testimony, but he certainly wasn’t a critical witness in the sense that, without him, a conviction would likely still have occurred.

AMY GOODMAN: So, finally, we just have a minute, but what does this mean for the community? You go from the Amber Guyger trial, conviction and 10-year sentence for the white police officer who killed Botham Jean, to the murder of Joshua, and now — Joshua Brown, and now you have Atatiana Jefferson just gunned down in cold blood in her bedroom by a police officer, now charged with murder.

LEE MERRITT: Well, for the community of the DFW, is what it’s called locally, the Dallas-Fort Worth area, I truly believe that this is a Selma moment. The community is simply fed up with police brutality. And it’s intolerable. It’s always been intolerable. But because of these series of events happening back to back to back on a national and even international scale, there are so many people who have focused their attention on the DFW area. We’re not going to allow law enforcement to scapegoat officers or make excuses or justifications. We are all realizing, collectively, that there is a deeper problem that is further rooted in racism, that is further rooted in a culture that allows for far too much brutality without accountability.

And there are going to have to be significant long-term changes, and it’s not going to happen through osmosis. People are going to have to get out into the streets and fight for it. They’re going to have to show up to the polls and fight for it. They’re going to have to sit around in think tanks within the community and come up with new plans and new initiatives until this issue is resolved. This is not going to stop with the conviction of this officer, because we realize, with the conviction of Amber Guyger, that that is simply not going to be enough to solve the problem, because, days later, bodies began to pile up again. This is going to require a long-term campaign. And I believe that the Dallas-Fort Worth area will be ground zero for that campaign nationally.

AMY GOODMAN: Lee Merritt, thanks so much for being with us, civil rights attorney representing the family of Tay Jefferson, of Atatiana Jefferson.

When we come back, Aaron Glantz on his new book, Homewreckers: How a Gang of Wall Street Kingpins, Hedge Fund Magnates, Crooked Banks, and Vulture Capitalists Suckered Millions Out of Their Homes and Demolished the American Dream. Stay with us.

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