The Unreasonably Scared Aaron Dean

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.

24 thoughts on “The Unreasonably Scared Aaron Dean

  1. Fubar

    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.

    I do not know TX law. As I’ve previously made obvious, I am outraged by this police killing of an innocent.

    Despite outrage, I agree that imperfect self defense, or necessity, can mitigate murder to manslaughter, if TX law provides that. Not all jurisdictions do. The dispatcher’s “open structure” mischaracterization of the call to the responding officers is evidence for that mitigation.

    But the actual (distinct from legal) responsibility for this egregious killing may lie much further up the department command structure. Someone besides the dispatcher may ultimately have authorized “wellness check” calls to be dispatched as “open structure” calls. Someone is responsible for having trained the dispatcher that conflation is acceptable.

    Words have meaning. In this case two words apparently made the difference between life and death. Someone is responsible for those two words.

    1. SHG Post author

      The “open structure” dispatch, rather than “welfare check,” gives rise to some squishiness in Dean’s information, but be careful about giving it too much significance. Even if it had been a burglary call, that doesn’t mean the silhouette in the window wasn’t the person he was there to save rather than the person he was there to arrest. It’s not carte blanche to kill them all and let god sort it out later.

    2. Bob

      According to the Star Telegram, the police call sheet logged the call as a “burglary.” They’ve been asked about the discrepancy since and haven’t given an answer.

      That’s… something.

        1. Bob

          I understand that, but (unless I am mistaken) the call sheet would have been prepared contemporaneously by the dispatcher and likely was immediately available electronically to the officers. At the very least it would have been prepared by the same person who communicated the substance of the call to officers, so her recording it as a burglary call is pretty good circumstantial evidence that she conveyed substantially the same thing to the officers.

          The Star Telegram also noted that the authorities had said they would explain what the officers were told about the call, at the presser, but they never did.

  2. pav

    “There was no furtive gesture here. There was no glint of steel.”
    ” . . . he couldn’t have seen it under any circumstances.”

    These assertions are not supported by any reporting I’ve seen. It has been reported that the nephew said Jefferson was holding the gun, raised it, and pointed it toward the window.

    1. SHG Post author

      The only thing that matters is what Dean knew, not what did or did not happen inside the home.

      And not that it matters, since there was no contemporaneous claim that he saw the silhouette doing anything, no less holding a gun, but even if he had, so what? He was the prowler. She was the homeowner. But that, too is irrelevant, since it didn’t happen.

      1. B. McLeod

        I don’t think we know what Dean is going to claim yet. He has (probably wisely) not given a statement to investigators. It will not be surprising if his story, when it comes, involves some claim that he subjectively perceived any number of circumstances that weren’t recorded on his body camera.

  3. Mark Creatura

    Dangerous to disagree with SHG on a point of law, but I will risk it today.

    The “Reasonably Scared Cop Rule” (Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386) has no bearing on the criminal liability of this scared ex-cop in Fort Worth, Aaron Dean.

    Graham construes 42 USC 1983, and sets a very tough standard for recovery under that section against cops who kill, in reasonable fear or unreasonable.

    Graham is inapplicable to any criminal case against Dean, for two reasons:
    • Section 1983 sets a floor, not a ceiling, for what states in this Union must do to protect their citizens against their government;
    • Neither the constitution nor laws of the federal government require that Texas incorporate interpretations of Section 1983 into its criminal law.

    I would like to say that nothing in the laws of Texas incorporates the Reasonably Scared Cop Rule into its necessity defense. To say that, though, would be to opine on the law of a jurisdiction foreign to me, beyond my expertise. I believe that question of Texas law is beyond the expertise of Mr Greenfield, as well. I could be wrong.

    Is anyone with such expertise interested in sharing his view?

      1. Mark Creatura

        Nice links. I see that the point I was making has been made before. Deep in the second linked post is this: “Graham has nothing to do with criminal law, which is defined by the crime of murder at the state level. Graham has to do with whether it’s a constitutional deprivation, not whether the crime of murder has been committed.” Who said that? Hint, initials SHG.

    1. pav

      Graham is not strictly applicable, but some of its principles are similar to self-defense. For example, in determining whether the defendant’s belief in the need for deadly force was reasonable, the fact-finder will be required to consider the facts from the perspective of the defendant at the time of the shooting. See Kolliner v. State 516 S.W.2d 671 (Tex. Crim. App. 1974) (“The jury’s judgment must be made only from the viewpoint of the appellant; the undisclosed intentions of the deceased cannot lessen the right of self-defense.”). As in Graham, there is no Monday-morning quarterbacking.

      Whether Dean was “reasonably” scared will likely be the central question in the case.

  4. Anonymous Coward

    Greg Prickett’s knowledge of policing would be really useful here since it looks Dean failed to follow correct procedure by not identifying himself and simply shouting and shooting. To me “incompetent cop” invalidates “reasonably scared cop” so we will see how that plays out.

    1. Bob

      The “failed to identify himself” thing strikes me as a red herring since the cop shot before there was any opportunity for her to react to what he’d said. Either that was justified or it wasn’t.

  5. JorgXMcKie

    I have had rather a lot of cop students in my MPA classes. (The degree qualifies them for promotion to Lt or above.) Most are really decent people. A few have been a type I don’t want to be cops. Most of them have hair-raising stories of “scared cops” getting lucky by *not* killing an innocent person while shooting at them.
    The best ones seem to agree that we need both more stringent vetting of those who would become police and better and continuing training. I doubt if any of the good ones would regard this anything but murder/manslaughter.

  6. F. Lee Billy

    The key element here is clearly Dallas/Ft. Worth, which would appear to be the Bermuda Triangle and epicenter of trigger-happy law enforcement nationwide. Texas, the lone gunman state par excellence, where guns rule the roost, irregardless of any thoughtful considerations.

    I just happen to be reading Jim Garrison’s 1988 book, On the Trail of the Assassins, My Investigation and Prosecution of the Murderer of President Kennedy. It’s a stunning tour de force and compelling alternative to the Warren Report. Which we all knew was an utter, unabashed whitewash of the truth.

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