The family of a 28-year-old woman fatally shot by Fort Worth police early Saturday morning gathered Sunday outside their home where she was shot, holding candles in a vigil.
Several hundred people stood with them.
Sunday night’s vigil for Atatiana Jefferson was emotional — some yelled in anger while speakers addressed the crowd. Others cried when the family’s attorney, S. Lee Merritt, described Jefferson as a tomboy who wanted to go back to medical school.
Starting at 7 p.m., the crowd at the intersection of Mississippi Avenue and Allen Avenue listened to various church leaders and community activists talk about Jefferson. She liked to take the sticker off fruit and put it on her forehead — she was silly that way, Merritt said. She also liked to play video games with her 8-year-old nephew.
That was what she was doing when Fort Worth police got a call at about 2:30 a.m. Saturday from a concerned neighbor who said her front door was open.
Two officers responded to the house in the 1200 block of East Allen Avenue and went into the backyard. One looked through the window and yelled, “Put your hands up! Show me your hands!” He did not identify himself as an officer before he fired, killing Jefferson in the same room as her nephew, according to police.
Merritt and other speakers encouraged those in the crowd to do more than attend Sunday’s vigil if they wanted change in Fort Worth.
“I’m asking you all to commit to staying in this fight until Fort Worth changes,” Merritt said. “But it takes more than a speech or a march, or a week, or a month, or a year. We have to change the system internally.”
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price was among those in attendance. She said she was not there to speak but to listen.
But she did tell reporters that the city would be hiring an outside agency to investigate the department.
She left quickly after a large crowd gathered and some started chanting, “Lock him up,” referring to the officer who shot Jefferson.
Deborah Peoples, the Tarrant County Democratic Party chairwoman, said residents in south and east Fort Worth suffer from PTSD.
“When officers come into our communities, they come in combat mode,” said Peoples, who lost to Price in the race for mayor in May. “We don’t have a chance.”
Protesters also mentioned previous shootings by Fort Worth police. At least seven people have been shot by Fort Worth police since June 1, six of whom died, according to Star-Telegram records. Police have not confirmed how many officer-involved shootings there have been in the city since June or this year.
Cory Hughes, another community activist, spoke to the crowd after Merritt.
“This has been a bloody summer in the city of Fort Worth,” he said.
Like Merritt, Hughes emphasized the need for people to continue demanding change in Fort Worth.
“Our anger is short term, and by the time we stop being angry, there is another body that the police have put in the ground,” he said.
Other speakers included the Rev. Rodney McIntosh and United Fort Worth leader Daniel Garcia Rodriguez.
Before the family arrived at the vigil, the crowd split in half. Some marched down the street where Fort Worth police officers blocked the on-ramp to the highway.
“Take it to the streets. We’re not hugging them and giving them a Bible,” said the Rev. Michael Bell, pastor of Greater St. Stephen First Church, over a loudspeaker.
Others stayed at Jefferson’s house and waited for her family to arrive with Merritt. After being blocked by police cars, the crowd in the streets turned around and returned to the corner of Mississippi and Allen Avenue.
Jefferson was a pre-med graduate of Xavier University in New Orleans and was working in pharmaceutical equipment sales, said Merritt. She was considering going back to medical school.
‘Devastation and Heartbreak’
Leaders and community activists called for accountability and police reform after Saturday’s shooting.
U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, attended the vigil but did not speak publicly. In an interview, he said he was “very disturbed” by Jefferson’s shooting and said Fort Worth police need to be clear with the public about what they’re going to do moving forward to prevent further shootings.
“The biggest thing to me is the training. It seems like this police officer made a very quick judgment to shoot her through this window and that makes absolutely no sense at all,” he said.
He emphasized the need for Fort Worth to hire a permanent police chief. Chief Ed Kraus has been serving as interim chief since former chief Joel Fitzgerald was fired in May.
Police departments also need to find a way to weed out people with clear biases toward communities of color, Veasey said.
“We live in a country now where people really don’t want to talk about race and different things like that,” he said. “And we need to have a situation where people are willing to talk about those things.”
Fort Worth City Councilwoman Kelly Allen Gray said Jefferson’s shooting highlights work that still needs to be done to build trust between police and people of color.
”If I had to share the general emotions of citizens of Fort Worth, I would say it’s one of disbelief and devastation and heartbreak,” Gray said.
Gray said in general, she believes Fort Worth police do a good job, and the city has gained more ground than it has lost when it comes to uniting as a community. However, there is still work to be done.
“Our welfare check turned into a death, and that should never have happened,” she said. “Our people, our citizens who call the police, should know the police are going to come and answer their cares and concerns in a way that does not result in a tragedy.”
In a statement on Sunday, the Fort Worth Police Officers Association urged Fort Worth police to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation.