Fort Worth Panel to Investigate Police Shooting of Woman in Her Own Home

Anastasia Gonzalez, of Burleson, Texas, leaves a flowers on the front sidewalk of Atatiana Jefferson’s home on E. Allen Ave in Fort Worth, Texas, on Oct. 15, 2019. Jefferson, a black woman, was shot by a white police officer on Oct. 12. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News via AP)

FORT WORTH (CN) – Fort Worth officials Friday named the eight members of a promised independent panel tasked with investigating the city’s embattled police department in the wake of a white officer shooting and killing Atatiana Jefferson in her own home last month.

City Manager David Cooke said the panel is comprised of experts on use of force, racial profiling and investigative best practices.

“We were contacted by firms and individuals around the country who are recognized for this type of work,” he said. “After a review of qualifications and experience, I believe we have assembled an excellent team to provide recommendations and best practices that will allow us to improve our police department and the way we work with all members of our community.”

The panel could begin reviewing the police department as early December pending confirmation by the city council on Nov. 19.

Cooke acknowledged the sustained public anger and outrage after Jefferson’s killing, saying the “community does not feel safe, does not trust” the police. The panel will hold public forums where citizens can share their past experiences with police.

“It is our job to figure out how we rebuild that trust,” he said. “We want them to tell us what we should do differently to help build the trust.”

Former police officer Aaron Dean is free on bond after killing Jefferson, 28, at her mother’s home south of downtown on Oct. 12. Jefferson’s neighbor had called a non-emergency phone number asking for a welfare check, concerned that the home’s front door was left open and lights left on late at night. 

Dean can be seen in his heavily-edited body camera video approaching the door, then walking down the side of the house while at no time identifying himself as police.

He suddenly looks into a window and yells “put your hands up, show me your hands,” before immediately firing his service weapon inside. 

The video later cuts to footage of what appears to be a handgun inside the house, but does not show where the weapon is located in relation to Jefferson or if it is in the same room.

Mayor Betsy Price said Cooke’s announcement Friday is “exactly the action promised.” Two days after the shooting, Price publicly apologized to Jefferson’s family for her “senseless” killing and promised the independent review. She said at the time the inclusion of Jefferson’s gun in the video was “irrelevant,” that she was “in her own home caring for her nephew.”

“I wholeheartedly support [interim] Chief [Ed] Kraus, his command staff and the entire police department, but believe working with this independent group of police policy experts and allowing them to provide recommendations will improve our promise to serve and protect all residents,” Price said Friday.

Cooke said the panel will investigate police practices and patterns of stops, searches, arrests and use-of-force incidents. This will include training, de-escalation tactics and reporting procedures dating back to 2014. 

In a second phase, the panel will be tasked with more broadly reviewing general orders and practices regarding police relationships with the public, including interactions with residents and training for traffic stops. 

Full reports with recommendations to the city are expected to be issued after each phase is complete.

Cooke said the panel will be led by Theron L. Bowman and Alex del Carmen. Bowman is the former police chief in neighboring Arlington and has previously served on police practice investigations in Chicago and Los Angeles, among other cities. Carmen is associate dean of criminology at Tarleton State University and a former federal monitor of police departments under consent decrees. They declined to comment on Cooke’s announcement Friday, stating they anticipate making a statement after confirmation by the city council.

The other panelists are:

Lynda Garcia, policing campaign director for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. She previously worked for the national office of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Emily Gunston, deputy legal director at Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and a former U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division deputy chief.

Tom Petrowski, a visiting professor at Tarleton State University and a former FBI Dallas Chief Legal Counsel.

Marcia Thompson, a vice president of consulting firm Hillard Heintze’s law enforcement division and a law enforcement and civil rights attorney.

Johnathan Smith, executive director of Washington Lawyers’ Committee. He served as the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division chief during its investigation into the Ferguson, Missouri police after the shooting death of Michael Brown.

Rita Watkins, executive director of the Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas and certified instructor by the Texas Commission of Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education. She specializes in cultural diversity, leadership development, conflict resolution and investigative techniques, among others.

The panel will cost the city up to $400,000 and take up to one year to complete, Cooke said.

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