Editorial: Amid the anguish of another tragic death, a quest for answers

We broach this subject warily, perhaps even timorously. A 28-year-old law-abiding citizen, a woman treasured by family and friends, has died at the hands of someone whose job was to protect her, a Fort Worth police officer. Words do not, should not, come easily at such a time.

It is tempting to simply join the chorus of indignation that has greeted this horrible event. But the indignation is widespread, pervasive and persuasive. Nothing we can say will deepen its intensity or enhance its resonance.

Mayor Betsy Price, meanwhile, has brought to this tragedy something that politicians rarely provide in such trying circumstances, a heartfelt expression of sympathy and official contrition.

“Today, we are heartbroken,” Price said in an open letter to the loved ones of shooting victim Atatiana Jefferson and the people of Fort Worth. “On behalf of the entire City of Fort Worth – I am sorry. To Atatiana’s family – I am sorry. There is nothing to justify or explain what happened on Saturday morning. Nothing.”

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There is nothing to explain what happened. And yet it must be explained.

Unless we find out why a tragedy like this happens, it will happen again. And again. There have been far too many instances of police officers shooting and killing or wounding civilians – seven in Fort Worth since June of this year – and far, far too many in which the officer is white and the shooting victim black, as was the case in the early hours of Oct. 12 when Atatiana Jefferson, who was black, was shot by police officer Aaron Dean, who is white, as police responded to a neighbor’s report of an open door at Jefferson’s home.

But it’s not just about white police shooting black citizens. A summary of the recent Fort Worth shootings published by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram shows that one case involved a Hispanic officer and a Hispanic victim; another involved a black officer and a white victim; in another, three Hispanic officers and one white officer fired at a black man. And in one case, both the officer and the victim were white.

There is no denying the racial element and the tension it has generated between police and the black communities they serve. Atatiana Jefferson’s family and community activists are demanding justice in her shooting and their pleas have been heard: Dean, 34, has been charged with murder and officials say he would have been fired if he had not resigned.

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According to the warrant issued in Dean’s arrest, Jefferson’s 8-year-old nephew, who was the only other person in the house when police arrived, told investigators his aunt had pointed her handgun toward the window after hearing noises outside the house. It’s unclear whether Dean saw the gun before firing his weapon but he can be heard on bodycam audio shouting, “Put your hands up! Show me your hands!” then firing through the closed window without waiting for a response. There is no indication he identified himself as a police officer.

Interim police chief Ed Kraus has said emphatically that there was “absolutely no excuse” for the fatal shooting.

No matter what happened in this or any specific case, the overriding question of when police should use their guns and when they should not must be addressed and must be understood if there is to be any hope of stopping what appears to be an epidemic of unnecessary police shootings.

To that end, Mayor Price has asked City Manager David Cooke to enlist a panel of national experts to conduct a third-party review of Fort Worth’s police department “from top to bottom.”

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Such a review is long overdue, not just in Fort Worth but in every city where police shootings have been occurring at an alarming and tragic rate.

Being a police officer is hard, dangerous, life-and-death work. Officers often must decide in a split second whether to use deadly force. We must ensure that everyone who puts on a badge in service of the community is suited to the task and is sufficiently trained to deal with potentially deadly situations.

The people the police are sworn to protect and serve will accept no less.