There is a strong argument to be made for former Fort Worth police officer Aaron Dean, knowing that he was in a black neighborhood, and assuming that the silhouette he saw through the window inside Atatiana Jefferson’s home would be a black person, was a significant factor in his perception.
Maybe it meant that the life just wasn’t all that valuable to him. Maybe it meant that the person inside, likely being black, was likely more of a threat because too many cops still believe that black people are more likely to be criminals, more likely to be violent or more likely to pose a threat to a cop’s life. Outside of peeking into Dean’s head, there’s no way to know what synapses fired, in what order, due to race. Unfortunately, no post-hoc apologies or explanations will erase the fact that, yet again, a cop killed an indisputably innocent black person for her being in her home.
Don’t mention the gun she had within her home, which she may or may not have had in her hand. It’s completely irrelevant and immaterial, both because it was entirely lawful and proper for her to possess it, and it played no role in Dean’s actions, as he couldn’t have seen it under any circumstances.
Don’t mention that it was her fault for having the lights on at 2 a.m., or the doors oddly open at that hour, or for playing video games with an 8-year-old nephew when the child should have been asleep. None of these things bear upon any wrongdoing by Jefferson. In her own home, she can leave the lights on, the door open, and play video games, if that’s her choice.
But what of Aaron Dean and the other officers were responding to the non-emergency call by a dispatcher telling them of an “open structure,” rather than a welfare check for which a phone call or knock on the door would have been the obvious and appropriate reaction? That’s a non-trivial mistake, one that shifts the officer’s focus from helping a resident to being wary. But it’s also not a call for a burglary, an intruder within a home. It could be. It could also not be. The obvious problem is that there remains a far greater probability that the person within the home is the resident rather than a burglar.
Dean, who quit the job just before he was fired, has been charged with murder. And given that Atatiana Jefferson was unquestionably killed by the one round Dean fired into her home, into her body, this doesn’t come as a big surprise to most people. But as bad as this tragedy was, as innocent as Atatiana Jefferson was, as rife with the overlay of white cops killing innocent black people as this was, was it murder?
A person commits an offense if he:
(1) intentionally or knowingly causes the death of an individual;
(2) intends to cause serious bodily injury and commits an act clearly dangerous to human life that causes the death of an individual; or
(3) commits or attempts to commit a felony, other than manslaughter, and in the course of and in furtherance of the commission or attempt, or in immediate flight from the commission or attempt, he commits or attempts to commit an act clearly dangerous to human life that causes the death of an individual.
Clearly, the firing into the window, into the body, of Atatiana Jefferson was intentional. Dean didn’t pull the trigger by accident. But was his intent to kill a person or to neutralize what he perceived as a threat to him? Texas has a “necessity” defense.
Sec. 9.31. SELF-DEFENSE. (a) Except as provided in Subsection (b), a person is justified in using force against another when and to the degree the actor reasonably believes the force is immediately necessary to protect the actor against the other’s use or attempted use of unlawful force.
This is where the Reasonably Scare Cop Rule kicks in, whether Dean’s perceptions were objectively reasonable through the eyes of a cop. Sure, better training might have taken him to the front door rather than shooting into a window, but the failure to train doesn’t change the culpability for a cop’s mistaken killing if it can be excused by another cop’s gymnastics.
Almost every cop shooting can be talked away, rationalized by some jargonized explanation grounded in no cop ever suffering any risk of harm. But this time?
Dispatch didn’t inform the responding officers that there was a crime in progress, no less a crime that was likely violent. Sure it was possible, but only by taking numerous inferential leaps. There was no furtive gesture here. There was no glint of steel. Only by the most malignant assumptions could Dean go from an unknown person stalking the perimeter of Jefferson’s home to feeling a reasonable threat from the appearance of a silhouette in a window.
But what of manslaughter, recklessly causing the death of Atatiana Jefferson? Dean was an irrationally scared cop who was far from reasonable in perceiving a threat. Poorly trained, no doubt, and inadequately supervised, but still nowhere near the point where there was an objectively reasonable fear of deadly force.
To the extent his unreasonable perception was, nonetheless, real, there was no shortage of things he could have done to protect himself, from announcing that he was a cop to moving outside the range of the window. But scared cops are scared. They shoot. And sometimes they kill. Dean deliberately shot and intentionally killed.
Lest you feel badly about Dean’s conundrum, his unreasonable fear of a threat which, while not commendable, is at least somewhat understandable in a petrified kid cop, consider whether his reaction would have been the same had the call that night been to respond to a well-to-do, white neighborhood. Would that silhouette have caused him to panic, fear death and shoot?
Even if Dean is able to bootstrap the Reasonably Scared Cop Rule to defend against murder by making his fear sufficiently not completely unreasonable, manslaughter remains as the lesser offense here. Either way, it won’t bring Atatiana Jefferson back. Maybe her face will have some impact on the value of a person’s life when invoking the First Rule of Policing. If only Dean considered that Atatiana Jefferson’s life mattered too before panicking, before shooting, before killing her.