There are moments that mark not only turning points in history, but also points where it is evident that leaders must step forward and do the work to change the course of history.
The murder charge against former Fort Worth police officer Aaron Dean, who last weekend shot and killed Atatiana Jefferson in her home, is one of these moments. The charge Dean now faces is what the facts, as they are known, appear to demand. Our community as a whole must see this as a crucial moment.
We don’t pretend to know how this case will play out. Dean now will face a fair trial. And there likely will be twists and turns yet to come as we, as a community, come to grips with this tragedy and before the final chapter of this story is written.
Part of that story now is, according to the police, Jefferson may have pulled a pistol from her purse as she determined what was happening in her backyard. This happened in Texas, after all, where a person has a right to self-defense, especially at home, and why many people still are asking why the officer didn’t knock on the front door and make himself known before entering the backyard. As this case advances, we will likely learn more about what happened.
But what we do know is that for the third time in two years, this region has seen a police officer charged with murder in the slaying of an innocent African American resident. All were incidents involving officers in different departments – Balch Springs, Dallas and Fort Worth. And each victim was very different than the other two. One, Jordan Edwards, was a 15-year-old honor student at a high school party. Another, Botham Jean, was a 26-year-old accountant and immigrant in his own apartment. And now, Jefferson, 28, a woman sitting in her house playing video games with her nephew and caring for an ailing parent.
All of these people now are names in tragic stories.
There are other stories that also need to be part of our narrative. Although it still is within living memory, we no longer are in a period when the sanction of law perpetrated violence against racial minorities. Over the past several decades, laws have changed and many hearts have changed, too. Casting aspersion on all police officers based on the actions of a few is not only unfair, but it also is damaging to us. Our assessment of police officers needs to be based in reality, and that reality is that there are millions of unseen actions that reflect the honor, integrity and respect our officers bring to work every day. Losing sight of that will make it harder for the men and women in blue to patrol our streets, to reduce crime, to keep us safe.
That doesn’t erase the fact, of course, that innocent African Americans have been killed under circumstances that demand both justice and change. The depth of the damage to our society with each death necessitates clear, compelling and public responses. Three deaths in this area is more than enough to compel such a conversation in North Texas.
We fully expect that each of these cases now will be woven into training at police academies and for more experienced officers. We also expect leaders within our communities to step into the fray with reasoned responses driven toward viable solutions. To unfairly castigate officers is to undermine our community in profound, if often invisible, ways. Doing so destroys the trust that is crucially important for a department to police a city, and it frays the bonds that enable officers to be connected to the community. Those bonds help residents better understand the role of police officers, and they help police officers better understand and stay in tune with concerns and issues facing the community.
If this sounds like we believe that in the aftermath of these shootings we should find ways to be better connected to our police departments, it is because that is what we are calling for. We also are calling for police departments to expand efforts to absorb the concerns of the community and take steps to reinforce the kind of culture and practices that can prevent these shootings.
It is possible to prevent these shootings. It is possible to build trust. But with each shooting, the hard task of doing such work falls further out of reach.
The Dallas Morning News