FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — The furor Tuesday over the killing of a black woman by a white Fort Worth 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.
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 8-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 defense 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.
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 neighbor in his own apartment. She said she mistook his place for hers and thought he was an intruder.
Dean, 34, resigned and was arrested Monday for firing a single bullet through a windowpane while investigating a neighbor’s report about the front door being left open at Jefferson’s home. Jefferson was staying up late, playing video games 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.
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.”
After the 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 8-year-old nephew. She was a victim,” she said.
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 spokesman 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 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.”
Merritt said Fort Worth needs to change its “brutal culture of policing,” and Price, the mayor, has called for a top-to-bottom review of the department.
Dozens of people crowded Fort Worth’s City Council chamber and hundreds more shouted outside to call for justice for Jefferson.
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports about 60 people signed up to speak to the council at its Tuesday night meeting. Once the chamber’s capacity was reached, about 200 others who could not make it inside shouted bitter protests outside City Hall to Fort Worth police and political leaders.
Of the nine officer-involved shootings so far this year in Fort Worth, five targeted African Americans and six resulted in death, according to department data.
Nearly two-thirds of the department’s 1,100 officers are white, just over 20% are Hispanic, and about 10% are black. The city is about 40% white, 35% Hispanic and 19% black.
Bleed reported from Little Rock, Arkansas.
Associated Press writers Nomaan Merchant in Houston contributed to this report.