At 2:30 am on October 12, Atatiana Koquice Jefferson was shot and killed in her own home by an officer with the Fort Worth Police Department. Officer Aaron Dean, responding to a call placed by a neighbor to investigate an open front door, searched the exterior of Jefferson’s home before approaching her bedroom window. Upon seeing a figure moving inside the room, the officer shot into the window, killing Jefferson while she was babysitting her nephew. Less than 24 hours later, the Fort Worth Police Department released a video of the shooting. It took 13 months and a lawsuit for the video of Laquan McDonald’s killing to be released to the public. Why was the video of Jefferson released so quickly?
The video footage evidences a common pattern followed in the aftermath of police killings of Black people in the U.S. According to the Supreme Court case Graham v Connor, officers are permitted to use deadly force when they believe their lives are in legitimate danger. Their lives don’t have to actually be in danger; officers simply need to have an “objectively reasonable” belief that this is the case. Thus, when officers are caught pulling the trigger on those who appear innocent, law enforcement agencies — and those who uncritically support them — carefully weave a story together to make the killing the inevitable, defensible outcome of a situation rife with threat.
The less than two-minute video provided by the Fort Worth Police Department shows Dean circling the property and yelling to a figure in the window to “Put your hands up! Show me your hands!” before firing his weapon. Jefferson was shot at one minute and 36 seconds into the video, which ends promptly after. The next 20 seconds show only still frames of a gun sitting on a dresser. Everything besides the gun is blurred out, and the camera slowly zooms in on the firearm. The press release similarly foregrounds the weapon: “Officers entered the residence locating the individual and a firearm and began providing emergency care.”
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But whether or not the weapon was owned legally, and whether or not Jefferson was even holding the weapon, is irrelevant. Its presence is used to create an environment in which pulling the trigger through a bedroom window is seen as the only “objectively reasonable” choice.
It is notable that Dean was jailed and charged with murder days after Jefferson was killed, an outcome that contrasts sharply with those of the cases of the officers who killed Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile and Tamir Rice. However, repercussions by a police department do not necessarily mirror the results of trial. While the Fort Worth Police sergeant may have found Dean’s behavior against the policies of the department, it remains to be seen if the public and court system will agree.
Of course, this is just the latest iteration of the attempts to blame victims of police violence for their own killings.
Police Create the “Danger” Necessary to Justify the Killing
Philando Castile’s case also mirrors the killing of Jefferson. Castile, a Black man, was pulled over for a broken tail light and was shot and killed by Officer Jeronimo Yanez in front of Castile’s girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter. On video, Yanez requests that Castile show him his license. Castile announces calmly, “Sir, I have to tell you that I do have a firearm on me.” As Castile reaches for his wallet, Yanez pulls out his weapon and shoots Castile five times.
Yanez was found not guilty on all counts after he testified that he thought he was going to die. That Castile was following officer orders and reaching for his ID, not a gun that he was licensed to carry, was irrelevant. “Threat” was established, so shooting Castile became the officer’s “reasonable” course of action.
Implications of drug use play a similar role in constructing a situation in which an officer fears for his life. When Michael Brown was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson, Fox News commentator Jim Pinkerton stated: “Eyewitnesses said that Brown was charging the cops…. We’ll know more with a blood test. If he was high on some drug, angel dust or PCP or something, it’s entirely possible you could take a lot more than six bullets and keep charging.”
When Terence Crutcher was shot and killed in Tulsa, Oklahoma, footage taken by helicopter pilots circling Crutcher’s car records their discussion: “Looks like a bad dude, too, could be on something.” Crutcher, walking away from his broken-down car, had his hands raised. In both situations, the implication of drug use was used to construct a mythical threat bent on harming law enforcement officers, making the lethal choice to pull the trigger seem “reasonable.”
When drugs and guns cannot be used to manufacture a “threat,” simple character assassination fills the void. When Stephon Clark was shot 20 times and killed in his grandmother’s backyard, the district attorney chose to release his private texts with his fiancée that showed his mental health issues and relationship struggles.
Community- and Black-led organizations have provided steps forward to address police violence in Black communities. These strategies include changes to use-of-force polices, like those proposed by Campaign Zero to increase transparency and establish reporting standards, and redirection of federal funding from police department militarization to education and restorative justice.
Many organizations, including the Movement for Black Lives, Black Lives Matter and the American Public Health Association, call for the decriminalization of activities associated with marginalization to eliminate opportunities for minor law enforcement interactions to escalate to violence. These activities include sex work, minor drug possession and vagrancy laws.
Until federal standards for data collection on police violence are developed and followed, media sites like The Washington Post and The Guardian have found ways to track and visually represent the lives lost to police violence. Organizers and researchers have also started projects like MappingPoliceViolence.org, which aggregates and collates data on police killings from three other databases to allow for analysis.
The American Public Health Association (APHA) has decried police violence as a public health crisis, citing data that Black people are far more likely to be killed by law enforcement in their lifetime than their white peers. To address this crisis, it is essential not only to document these killings and the excessive use of force whenever they occur, but also to address the strategies used to justify them.