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Woman killed in own home when Fort Worth officer shoots her, police and witness say

Firing through a window, a white Fort Worth officer fatally shot a black woman inside her home early Saturday after police were called to the house because its doors were open, according to police and the neighbor who summoned them.

Atatiana Jefferson, 28, died in a bedroom, according to the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Officers responded at 2:25 a.m. to the house in the 1200 block of East Allen Avenue. James Smith, who called a non-emergency police number, said he saw the doors were open and the lights were on, which struck him as unusual. He knew Jefferson, his neighbor, was home with her 8-year-old nephew.

Police parked around the corner, and the woman could not see them, according to Smith, 62. About 15 minutes later, he said, he heard a loud bang and saw several more officers rush inside.

Body-worn camera video police released shows two officers using flashlights to check the perimeter of the house, inspecting two doors that are open with closed screen doors. At the back of house, one officer appears to see a figure through a dark window, and he quickly twists his body to the left.

“Put your hands up! Show me your hands!” he shouts through the window, his gun drawn. He then fires a single shot through the window.

In the video, he does not identify himself as an officer.

Jefferson was playing video games with her nephew when they heard what they believed to be a prowler outside, her relatives’ attorney said. When she went to the window to see what was going on, she was shot, the attorney said.

Police said that the officer, who joined the department in April 2018, saw a person standing inside the house near a window.

“Perceiving a threat, the officer drew his duty weapon and fired one shot striking the person inside the residence,” the department said in a news release. “Officers entered the residence locating the individual and a firearm and began providing emergency medical care.”

Police released photographs of a gun they said that they found in a bedroom at the house. They did not say whether Jefferson was holding the weapon when the officer shot her.

Atatiana Jefferson.jpg
Atatiana Jefferson in a Facebook photo Facebook

S. Lee Merritt, an attorney who handles civil rights cases that involve police misconduct allegations, said his office was representing the Jefferson family.

Jefferson worked in pharmaceutical equipment sales, Merritt wrote Saturday on Facebook.

“Before law enforcement goes about their pattern of villainizing this beautiful peaceful woman, turning her into a suspect, a silhouette, or threat, let me tell you about [her,]” Merritt wrote. “She was a premed graduate of Xavier University. She was very close to her family. She was the auntie that stayed up on Friday night playing video games with her 8 year old nephew.”

“Her mom had recently gotten very sick, so she was home taking care of the house and loving her life. There was no reason for her to be murdered. None. We must have justice,” Merritt wrote.

Jefferson was pronounced dead at the scene. The officer, whose name the department did not release, was placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation, police said.

Smith, who has lived on the street for 50 years, said he had been trying to be a good neighbor, calling police on a non-emergency number so they could check on the residents. But he was wrestling with his emotions after a sleepless night.

“I’m shaken. I’m mad. I’m upset. And I feel it’s partly my fault,” he said. “If I had never dialed the police department, she’d still be alive.”

The south Fort Worth community was jolted by news that felt like a familiar story, and later in the day more than 10 black community leaders and pastors held a press conference to call on city leadership to act quickly and hold the officer in question accountable.

Pastor Michael Bell, speaking inside his own Greater Saint Stephen Baptist Church, read the police account after it was released about noon and offered an immediate response. He wondered, visibly emotional and upset, how a person could be a “perceived threat” inside of her home.

“Ain’t no ‘perceived threat’ — unless it’s black folk,” he said. “Just our presence — we’re the threat.”

Police said they wanted to be transparent with a quick response in releasing a portion of body camera video. But they said they were unable to release video from inside the house, citing state law.

The police department did not offer answers to a list of questions the Star-Telegram sent it, including those that asked whether Jefferson had held a weapon, what the officer perceived as a threat and if officers knocked on the front door or identified themselves as police officers.

“Being the preliminary stages of this critical investigation we have provided all the information we have available to release at this time,” Lt. Brandon O’Neil, a police spokesman, wrote in an email.

‘It makes you not want to call the police department’

Smith said his neighbors look after each other. When he called the non-emergency number early Saturday, he told police he was simply worried about the welfare of his neighbor and her nephew, he said.

They typically live with an older woman, who has been in the hospital, he said. His grandchildren, nieces and nephews play with the 8-year-old who was inside the house, and he often worries about the boy crossing the street.

Smith’s niece, who also lives on East Allen Avenue, had initially told him about the open doors and the lights, and when he saw it himself, he thought it was concerning.

“When I saw the doors open, I thought about [the child,] I thought about his grandma, I thought about his aunt,” he said. “And I wanted to make sure they were safe. That’s all I wanted to do.”

But around 9 a.m. Saturday, as he stood outside the woman’s home, he wondered if he had done the right thing. Pastor Kyev Tatum, a community activist, was with him, comforting him.

Smith knows his street has a bad reputation, he said. Maybe, he wondered, police “thought they were coming to something they weren’t.”

The shooting left him feeling angry and upset, he said, but also saddened.

“It makes you not want to call the police department,” he said. “If you don’t feel safe with the police department, then who do you feel safe with? Do you just ignore crime or ignore something that’s not right?

“They tell you, ‘If you see something, say something. ...Well, if you do that and it costs somebody to lose their life, it makes you not want to do that. And that’s sad.”

Previous police shootings

The East Allen Avenue shooting was the seventh time since June 1 that a Fort Worth police officer has shot a civilian. Six of those people died. The determination of police Internal Affairs Unit reviews of those cases or whether grand juries have considered them was not clear.

The police major case unit, internal affairs unit and the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office were at the East Allen Avenue scene Saturday.

Three of the recent shootings occurred in June.

A man who was killed by a Fort Worth SWAT officer as he pointed a flashlight at police that an officer believed was a rifle. Police responded to a domestic disturbance call at a residence in the 5700 block of 6th Avenue. The suspect chambered a round and pointed a long rifle at officers. He then barricaded himself inside the house. While officers were trying to speak with the man, he left the front door with both arms out in front of him while holding an object that looked like a weapon-mounted lighting system, police have said. He “turned toward an officer, still locked out in a shooting stance, pointing the object at an officer,” police have said.

An officer shot a burglary suspect who he had been trying to handcuff when the man charged at the officer in the front yard of a house near Rickee Drive and Fair Park Boulevard, police said. The man survived.

A man suffered seven gunshot wounds, six of which of were fired by three officers, and another that the man fired himself, the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office has said. The man, who police had intended to arrest because an assault warrant had been filed against him, ran with his cousin from a car after a traffic stop. He died in the cab of a parked pick-up truck in a yard on East Berry Street.

In July, an officer shot a man who fired at officers as he held three people hostage in an apartment in the 2900 block of Broadmoor Drive. Officers had been in a standoff with the man, who had gone to the apartment to see his ex-girlfriend and infant child.

Two of the shootings occurred in August.

A former Tarrant County law enforcement officer was shot and killed when he displayed a handgun and failed to obey an officer’s commands during a domestic disturbance call in the 5800 block of Blue Ridge Drive, police said.

A man who was a person of interest in a homicide pointed a handgun toward officers on Boca Raton Boulevard near Oakland Hills Drive. As officers approached the man, intending to question him about the homicide, he pulled a handgun and ran. Officers gave chase, and the man pointed the gun toward them, police said.

The East Allen Avenue shooting is in some ways similar to a May 2013 case in which a Fort Worth police officer shot a man to death in his garage.

Officers intending to respond to a burglary alarm call at a different house on Havenwood Lane North went to the wrong address. Whether the man who was killed held a gun when he was shot was in dispute.

Staff writers Luke Ranker and Kaley Johnson contributed to this report.
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Jack Howland is a breaking news and enterprise reporter. Before coming to the Star-Telegram in May 2019, he worked for two and a half years as a breaking news reporter at the Poughkeepsie Journal in New York. He’s a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
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