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What The Killing Of A Fort Worth Woman Says About Police Training

Oct 16, 2019
Originally published on October 16, 2019 5:15 am
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Authorities in Fort Worth shared more details yesterday about the killing of Atatiana Jefferson. She's the 28-year-old black woman shot by a white police officer. He had been called to Jefferson's house after a neighbor spotted an open door early that morning. Jefferson's young nephew told investigators that his aunt heard a noise outside and pointed her gun at a window right before the officer outside shot her. That officer, who resigned from the department Monday, has now been charged with murder. NPR's law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste reports on what the case says about the state of police training and the problem of officers who are too quick to shoot.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: In the last few years, there's been a push to teach police to get better at avoiding split-second decisions about using force. The mantra is time and distance, de-escalate, get backup and avoid surprises. But in the body camera video of the Fort Worth incident, you see Officer Aaron Dean in the dark sneaking around the house...

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AARON DEAN: Nearby, I can hear somebody (inaudible).

KASTE: ...Whispering to his partner as he approaches the fatal window.

WALTER KATZ: The question is always going to be, how does a person on the other side perceive that?

KASTE: Walter Katz has worked in police oversight in California and Chicago. And now he's a private consultant for departments. He says thinking about perceptions is vital to good policing.

KATZ: Understanding that when you're near a residence in Texas, where a lot of homeowners have firearms, understanding how would somebody react to hearing a potential prowler outside their home at 2:30 in the morning.

KASTE: Creating unnecessary risk or escalating a conflict, he says that's the kind of thing that he sees more often from inexperienced officers who are often stuck on overnight shifts. The officer in Fort Worth had been on the job only a year and a half. But even if he lacked experience, he likely did have extensive training, according to Kim Vickers. Vickers is executive director of the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. And he says the officer is sure to have had training in de-escalation and shoot, don't shoot scenarios.

KIM VICKERS: I would almost guarantee you that officers on the Fort Worth Police Department, if they've been there any length of time, have gone through multiple times of those trainings.

KASTE: Still, Vickers says it's not easy to break policing of certain bad habits, such as the so-called warrior style of training, which has come under intense criticism from groups such as Black Lives Matter. It's a style of training that's fallen into official disfavor. But some police departments still hire consultants who use video clips of cops being ambushed and killed to impress upon officers the potential dangers posed by civilians. Vickers says he tries to discourage departments from too narrow a focus on this kind of mentality.

VICKERS: We're just real slow to change. And it's hard. The SWAT stuff and all that stuff is impressive, and it's sexy. And it's hard not to fall into that.

KASTE: And police mentality is what Cory Session blames in the case of the Fort Worth shooting. Session is vice president of the Innocence Project of Texas.

CORY SESSION: He got the training. He got the training.

KASTE: The tragedy, Session says, is that the officer didn't follow the training.

SESSION: He made a judgment instead of just following what the written policy is. You just knock on the door. Hello, hello, Fort Worth police...

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

SESSION: ...Hello.

KASTE: Session says if there is a silver lining here, it's that he believes this incident has increased pressure on city officials to create a civilian review board for the Fort Worth police - one of the last big city departments without one.

Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.