The case of Atatiana Jefferson, the Fort Worth, Texas woman shot and killed by police in her own home a few weeks ago is still making headlines in Texas. In a new column for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, retired police officer Randy Petersen says while there are still unanswered questions about Jefferson’s death, “what we do know supports a robust defense of the Second Amendment — we all have a right to be safe and secure in our own homes.”
As Petersen notes, the tragic death could have been avoided had police simply announced their presence when they were called to the home after a neighbor called the cops around 2:30 in the morning after noticing the front door had been open for several hours. That’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do, says Petersen. It’s what happened next that’s the problem.
From the police perspective, a neighbor requesting a well-being check for open doors on a home at 2:30 a.m. means that the situation is outside the norm; if it were not, the neighbor wouldn’t have noticed it, let alone summon police officers.
An officer’s mind might jump ahead of what is known and assume the worst. An officer might even assume it is a home invasion. This assumption might lead an officer to sneak around the house and try to see what is going on inside. It’s what might have led the Fort Worth officer to the back yard, where he saw Jefferson in her window. He yelled a command to “show me your hands,” and fired a fatal shot an instant later.
Inside the home, as Petersen notes, Atatiana Jefferson was simply playing video games with her nephew when she heard a sound or maybe saw a flashlight beam from outside her window. She got her legally owned firearm from her purse, and was likely looking out the window to see if there was a prowler when she was shot. Atatiana Jefferson acted as any other gun owner would in that situation. She grabbed her gun to protect herself and her nephew.
Once confronted with an armed subject, an officer has very limited time to respond. But the alternative is also true. A homeowner has minimal time to respond to a threat, and determining whether that threat is a police officer should never have to be a part of the calculus. When a homeowner must worry that it might be the police prowling around the property, the delay could be fatal. There is no protection to be found in the Second Amendment if homeowners must second-guess their defensive efforts in such a scenario.
Petersen is absolutely right about that, and it’s entirely possible that Atatiana Jefferson may have fired at the officer if she believed there was an armed threat. For the safety of the officer and homeowner alike, Petersen argues, the officers should have clearly announced themselves after arriving on scene.
A police officer who is sneaking around a home at 2:30 a.m. needs to recognize the threat he might appear to be to a homeowner. In this case, the officer should have assumed that his flashlight in the backyard might draw the attention of the homeowner, and that the homeowner might arm herself against the perceived threat.
No homeowner should have to worry that an unannounced intruder might be the police. The identity of responding officers should never be in question. Proper tactics and proper identification, where feasible, can keep the officers and the communities they protect safe.
It’s the “where feasible” that’s really the heart of the matter. While Atatiana Jefferson’s neighbor called police to ask for a wellness check, officers were apparently dispatched on an “open structure” call, which typically results in a different response once they arrive on scene. With a wellness check, officers would knock on the front door and announce themselves. If it’s an “open structure” call, they might not.
Maybe it’s time to rethink that policy. Heck, I’m actually in favor of ending no-knock raids for the same reason. There’ve been too many cases where people have been killed because police didn’t announce themselves, both law enforcement and subjects of the raids. It stands to reason that in a country where people have the right to defend themselves in their home, police would announce who they are before prowling around a backyard in the middle of the night or breaking down the front door with a battering ram. There were certainly mistakes made the night Atatiana Jefferson was killed in her own home by a bullet fired by Officer Aaron Dean, but we shouldn’t have policies that almost guarantee tragedies like this will take place.