Less than two weeks ago, S. Lee Merritt hailed the murder conviction of a former Dallas police officer who fatally shot her neighbor as a “huge victory” for “black people in America.”
Today, the civil rights attorney is representing the family of Atatiana Jefferson, another black Texan gunned down at home by a white police officer.
Not far from the Dallas courthouse where Merritt predicted a changing tide in police accountability, he described how Jefferson’s 8-year-old nephew stood in the room with her last Saturday when a Fort Worth police officer fired through her bedroom window.
The boy saw Jefferson, 28, his “Auntie Tay,” crumple to the floor and die.
“What would have happened if that little boy went to the window instead of his auntie?” Merritt asked.
Almost every deadly police shooting in America seems to amplify the clamor for sweeping police reform that started after Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was fatally shot by a white police officer in August 2014
The road from Ferguson to Fort Worth is pitted from the frustrating fits and starts of reform and accountability. The police killings of civilians – many of them black and unarmed – remain unabated even as more than 30 states have passed dozens of laws on de-escalation and use of force.
Still, the former Justice Department prosecutor who investigated the Ferguson Police Department said the initial handling of the Fort Worth case keeps the prospect for change alive.
“There are a few things about this incident that give me some hope that we have somehow managed to move forward in a positive direction but it is far from steady progress,” said Christy Lopez, a deputy chief in the special litigation section of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under President Obama.
After Ferguson nationwide protests paved the way for improved training and stricter use-of-force policies in some agencies. But few officers were charged criminally. Fewer were convicted.
As Jefferson’s family prepares to bury her – another black life cut short by police gunfire – a community struggles to make sense of the tragedy, leaving some to ask: What has changed since Ferguson?
A scholar who tracks police shootings says not much.
“I don’t feel like there’s been reform throughout policing in this country,” said Philip Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and a former police officer. “Things are pretty much business as usual.”
The case for hope
Jefferson was playing a video game with her nephew early Saturday morning when rustling outside her bedroom window startled them, according to Merritt.
A concerned neighbor had called police. Two doors to Jefferson’s home were ajar. The neighbor did not know Jefferson had left them open to circulate air through the house.
Since Ferguson, body cameras have become a mainstay in many US police departments. Bodycam footage from the morning Jefferson was killed showed an officer peering through two open doors without announcing his presence. He then crept around the house and approached a darkened window.
“Put your hands up! Show me your hands!” the officer screamed, without identifying himself as a police officer.
Within seconds, the officer fired his weapon through the glass pane. He was in the middle of saying “show me” a second time when the shot rang out. Jefferson was pronounced dead minutes later.
The officer opened fire after “perceiving a threat,” according to police. A firearm was found when they entered Jefferson’s bedroom. Police would not say whether she was holding the weapon at the time.
But Jefferson had a legally owned gun and carry license, Merritt said. She had every right to have the gun with her when she believed someone was lurking outside her home, he said.
City officials quickly condemned the shooting as unjustified. The officer who fired the fatal shot, Aaron Dean, was arrested and charged with murder within days – actions that some experts attribute to the ongoing national conversation about police killings.
“Ferguson and everything that happened after, especially the protests, have had a huge impact on public opinion,” said Sam Walker, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He credits outrage over Michael Brown’s death and other killings for what he calls an unprecedented burst of police reform.
“People have gotten aroused,” he said.
Fort Worth ‘didn’t waste any time dealing with this,’ criminologist says
After Dean’s arrest, the spokesperson for the Fort Worth Police Department, Sgt. Chris Daniels, said: “To the citizens and residents of our city, we feel and understand your anger and disappointment.”
Interim Police Chief Ed Kraus said Dean resigned before Kraus could fire him. The department has presented a preliminary case to the FBI to review the officer’s actions for possible civil rights violations.
“None of this information can ease the pain of Atatiana’s family but I hope it shows the community that we take these incidents seriously,” Kraus said.
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said the killing could not be justified.
“On behalf of the entire city of Fort Worth, I’m sorry,” Price told reporters. “To Atatiana’s family, it’s unacceptable. There is nothing that can justify what happened on Saturday morning. Nothing.”
Even skeptics about the prospects for reform call such acknowledgments a small measure of progress.
“What we have moved on to is that more people from all walks of life are paying attention to use of deadly force by police officers,” Stinson said.
“In Fort Worth, they didn’t waste any time dealing with this as if it were any other murder case. And maybe, if we’ve seen any change at all, what we’re seeing in some places is that kind of thing.”
Shootings remain steady, prosecutions rare
Stinson’s extensive database and research has made him an important source for information on crimes and acts of violence by police officers. He says about 1,000 police shootings occur each year in US.
His tracking of manslaughter and murder charges against police officers dates to 2005. It shows few officers ever go to trial after a fatal shooting, let alone are convicted.
Despite several high-profile cases and increased video evidence since Ferguson, convictions remain rare.
Stinson has counted about 10 officers arrested on murder and manslaughter charges during each of the last two years.
Since Ferguson, four officers have been convicted of murder, including former Chicago cop Jason Van Dyke, whose fatal shooting of black teenager Laquan McDonald shortly after Brown’s killing in 2014 also led to streets protests.
In fact, of 107 state and local law enforcement officers arrested on murder or manslaughter charges for fatal on-duty shootings since 2005, 38 have been convicted of a crime, according to Stinson.
The 38 cases do not include this month’s murder conviction of former Dallas police officer, Amber Guyger. She claimed said she mistook black neighbor’s Botham Jean’s apartment for her own when she shot and killed him, believing he was an intruder.
Guyger was off duty at her apartment complex, about 30 miles east of Jefferson’s home in Fort Worth. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Stinson said he sees no evidence of a seismic shift in accountability among the 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies scattered across the country: “Policing doesn’t move very fast in terms of changing the way things are done.”
He added, “I don’t feel like there’s great change. I feel like policing is broken in many respects in this country.”
Ferguson created national policing crisis that sparked reforms, expert says
Walker, the professor at University of Nebraska at Omaha, will speak about police reforms after Ferguson at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology in San Francisco next month.
The first slide of his PowerPoint presentation reads: “How much reform? A LOT.”
“I think I have a pretty lonely position on this issue,” said Walker, a criminologist since 1974. “I don’t know of anybody else who is quite as optimistic as I am but I believe it is there.”
The basis for his optimism about reform and accountability was laid out in a 65-page paper he published last year in the Illinois Law Review. The title: ” ‘Not Dead Yet:’ The national police crisis, a new conversation about policing, and the prospects for accountability-related police reform.”
From 2015 to 2016 alone, nearly 80 separate laws were passed in more than 30 states, according to a Vera Institute of Justice report. Legislation covered issues ranging from new limits on the use of force, provisions for body-worn cameras, improved training and ways of handling suspects with mental health problems.
“Public perceptions are shaped by the national news headlines – shootings, beatings,” Walker said. “But when you look just below the surface there has been an extraordinary burst of police reform, in several separate areas of policing.”
Ferguson and other cities forced police chiefs to rethink use of force
Additionally, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a Washington think tank that advises police chiefs on policy, has issued scathing reports since Ferguson that have not been popular with rank-and-file officers and their powerful unions.
After the Ferguson protests, many officers said an anti-police climate made them feel their profession was under siege. In 2018, 55 officers were fatally shot or run over on the job, according to FBI statistics.
Still, a PERF 2015 report called police training in many departments inadequate. It urged a rethinking of use-of-force policy and a greater emphasis on de-escalation strategies.
“As we look back at the most controversial police shooting incidents, we sometimes find that while the shooting may be legally justified, there were missed opportunities to ratchet down the encounter, to slow things down, to call in additional resources, in the minutes before the shooting occurred,” wrote Chuck Wexler, PERF’s executive director.
In 2016, another PERF report advocated more restrictive use-of-force policies
Events in Ferguson and other cities forced police to give use-of-force policy a fresh look, Wexler said in a statement.
“We surveyed police agencies across the country and discovered that, for the most part, agencies’ use-of-force training and policies were woefully outdated and insufficient,” he said.
“In many cases, we found that officers who were using deadly force in what are called ‘lawful but awful’ situations were simply following their training.”
The report sought to ignite a national debate on deadly force and encourage law enforcement agencies to adopt policies and training beyond the minimum requirements set by the US Supreme Court, Wexler said.
“De-escalation is only one part of a whole rethinking about how police officers should handle critical incidents,” Walker said.
“The other mantra, and you hear more about it in policing, is officers are expected to continually assess and reassess a situation,” he added. “That language is showing up again and again in use-of-force policies around the country. That’s really kind of a revolution in how police approach basic encounters that could be potentially dangerous. That’s now being embodied in police training programs.”
So-called wave of reform offers little solace to a grieving family
The day Guyger, the former Dallas cop, was convicted of murder earlier this month, Merritt declared: “Police officers are going to be held accountable for their actions and we believe that will begin to change policing culture all over the world.”
Another attorney for Botham Jean’s family, Benjamin Crump, cited the names of numerous unarmed African Americans who died at the hands of police in recent years.
“For so many unarmed black and brown human beings all across America, this verdict is for them,” he said.
As Jefferson is mourned a week after he death, the occasional legal victories and so-called waves of reform offer little solace for her grieving family.
Her 8-year-old nephew, who saw her die, broke the news to his mother. Jefferson’s sister, Amber Carr, said her son told her he was sad a police officer killed Auntie Tay.
In the middle of the night, Carr cries for her sister. Her son holds and hugs her. Take deep breaths, he tells her, the way his beloved aunt once did for him.