Fort Worth

Will Texas lawmakers act on police reform? Black Caucus wants changes

Though former Fort Worth police office Aaron Dean was arrested on a murder charge in the fatal shooting of Atatiana Jefferson in her home, members of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus and an attorney for Jefferson’s family said justice will only come through statewide policing reform.

Standing on the steps of the Tarrant County Courthouse, Rep. Nicole Collier of Fort Worth and legislators form Houston and Dallas advocated for changes to state law that would tighten hiring, uniform procedures and clarify when deadly force can be used across the country. Lee Merritt, the family’s attorney, joined the lawmakers, requesting greater accountability within the Fort Worth Police Department. Tarrant County Commissioner Roy Brooks asked the community to work with policymakers to end violence.

Brooks, who represents the Morningside neighborhood where Jefferson was shot, said he believed some officers charged with policing minority communities are afraid of Fort Worth’s black residents.

“Consequently the let their fear of us override their training, override their duty to protect and serve,” he said. “This must change.”

Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, said Texas and nationwide leaders needed to come together to create strict hiring procedures for police that would weed out officers who have racial bias

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, pointed to a California bill signed into law earlier this year that created some of the toughest standards in the country for when officers kill. California Assembly Bill 392 came about in part after the shooting of Stephon Clark by Sacramento police and requires officers use lethal force only when it is “necessary” based on the totality of circumstances.

West said lawmakers should discuss whether deadly force should be refined. Texas law requires officers identify themselves as police before using any force. Dean did not identify himself as an officer, according to body camera footage of the shooting.

Collier, a Democrat who represents parts of downtown and the east side, said the state needs a uniform code for police tactics and an stronger emphasis on de-escalation training.

Policing expert Mike Benza, a senior instructor from the Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland, told the Star-Telegram over the weekend that Dean’s actions mirrored those of an officer investigating a burglary, but the neighbor who called a non-emergency police number told dispatchers he just wanted an officer to check on his neighbor because her front door was open.

“We should not have people die as the result of a welfare check,” Collier said.

Asked if the Republican dominated legislature in Austin had the appetite for police reform, Collier said the matter was up to voters.

Merritt spoke on behalf of Jefferson’s family though siblings Amber, Ashley and Adarius Carr joined the lawmakers at the podium.

Following the press conference, Merritt told reporters that though Dean was arrested quickly and Interim Fort Worth Police Chief Ed Kraus has spoken out against aggressive police culture, he wasn’t convinced the department was making substantial reform.

”We need an appropriate prosecution, an effective verdict and proper sentencing. But we need more than that,” he said. “There needs to be actual reform.”

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram