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Ex-Fort Worth Officer Charged In Fatal Shooting Of Woman In Her Home

Oct 15, 2019
Originally published on October 15, 2019 12:20 pm
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What can we learn from two police shootings in Texas? Each involved a white police officer who shot and killed a black person who was at home at the time. In the latest case, Atatiana Jefferson was playing video games with her nephew in Fort Worth, Texas. Her front door was left open, so a neighbor asked police to check on her, and the responding officer fired his gun through a window. He is now charged with murder. Botham Jean was in his apartment when an off-duty officer shot him, and the officer has been convicted in that case. We've called up Kami Chavis, a professor of law who directs the Criminal Justice Program at Wake Forest University's law school. Good morning.

KAMI CHAVIS: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What do you think about when you see two cases like this?

CHAVIS: So it's very interesting that we'd have two cases, particularly, you know, the same area. No one disputes that police officers have an incredibly difficult job. But it's a pretty common call to receive that, hey, there's some suspicious behavior here. And we know what happened in the Jefferson case, the officer went to the home, a suspicious call. This is a very frequent occurrence and to - you know, officers receive training and there are policies to follow in these situations. And so within three seconds, shots were fired, and five minutes later, Mrs. Jefferson is dead in her own home. So I think this is highly unusual, and I think that we see the swift murder charges that have been filed in this case to be appropriate.

INSKEEP: Now, I imagine you have watched, as I have watched, the body cam video of the shooting officer, and you see what he sees. There is an open door. There are things strewn around the house, maybe just the kind of, you know, debris of kids playing, though, and there are lights on in the front of the house. Then he and apparently another officer, they quietly work around to the back of the house, and then there's something moving in a darker part of the house, and that's where the gunshot takes place. On the face of it, just based on that video, did the officer miss some step that he should have taken not to be in that situation where he thought he should be firing his gun?

CHAVIS: Yes. And I think that what distinguishes - so this is an instance where the body camera footage can be quite helpful because also what we know - what the police officer did not do in that situation, the police officer, you know, says - he does not identify himself as a law enforcement officer. He says, put your hands up. And if you can imagine Mrs. Jefferson's point of view...

INSKEEP: Sure.

CHAVIS: ...It's late at night and someone, some individual, perhaps she could see pointing a gun at her saying put your hands up...

INSKEEP: In the dark, yeah.

CHAVIS: ...Not identifying - yes, in the dark and not identifying himself as law enforcement. So I think that that is a critical fact here in this case that the officer did not identify himself as law enforcement. And, again, these are always rapidly unfolding situations, but that can't be an excuse. Again, if you - also if you are watching the body camera footage, less than three seconds this happens.

INSKEEP: Could the officer at the very beginning of that sequence, seeing the open door and the lit up part of the house, just called inside, hello, police here, anybody home? Could he have simply done that?

CHAVIS: You know, there's - it's interesting. There - of course, you know, there are a lot of things that the officer could have done, whether or not it would have been, you know, reasonable under the circumstances then kind of leading to a justified or unjustified shooting is important. And, again, the critical factor here - not identifying yourself as law enforcement. And even at that point, who's to say what could have happened? The officer still could have had some belief that he was in danger. I just think that on the facts of it, though, it's appropriate that the murder charges were filed. And we will have an investigation, and a jury will be able to decide this.

INSKEEP: In a few seconds, is there a change in training that you would make or an emphasis in training that you would urge based on this?

CHAVIS: I think that the Dallas - Fort Worth Police Department - the interim chief, you know, has said that there would not have been - if the officer had not resigned - and we did see the officer resign - if the officer hadn't resigned, he would have been fired based on policy violations. So officers are trained in these situations. And, again, I think here that just we all need to slow down.

INSKEEP: Kami Chavis is a professor of law who directs the Criminal Justice Program at Wake Forest University's law school. Thanks very much.

CHAVIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.