Fort Worth police shooting of black woman in her home demands independent review

Updated at 5:20 p.m. to reflect police confirmation that the officer did not identify himself at the scene.

There’s a lot we don’t know yet about the killing of Atatiana Jefferson in her home early Saturday by a Fort Worth police officer.

But here’s one thing we do know: A spate of police shootings is roiling the community, and city leaders must seriously address the problem.

It doesn’t look this way in the video, but it may turn out that the unidentified officer reasonably perceived a threat from Jefferson, a 28-year-old black woman, when he arrived to check a report that her doors were open and lights were on, which a neighbor called unusual.

But we’re past the point that Fort Worth police can investigate themselves in a case like this. For the sake of community trust, the city needs to turn the inquiry over to another entity, perhaps the Texas Rangers. Residents need a thorough accounting of what happened, and they deserve a process that ensures the review is impartial.

The information selectively released so far is troubling. Officials have released a photo of a gun found inside. Was Jefferson holding it? Did she raise it or point it? Police won’t say.

Texans have a right to defend themselves and their homes with legally acquired firearms. A police spokesman confirmed Sunday that the officer didn’t identify himself at the scene, so Jefferson had reason to think she was the one in danger.

Officials must investigate thoroughly but quickly to determine whether to ask a grand jury if the officer’s reaction justifies an arrest and a criminal charge.

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Tensions are escalating in Fort Worth, particularly among black residents, and they must be addressed. Seven times since June, officers have shot someone. Six times, that person has died.

Many of the incidents turned out to have been legitimate threats to officers. We’re not naive about the danger police volunteer for every day. And we don’t buy fanciful notions about what an officer should do when genuinely threatened.

But Fort Worth has a relatively low crime rate for a city of its size. Are its officers too fearful of the public? Is there something in the department’s culture and hiring standards that needs work?

These are difficult questions, so city leaders should consider commissioning a complete independent review of the police department. The city’s Race and Culture Task Force did an admirable job of trying to address these issues, but it may be time for someone with extensive law enforcement expertise and a charge to dig deep into the department’s operations to review everything from recruiting and hiring to training and tactical procedures.

Fort Worth is without a permanent police chief. So the timing is good for considering wholesale changes. Even if city leaders decide interim Chief Ed Kraus is right for the job long term, a review could provide guidance and momentum for Kraus to make needed changes.

Simply put, the shooting of Atatiana Jefferson looks bad. New information may change that. But if we’ve gotten to the point that Fort Worth residents must fear being shot by police in their own homes — and, we note with anguish, many black residents now do — it’s time for significant change.

This story was originally published October 13, 2019 3:10 PM.

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