The former police officer who killed Atatiana Jefferson while she was babysitting her then-8-year-old nephew has been sentenced to nearly 12 years in prison for the fatal shooting in Fort Worth, Texas.
Aaron Dean, who is white, was convicted of manslaughter for the October 2019 shooting, which followed a non-emergency call from a concerned neighbor who saw Jefferson’s front door was open after 2 a.m. When Jefferson, 28, heard Dean and his partner canvassing outside her home, she grabbed her gun. Dean testified that she pointed it at him before he fired.
But Dean’s partner said she did not see Jefferson holding up the weapon, and her testimony supported prosecutors’ case that Dean did not follow proper protocol. The trial, which also included body camera footage, ended on Tuesday with a sentence for manslaughter — falling short of what Jefferson’s family hoped would be a murder conviction.
“It wasn’t exactly the justice that we all thought Tatiana deserved,” attorney S. Lee Merritt said during a press conference with the family Tuesday, “but it certainly represented an historic moment in the city of Fort Worth and for Tarrant County.”
It was the latest conviction of a law enforcement officer accused of using excessive violence that led to the death of a Black citizen. Since 2005, 171 nonfederal officers have been arrested on murder or manslaughter charges in connection to an on-duty shooting of a civilian as of Dec. 1, according to Philip M. Stinson, a criminal justice professor with Bowling Green State University. Of those 171 officers, only 54 have been convicted of a crime resulting from the shooting, Stinson said — 21 by guilty plea, 32 by jury trial, and 1 by bench trial.
Stinson’s data shows a gradual increase in the number of officers charged annually for on-duty killings, peaking with 21 in 2021. He counts 19 so far in 2022, noting that, in recent years, sometimes multiple officers have been charged for a single incident.
As in Dean’s case, the charges have often relied on video footage or a fellow officer’s testimony that contradicts the defendant’s version of events or questions their adherence to protocol.
The rapid proliferation of video evidence — whether cellphone video, body camera footage, dash-cams, or surveillance images — has disabled prosecutors’ ability to turn a blind eye to fatal police encounters. Hundreds of millions of people have been able to see the homicides of Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement in recent years, altering public perceptions of police credibility and what constitutes an injustice, experts say.
“With more exposure, more technology, more evidence, more cases in which individuals are prosecuted, it starts to open the eyes of the general public to say, ‘You know what? We aren’t going to believe [the police], we are going to thoroughly investigate them,’” said Joshua Byrd, program chair and professor of criminal justice with the American InterContinental University-Atlanta Campus.
Black chief prosecutors have been particularly responsible for the increase in police accountability. Of those 21 officers charged last year, most were pursued by chief prosecutors who are Black men or Black women, according to Mapping Police Violence, a nonprofit, independent organization that collects and publishes police-violence data. While elected women of color prosecutors make up less than 2% of the over 2,300 elected prosecutors across the U.S., the report found that Black women elected prosecutors were accountable for “20% of prosecutors charging officers in two or more deadly force incidents from 2013-2021.”
Still, with at least 1,000 homicides by police each year rarely result in charges, according to Mapping Police Violence. Even when prosecutors initiate an investigation into a police shooting, it still can be politically risky, Byrd said. While law enforcement has been key in calling out fellow officers’ problematic behavior in certain high-profile cases, including the deaths of Jefferson and George Floyd, it remains a difficult wall to break.
“Prosecutors are up against this blue wall of silence that even when they bring charges, some prosecutors are up against some officers who don’t even want to testify,” Byrd said.
Also, video evidence can be called into question. Many bystanders who document encounters with law enforcement pressed record in the midst of an interaction — very few videos capture the moment in its entirety.
“Technology is such a double-edged sword for some communities,” said Christina Greer, an associate professor of political science at Fordham University, adding, “Because on one hand, people feel like technology overpolices them and they are hyper-surveilled. But then on the other hand, technology is the only reason why we know half of this stuff is going on. But we also know that a lot of police officers and corrections officers are like, ‘Well yes, I know on camera it shows me beating the living daylights out of this person, but you didn’t see what happened beforehand.’ So now the goalpost keeps moving.”
The road to true justice remains long, advocates say, and doesn’t end with the growing public support for prosecuting police officers. According to a study conducted by the Gallup Center on Black Voices earlier this year, 72% of Black Americans polled said that “major changes are needed to make policing better.”
“But there’s a deeper, I think, engagement that has to be had about how we prevent these kinds of incidents from happening as opposed to just exposing them when they do happen,” said the Rev. Markel Hutchins, CEO of MovementForward, a faith-based, nonprofit social justice organization that aims, in part, to bridge the gap between the community and law enforcement through human engagement programs. “I am of the belief that we cannot arrest police officers enough to cause there to be a shift and a change in the culture in law enforcement.”
Several cases involving fatal encounters with police could see arrests or trials in the coming months. Here are a few that Capital B will be keeping an eye on in 2023:
- Five Louisiana state troopers were indicted this month in the 2019 death of Ronald Greene, 49. The troopers were placed on administrative leave following the indictment announcement on Dec. 16. Police told Greene’s family that Greene died after crashing his car into a tree, but body camera footage showed a violent arrest, during which officers beat and dragged Greene. One officer was hit with homicide-related charges, while the others face obstruction of justice and malfeasance in office charges. The Justice Department has two pending investigations in connection to Greene’s death that includes a pattern or practice probe in the Louisiana State Police. At least one of the officers charged has been released on bail and is expected in court for arraignment in February 2023.
- Jaheim McMillan was a 15-year-old Gulfport, Mississippi, student who was fatally shot in the head on Oct. 6 by a police officer who was responding to a call of teenagers waving firearms at passing cars. McMillan’s family and bystanders have contested police accounts, saying McMillan was unarmed and had his hands up before the officer shot him. Advocates have called on Family Dollar to release unedited surveillance footage from outside the store where he was killed. The incident is still being investigated by Gulfport Police Department and the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation.
- A former police officer in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was charged in June with the murder of Patrick Lyoya, a refugee from Congo. Christopher Schurr pulled over Lyoya in April for faulty license plates, an encounter that escalated to a struggle over Schurr’s Taser. Schurr shot Lyoya in the back of the head, a series of events captured on body camera and dash camera footage. Schurr, who was fired, has pleaded not guilty and is expected to go to trial, but a date has not been set.
- Five New Haven, Connecticut, police officers were charged in connection to Randy Cox’s arrest that left him paralyzed from the chest down. Cox was handcuffed and placed into the back of a police van when the driver made an abrupt stop that caused him to slide head first into the back door, according to surveillance video from the vehicle. The 36-year-old was arrested in June and accused of possessing an illegal handgun. The officers were charged with second-degree reckless endangerment. They’re expected in court on Jan. 11 for arraignment.
- Three Camden County, Georgia, police officers were charged in November with assault and violating their oath of office after surveillance video showed Jarrett Hobbs being brutally beaten, according to a November Georgia Bureau of Investigations press release. While Hobbs, 41, was under arrest in the Camden County Jail, he was placed in an isolation cell and while attempting to take him out of the jail cell, the three officers jumped him. The officers were fired prior to their arrests.