Fort Worth

‘It’s a human tragedy.’ Neighbor who called police in Atatiana Jefferson death offers reflection

James Smith hasn’t been able to sleep much since Saturday.

Late into the night, or early in the morning, the 62-year-old Fort Worth man keeps finding himself awake, his mind occupied by the killing of his neighbor, Atatiana Jefferson, at the hands of a police officer. His niece had noticed the 28-year-old’s doors were open and lights were on around 2 a.m. Saturday, which concerned them. Smith called a non-emergency police number to request someone come check on Jefferson.

He stood across the street in their block of East Allen Avenue, waiting and watching for police to knock on the door or loudly announce they were there. But no such announcement was made.

As people across the country and the world have learned — and expressed their feelings about on social media in the days since — former officer Aaron Dean shot once through Jefferson’s back window, killing her. She had thought there was a prowler in the back yard.

Smith is aware of the widespread support he’s been receiving, with thousands of people on social media saying he’s a good neighbor who did nothing wrong, including high-profile figures such as film director Ava DuVernay. People have shown up at his front door, too, just to shake his hand, or speak to him for a moment, or offer him a card.

It’s helped a little, Smith said.

But, at the end of the day, he said he’s still had to wrestle with a fact that will stay with him — his call, no matter how he intended it, led to Dean showing up that early morning.

“I have to grapple with this and come to it in my own terms,” he said sitting in a chair in his front lawn Wednesday. “I appreciate everybody lifting me up, but I have to come to grips with it my own way, my own time. And hopefully it won’t hurt so bad.”

The incident has shaken not only him but the south Fort Wort community as well as his family. His niece who noticed Jefferson’s doors were open has been struggling, too, with trouble sleeping and feelings of fear leaving the home even to walk her dog.

Smith has been staying busy, speaking about the incident with media outlets at his home and obliging the well-wishers who have shown up. Each day he also takes care of his brother, who has been declining since he suffered a stroke three years ago and moved into his home.

In the aftermath of this incident, Smith has been left feeling frustrated, angry and sad — but also determined.

He wants to understand how a welfare call could turn into a shooting, and the death of a neighbor he had known well for the roughly two years she lived on his block. He wants to see justice.

“I don’t feel I shouldn’t have called — I just feel that it didn’t turn out like the reason I called,” he said. “I didn’t call for what I got. And that bothers me.”

‘All they had to do was come and make sure they were OK’

Smith, who’s lived on East Allen Avenue for 50 years, had previously called police two times to conduct a welfare check on someone he knew, he said. Both times, he said, police knocked on the front door and announced they were officers.

In this instance, though, he never saw an officer walk up to the front door or heard an officer loudly announce they were with the police department, he said. And when police released a portion of Dean’s body cam video, he watched just to make sure he wasn’t wrong — and he wasn’t.

It bothers him, he said, that officers seemed to respond as if they were coming to a burglary call, even though he “never mentioned” that in his phone call. He said he wants to see police make sure if someone calls a non-emergency number for a welfare check or an open structure, it won’t get misconstrued as an emergency.

He said, “All they had to do was come and make sure that they were OK.”

“What they did wrong was not follow the procedure that they have in place for the type of call that I called,” he said. “I didn’t see that. I didn’t get that.”

He also wants to see police address a question he has had since Saturday: Would police have responded this way in an affluent, largely white neighborhood?

He was watching a livestream of the Fort Worth City Council meeting Tuesday night, in which a woman described a different experience after her neighbors called police to conduct a welfare check.

“She said had she been a woman of color, she could’ve gotten shot,” he said. “White privilege — that came out of her mouth, not mine. She said that. And I appreciate her for saying that.”

Even after the incident, Smith said he still believes “there are some good cops out there, otherwise the world will be in chaos.” He also said he’s not upset that Dean, who was charged with murder Monday, paid a $200,000 bond to get out of jail, because “that’s the process.”

And though no one from the City of Fort Worth has personally reached out to him to apologize, he said it doesn’t bother him and they have more important issues to deal with.

But he wants to see Dean held accountable for his actions and he wants Fort Worth to take steps to make sure this situation will never happen again.

‘It’s a human tragedy’

Jefferson’s home across the street is a constant reminder to Smith of the woman they lost.

The next time he cuts his grass, he said, he feels it will be hard to not think about seeing Jefferson outside with her 8-year-old nephew Zion. She would show him how to mow the lawn.

The boy, who’s living with his mother in Dallas, would play with Smith’s own nieces, nephews and grandchildren, and he’d worry about him crossing the street. He’s “praying that he is strong enough to get through this, and I believe he is,” he said.

Smith isn’t on social media, but his kids have kept him updated on the messages of support from all corners of the Internet. He’s also had family from all over the country — from New York, to California — reaching out to make sure he’s OK.

He understands why people feel so compelled to share their feelings.

“Because it’s a human tragedy,” he said, “and because they may need the police department one day, and now everybody’s second guessing — ‘do I want to take that chance?’”

James Duckworth, a 61-year-old truck driver from Haltom City, saw Smith on the news describing how his heart was heavy in the aftermath of the incident. He said he’s called the police several times to have them check up on someone he knows and nothing like this has happened. It makes him think, he said, “maybe that’s not a good idea now.”

He was so moved by Smith’s story, and his pain, that he drove to Fort Worth Wednesday, where he found him outside of his East Allen Avenue home.

He talked to Smith for about 10 minutes, expressing his support for him. He gave him his phone number, told him he could call if he ever needed to.

As Smith was sitting down for an interview, a handful of people around him, Duckworth slipped $8 into his hand, which was all he had in his wallet.

“This story broke my heart, and it just kept breaking my heart until I got in my car to come over here today,” Duckworth said. “I wanted to come over and make sure that he had support and somebody that he can call any time.”

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Jack Howland is a breaking news and enterprise reporter. Before coming to the Star-Telegram in May 2019, he worked for two and a half years as a breaking news reporter at the Poughkeepsie Journal in New York. He’s a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism.