Crime

Protesters march, demand justice as emotions flare at City Hall. ‘We don’t feel safe’

Some in Fort Worth, particularly those in the black community, believe their security is in peril.

That was clear in the City Council chambers Tuesday night as people demanding justice after the shooting death of Atatiana Jefferson repeatedly interrupted with chants of “we don’t feel safe.” Aaron Dean shot Jefferson early Saturday morning through her window while investigating a call from a concerned neighbor. He resigned from the police department and is charged with murder.

The sentiment was much the same outside City Hall, where about 200 people who could not get into the meeting after the chambers reached its capacity bellowed criticisms of the police department and political leaders.

Speakers like Jamaal Johnson said they could no longer take pride in Fort Worth. Johnson said he and his wife bought their first home in the city because they were confident this is where they wanted to raise a family. After the rash of police shootings — seven since June — he said they no longer feel comfortable.

“How can we feel safe if we die in our homes?” he asked the council.

Though Dean is out of the department and possibly headed to a murder trial, speakers Tuesday said he was merely a symptom of systemic racism in both Fort Worth and the nation. Echoing pleas from protests this week and a gathering of black Texas lawmakers earlier in the day, they called on city leaders to address what they see as patterns of racial bias and aggressive policing.

Many demanded the firing of City Manager David Cooke and Assistant City Manager Jay Chapa, who oversees the police department. They weren’t specific as they accused city leaders of corruption, but many said a void in leadership had led to poor policing. Speakers criticized Dean’s tactics of “prowling” through Jefferson’s back yard with his gun drawn rather than approaching the front door. He never identified himself as an officer, according to body camera video.

“You have to think differently about the way you’re running this city,” Lee Muhammad said. “The Fort Worth Way has not been working for us.”

Muhammad said the city had long neglected the black community, which suffers from post traumatic stress.

Cooke and Chapa declined to comment after the meeting.

Pamela Young, a member of Tarrant Coalition for Community Oversight, demanded the city release the names of the other officers who responded to Jefferson’s home and the footage from their body cameras. Young has been one of the most vocal advocates for an independent police review board. Tuesday she said Dean’s actions warranted an independent criminal investigation.

Mayor Betsy Price has said she expects a third party review of police policy and tactics. During a council work session Tuesday, she said she expected Cooke to have a panel convened by mid-November that could provide weekly updates.

Nearly 60 people signed up during the council’s public comment period, but the calls for police reform began early in the meeting.

Lauren Ward signed up to speak on nearly a dozen agenda items. Council rules require speakers to discuss only the item at hand, but that didn’t stop Ward, who more than once stood only to say “I don’t feel safe in Fort Worth” or call for city officials to resign.

One woman sat quietly in the back of the council chambers in a seat usually reserved for city staff and media. As residents worried about a zoning change near Paschal High School waited to speak, she stood and yelled “none of this matters.”

“Let these people speak,” she called out, referring to those who came to speak about policing and Jefferson.

She was escorted away.

Some speakers, like Ward, who signed up for unrelated items, spoke slowly in an attempt to use up time before city marshals asked them to sit.

More than once Price admonished speakers and the crowd that outbursts would not be tolerated and she could have people removed or call the meeting off all together.

She told the crowd she and Councilwoman Kelly Allen Gray spent more than 30 minutes earlier in the day with Jefferson’s three siblings, who she referred to as the “A-Team.” Through jeers from several boisterous crowd members, she said she wanted to honor Jefferson by closing the meeting in her name.

“My heart was touched,” Price said.

By the time public comment began at 9:30 p.m., the crowd had grown restless.

That the City Council spent so much time on mundane business showed an indifference to black lives, said Elizabeth Maldonado. Torey Franklin agreed in a passionate speech accusing the council of filibustering to wear black speakers out. Other speakers were angered by what they interpreted as signs of disrespect. Council members and city staff were called out for glancing at their phones or not looking at speakers.

Outside, the line to get into to City Hall stretched around the building and dozens were not allowed in, including some who had signed up to speak. This angered the crowd as many yelled out to the council each time a speaker was called who was not in the building.

“We know you knew this meeting would be large because of the number of officers that are here,” attorney Estella Williams said. “You surround us with the very people we are here to complain about. We don’t feel safe.”

Though the majority of speakers were black, several white speakers, who said they live in affluent neighborhoods, said they too do not feel safe interacting with police or feared for black neighbors.

Courtney Miller, who lives in Arlington Heights, told the council about a time she spotted flash lights in her back yard and learned officers were on her property investigating her barking dog.

“I’m still alive and Atatiana Jefferson is not,” she said. “That’s white privilege.”

March for justice

Earlier in the day, demonstrators took to the streets of downtown to demand justice for Jefferson.

Carrying signs with messages such as “Stop Killing Our Children” and “There is blood on FWPD’s hands,” about a dozen protesters marched from the old Tarrant County Courthouse to Fort Worth City Hall.

About 16 Fort Worth police officers, many of them on bicycles, stopped afternoon traffic at downtown intersections so the small group of protesters could pass. Several marchers said they intended to address Fort Worth City Council on Tuesday, and that they expected to be joined by many other protesters at the council meeting.

“Atatiana! No justice! No peace!” the crowd chanted in unison.

Atatiana Jefferson.jpg
Atatiana Jefferson in a Facebook photo Facebook

Some of the marchers were from a Fort Worth group known as United My Justice, whose members have been vocal critics of recent police actions in the African-American community. Many members say the police lack adequate training to know how to diffuse situations without firing a weapon.

The president of that group, Donnell Ballard, said the members would continue to disrupt public events until Fort Worth police were held accountable for Jefferson’s death, as well as at least six other recent police shootings.

“It’s time for the community and businesses to take us seriously,” Ballard said before the march began. “If we have to, we will interrupt events — Veterans Day parades, Christmas parades.”

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Protesters hold up signs facing into the windows of City Hall Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019, in downtown Fort Worth. Yffy Yossifor yyossifor@star-telegram.com

Others joining in the march belonged to a Grand Prairie-based youth advocacy group known as Community Step Up. Many marchers said they objected to the fact that the officer charged with murder in Jefferson’s death, Aaron Dean, was able to bail out of jail.

Dean, who resigned from the police department just before his arrest on the murder charge Monday, was released on $200,000 bond. He is accused of shooting Jefferson through a window in her home, after a neighbor called a non-emergency police number to report that a door to Jefferson’s home was ajar.

Dean was among several officers sent to Jefferson’s home because a neighbor reported its doors were open.

Video footage from his body camera appears to show Dean yelling for Jefferson to show him her hands, but not identifying himself as a police officer, before immediately firing a shot at her.

“The bond is too low! He’s already out! Lock him back up!” the group chanted in front of City Hall.

aaron dean_fitted.png
Former Fort Worth Officer Aaron Dean was arrested Monday in the death of Atatiana Jefferson. He was charged with murder. Fort Worth Police Department Tarrant County Jail

Karan Love, an Arlington resident and member of Community Step Up, said of the protest: “This is not just a black fight anymore.”

“The whole community is tired,” Love said.

Staff writer Emerson Clarridge contributed to this report.

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Gordon Dickson joined the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1997. He is passionate about hard news reporting, and his beats include transportation, growth, urban planning, aviation, real estate, jobs, business trends. He is originally from El Paso, and loves food, soccer and long drives.
Luke Ranker covers the intersection of people and government focused on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. He came to Texas from the plains of Kansas, where he wrote about a lot, including government, crime and courts in Topeka. He survived a single winter in Pennsylvania as a breaking news reporter. He can be reached at 817-390-7747 or lranker@star-telegram.com.
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