Atatiana Jefferson is dead.
The 28-year-old was shot and killed in her Texas home by a Fort Worth police officer on October 12. According to reports, the officer was responding to a nonemergency call for a wellness, or welfare, check. Jefferson’s neighbor made the call when he saw “both her front doors opened and all the lights on in her house” at 2 a.m.
Police body cam footage of the shooting shows the officer walking around Jefferson’s house for a little over a minute before yelling, “Put your hands up. Show me your hands [unintelligible],” and immediately fires his weapon. The officer—who is not heard identifying himself as law enforcement in the footage—claims he “perceived a threat,” according to a statement issued by Fort Worth police.
Some reports have described Jefferson as an Xavier University graduate, and social media posts include this information as if it’s why we should care that her life was violently taken by a public servant whose job was to protect her. But none of that is important in this context.
Jefferson’s death has compounded the rage and trauma from police violence felt by many in Black communities across the country, and is another example of two ongoing problems about policing in Black communities: How law enforcement sees us, and why we are hesitant to call on them for help.
The tragedy comes not even a week after the sentencing of former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger, who shot and killed Botham Jean, 26, in his home. Guyger’s defense was that she thought she was in her own home—she’d just gotten off duty—defending herself from an intruder, a threat.
When Mike Brown was killed by a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer 5 years ago, his shooter claimed he felt threatened. When Philando Castile, a licensed weapons carrier, was shot and killed in front of his girlfriend and her child during a traffic stop, his shooter, a Minnesota law enforcement officer, claimed he felt threatened. When Terence Crutcher was gunned down on the highway by an officer in Oklahoma, that officer claimed she felt threatened. When Charleena Lyles was killed in her home, the two Seattle police officers who fired the shots claimed they felt threatened by the “knife-wielding” pregnant mother of four small children, who was battling mental illness. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice lost his life while playing in the park in Cleveland, because a police officer perceived him as a threat. Their stories, their deaths are only a handful among hundreds—Amadou Diallo, Oscar Grant, Eric Garner—of African Americans killed by police officers who saw them as threatening.
Ava DuVernay’s miniseries When They See Us, about the five Black and Brown teenagers who were wrongfully imprisoned for the death of a White woman, came out this summer and aptly gave this perceived threat a name. Some criticized the film’s title: “What difference does it make how they see us?” some fumed. “What matters is how we see ourselves.” While I partly understand this argument, the truth is the difference could be a matter of life or death.
What is it going to take to stop this madness?
Past tragedies have shown us that law enforcement is more likely to protect and serve non-Black and Brown communities, and continues to leave us with questions that can no longer go ignored. The next time a neighbor, friend, or family member is truly concerned about someone, will they even call for help? Had a wellness check been called for someone in a White community, would the officer have been so on the ready, with his weapon drawn? Or better yet, how do we get officers to respond with a protect-and-serve mindset when servicing Black communities?
The adoption of mandatory body camera policies is clearly insufficient to answer this critical question. Then what is?
These type of outcomes highlight the need for effective oversight of law enforcement agencies—oversight that will hold officers accountable for abuse and fatalities, while immediately implementing anti-racist policies, which, by the way, also affect non-Black and Brown people. Some anti-racism advocates are beginning to discuss the idea of police responsibility compensation, where officers who harm or kill unarmed people pay restitution to the survivors or victims’ families directly from their own pockets—not local governments’ coffers.
Would the possibility of mandatory sentencing make a police officer think twice before pulling the trigger? What about officers who kill unarmed citizens having to forgo their pensions, or pay victims’ families from their own 401(k)s?
Jefferson is one of about 700 people killed by law enforcement officers this year. The Washington Post’s fatal force database has recorded 709 police killings, as of October 14. The number reached 992 in 2018.
What is it going to take to stop this madness?
Zenobia Jeffries Warfield is the former executive editor at YES!, where she directed editorial coverage for YES! Magazine, YES! Media’s editorial partnerships, and served as chair of the YES! Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee. A Detroit native, Zenobia is an award-winning journalist who joined YES! in 2016 to build and grow YES!’s racial justice beat, and continues to write columns on racial justice. In addition to writing and editing, she has produced, directed, and edited a variety of short documentaries spotlighting community movements to international democracy. Zenobia earned a BA in Mass Communication from Rochester College in Rochester, Michigan, and an MA in Communication with an emphasis in media studies from Wayne State University in Detroit. Zenobia has also taught the college course “The Effects of Media on Social Justice,” as an adjunct professor in Detroit. Zenobia is a member of NABJ, SABJ, SPJ, and the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting. She lives in Seattle, and speaks English and AAVE.