Fort Worth

After shooting, residents plea for reform, empathy. ‘You need to start ... listening’

Fort Worth’s leaders have failed to respond to concerns about police brutality and racism, said uneasy residents who for the second week told officials they fear for their lives.

If the Fort Worth City Council doesn’t reform the police department and take concerned residents seriously, they may be voted out of office, speakers said during a council meeting Tuesday. It was dominated by pleas that the majority white council recognize what speakers called systemic racism and was the latest public call for change after Atatiana Jefferson was shot by a police officer in her home.

Aaron Dean killed the 28-year-old in the early morning hours of Oct. 12 when he shot her through her window while investigating a call from a concerned neighbor. He resigned from the police department and was arrested on a murder charge. He was later released on a $200,000 bond.

According to the warrant, Dean and another officer, who has not been named, were sent to Jefferson’s address on an open structure call and neither officer announced themselves when they arrived.

James Smith, the neighbor who made a non-emergency call for officers to check on Jefferson’s home because her door was open, became emotional when he told the council he has lost sleep and barely eats. The shooting has weighed heavily on him, he said, but Jefferson’s spirit “reached out to me.”

“Don’t let them get away with this,” he said.

Speakers threatened to unseat the council at the ballot box, including one woman who said she would hand out information about how to petition for recall elections.

David Amaya put a sign on display that read “y’all don’t care about us” and turned his back on the city council. He called on the audience to form a “voting culture.” Fort Worth has had historically low voter turnout, hovering around 8% for the past two mayoral elections. A little more than 10% of voters cast ballots in 2011, the year Mayor Betsy Price was elected.

“They do not represent us,” Amaya said. “They represent a very small percentage that turn out to vote.”

Jen Sarduy said the shooting had rattled the community but was one of many examples of why black residents fear police. She listed several things she thought would make her neighbors feel safe including parks, grocery stores, better transit and access to healthcare. Not on the list, she noted, was police.

“If Fort Worth had any good cops they would be reporting and getting rid of the bad cops,” she said.

Janet Brown told the council she’s made several calls to police for help in the past but she no longer feels safe doing so after the way police handled the call to Jefferson’s house. She was one of multiple white residents who told the council they worry for black and Hispanic neighbors.

Another was Jenia Silver, who said her adopted son has faced racist comments in Fort Worth. She said racism was obvious in the way police officers interacted with black residents, recalling the arrest of Jacqueline Craig.

“White supremacy in 2019 is not white people in hoods burning crosses,” she said. “It’s people in uniform wearing Fort Worth PD badges.”

Craig was arrested with her two daughters in December 2016 after she had called police to resolve a dispute with a neighbor. The confrontation that ensued was captured on video, which sparked outrage and complaints of excessive force.

Lizzie Maldonado reminded the council of a study released earlier this year that showed black and Hispanic Fort Worth residents are disproportionately more likely to be arrested than whites. At the time, city officials criticized the National League of Cities as relying on incomplete data.

Maldonado said that study supports residents’ concerns and shows systemic racism in Fort Worth.

“If we kill a police dog we get harsher sentences,” she said, criticizing charges against Dean as being too light.

Rodney McIntosh stood at the podium with his eldest son and asked the council if any of them had to talk to their children about how to interact with police. White residents don’t need to fear white police, he said, but the black community lives in fear.

“I don’t want to be next,” 13-year-old Jaylen McIntosh said.

A city spokeswoman declined to comment after the meeting and Police Chief Ed Kraus said “this is their time to speak” when asked for a comment.

“We have a lot of work to do,” said Councilwoman Ann Zadeh.

This is the second week protesters have gathered at City Hall to demand greater police accountability.

Nearly 60 speakers railed on the council for more than two hours last week at the end of a meeting that had already stretched long because of a series of zoning cases.

Speakers then criticized the council for not expediting or continuing mundane business, and many were unhappy that dozens of people, including several who had signed up to speak, weren’t allowed into the building once the council chambers and an overflow room hit capacity.

Zadeh and Councilwoman Gyna Bivens said they received several calls and emails about the way the city operates public meetings. Both requested the council look into best practices, including possibly relocating meetings when attendance is expected to be high and better ways to communicate with the public.

Price agreed but said she thought city marshals had done the best they could to announce names outside when people were called to speak and communicate with the large crowd.

“It was actually better handled than what a lot of people thought it was,” she said.

Mindia Whittier, a community organizer and member of United Fort Worth, told the council last week’s meeting was a fiasco and officials should have been better prepared to handle the large crowd.

A SWAT-style vehicle was outside when she arrived, she said, and horse-mounted officers felt like Jim Crow-era patrols and slave holders.

“Is that what you intend for civic engagement?” she questioned Tuesday.

Whittier had signed up to speak on three different topics and received three confirmation numbers, but was not going to be allowed to speak three times. She told the council the guidelines lacked clarity on how many times someone could speak and if she was barred from speaking she would consider suing the city.

She told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram before the meeting she knew of many community leaders who had grown disheartened with the council’s treatment of concerned residents and decided to no longer try engaging them at City Hall.

Many criticized the council for appearing to not pay attention to speakers or take them seriously. They noted when council members were looking away, at their phones or appeared inattentive.

Emily Farris, who earlier this year drew attention to racist posts a city human rights commission member shared on Facebook, said she twice brought students from her TCU politics class to observe the council in September. The students noted that council members appeared to not listen to speakers because they were on their phones or otherwise looking away.

“You need to start actively listening to and engaging your citizens,” she said.

Though she spoke about her student’s impression, she was not representing the university.

Following Jefferson’s death, Price directed staff to convene a third party panel to review the police department’s policies and procedures. The goal is to have that panel created by Nov. 19 with experts in bias, policing and officer training.

City Manager David Cooke said the city has received “overwhelming interest” from individuals and consulting firms from across the state and country and expects to have a short list of panel members completed by next week. Conversations have already begun with some potential panelists.

“We’ve been inundated with names, proposals, thoughts, ideas of folks and firms that could do this work,” he said.

Plans for this panel have not satisfied members of Tarrant County Coalition for Community Oversight who last week sent the city a list of demands related to police accountability. The city declined to accept the demands, saying they had wanted to negotiate with the coalition. The coalition said no, arguing they had met with the city several times since March.

Pamela Young, a coalition organizer, said they had met with city staff Monday, but told them more meetings would be required before the city would consider the demands.

“We will continue to actually fight for the safety of the people in our community no matter who they are how much money they have,” she said, criticizing campaign donations council members receive from the police union.

The coalition has demanded all of the police body camera footage related to the shooting, the names of all the officers who answered the call, the firing of Cooke and the firing of Assistant City Manager Jay Chapa, who oversees the police department. It also wanted additional charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and child endangerment to be brought against Dean.

The group also demanded that the city create non-police response teams to address welfare checks, mental health calls, and non-critical incidents, the statement said.

The Tarrant County District Attorney, which said the case was received Friday and the office would pursue an indictment of murder from a Tarrant County grand jury, must alter charges, not the city. The city has said it can’t release the names of all the officers involved in the preliminary investigation for safety reasons.

The city is in the process of hiring a chief diversity and inclusion officer. Candidates will be presented at a public forum Monday at Morningside Elementary, 2601 Evans Avenue, where Estrus Tucker and the co-chairs of the Race and Culture Task Force will moderate questions.

Candidates for a police monitor, a civilian with law enforcement or legal experience, will be selected by the third week of November, Cooke said. Once the police monitor is hired that person will set up a citizen police review panel charged with examining department policies and taking citizen inquiries.

The coalition has said it wants to play a substantial role in setting up the review board.

Meanwhile, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Texas Legislative Black Caucus have called for state lawmakers to take action.

Last week a group of black Texas legislators and Tarrant County Commissioner Roy Brooks advocated for changes to state law that would tighten hiring, uniform procedures and clarify when deadly force can be used. The NAACP is backing laws that would make consistent compensation to families that suffer unjustified deaths of relatives due to the action of law enforcement officers and mandate funding for peace officers to receive training and certification in handling high-stress situations through simulation tools.

LaKeisha Davis was one of many speakers who said the council had failed voters. She told them she didn’t want to see them at black community gatherings. She and others would continue to protest in Fort Worth until substantial changes were made, she said.

“We are not tired and we not done,” Davis said.

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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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