Fort Worth, TX – The family of a woman who was fatally shot by a Fort Worth police officer after he responded to her home for a report of an open structure in 2019 has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Fort Worth and the now-former officer who shot her.
Two of Jefferson’s aunts were also names as plaintiffs.
“Her father Jerome decided to bring the claim in order to help the family finally get some justice and to bring closure,” attorney Tanika J. Solomon told NBC News. “This is not just about money. This is about vindication.”
The family is seeking an unspecified sum for attorney fees and damages.
The lawsuit alleged that 35-year-old former Fort Worth Police Officer Aaron Dean “demonstrated a deliberate indifference to and conscious disregard for the constitutional rights and safety” of Jefferson at the time of the shooting, NBC News reported.
The plaintiffs further alleged that the city of Fort Worth was complicit in Jefferson’s death for failing to properly train officers and for failing to sanction Officer Dean after instances of alleged excessive force the lawsuit claimed occurred during his time with the department.
The city “knew or should have known that Defendant Aaron Dean exhibited a pattern of escalating encounters with the public,” the lawsuit alleged, adding that the city “encouraged policies, practices, and customs with deliberate indifference to the rights of citizens,” according to NBC News.
The lawsuit did not provide any further information regarding these alleged excessive force instances involving Officer Dean.
The Fort Worth Police Department refused to comment on the lawsuit due to a gag order, NBC News reported.
Dean, who resigned from the force in the wake of the shooting, has since been indicted for murder.
His trial has tentatively been scheduled for August of 2021, USA Today reported.
Smith told the non-emergency dispatcher that he noticed that his neighbor’s doors were open and their lights were still on, which was unusual for that time of night.
He said that Jefferson, 28, lived at the East Allen Avenue home with her eight-year-old nephew.
But the call for service was dispatched as a potential burglary report – not as a welfare check like her neighbor intended.
“The information came from the neighbor to the call-takers and while it was relayed to the dispatch, it was determined to be an open structure call,” Fort Worth Interim Police Chief Ed Kraus explained during a press conference, according to CNN.
As a result, the officers responded to the call differently than they would have if the call would have been dispatched as a welfare check.
Phoenix Law Enforcement Association President Michael “Britt” London said that officers approach “open structure” calls more cautiously due to the wide array of scenarios that could lead to such a call being made, CNN reported.
“You are at a higher sensitivity to what is going on with that house,” London told the news outlet. “You have to be ready for anything. You are taking more of your environment in consideration to be ready for a surprise if there’s one.”
Officers generally consider the possibility of burglary when handling such calls, CNN reported.
According to court documents, Jefferson’s nephew told police that he and his aunt were playing video games inside their home when they suddenly “heard noises coming from outside,” KXAS reported.
Jefferson then retrieved a handgun from her purse and “pointed it toward the window,” at which point she “was shot and fell to the ground,” according to an arrest warrant.
Bodycam footage showed the officers as they checked on two open doors. They then made their way down a driveway to the back portion of the residence.
Dean opened a gate and came upon a darkened window to his right, the video showed.
“Put your hands up!” he suddenly ordered, with his duty weapon and flashlight pointed at the window. “Show me your hands!”
He then fired a single round, fatally wounding Jefferson, who died at the scene, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported.
“Perceiving a threat, the officer drew his duty weapon and fired one shot striking the person inside the residence,” the FWPD in a news release. “Officers entered the residence locating the individual and a firearm and began providing emergency medical care.”
The officer did not announce himself as law enforcement, bodycam footage showed.
In the wake of the fatal shooting, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price blasted the FWPD for releasing images of the gun they located in Jefferson’s home.
“The gun is irrelevant,” Price said. “She was in her own home…Atatiana was a victim.”
“We are all heartbroken today. Atatiana was a beautiful, smart, amazing young woman, by all accounts, who was unjustly taken from her family,” Price told reporters. “The entire city is in pain…I can’t imagine anything worse, and I’m so sorry. On behalf of the entire city of Fort Worth, I’m sorry…it’s unacceptable. There is nothing that can justify what happened.”
The mayor declared that the relationship between FWPD and the community will not be repaired until Jefferson’s family has “justice.”
A “third-party panel of experts” has also been summoned to “review this department,” Price said.
Chief Kraus said he hasn’t been able to “make sense” of the officer’s decision to discharge his duty weapon.
“Nobody looked at that video and said that there’s any doubt that this officer acted inappropriately,” the chief told reporters. “I get it. We’re trying to train our officers better. We’re trying to shore up our policies, and we’re trying to ensure that they act and react the way that the citizens intend them to… with a servant’s heart instead of a warrior’s heart.”
Chief Kraus said that, “in hindsight,” releasing photographs of the firearm in Jefferson’s home “was a bad thing to do,” and that such images are generally released in order to show any “perceived threat” officers encountered.
“I think it was to show that there was a weapon involved, however, we’re homeowners in the State of Texas,” he added. “I can’t imagine most of us – if we thought we had somebody outside our house that shouldn’t be [and] we had access to that firearm – that we wouldn’t act very similarly to how she acted.”
Dean, who was hired by FWPD in August of 2017, was placed on administrative leave on Oct. 13, 2019.
He resigned from the force the following day, just hours before he was arrested for murder, The Dallas Morning News reported.
Had he not resigned, Chief Kraus said he would have fired the officer “for violations of several policies,” to include the FWPD’s use-of-force, de-escalation, and unprofessional conduct policies.
He was taken to the Tarrant County Jail on $200,000 bond and was released after posting bail approximately three hours later, according to CNN.
Dean’s attorney, Jim Lane, called the officer-involved shooting a “tragedy,” KXAS reported.
Lane said that Dean has expressed remorse for what happened, and that his family “is in shock,” according to the news outlet.