Editorials

For justice’s sake, Fort Worth officer’s murder charge must go to grand jury — fast

Updated at 7:10 p.m. Monday to reflect former officer’s arrest.

As Fort Worth grieves the unjustified death of Atatiana Jefferson at the hands of a police officer, words and actions are both crucial.

So we were heartened by the honesty and completeness with which Mayor Betsy Price, City Manager David Cooke and interim police Chief Ed Kraus spoke Monday about the tragedy.

The mayor’s tone was sorrowful and apologetic. She addressed specific issues, including the police department’s inflammatory initial focus on the presence of Jefferson’s gun at the scene of the shooting. She spoke directly to Jefferson’s family, including the nephew who had to watch his beloved aunt die. And she called for a complete, independent review of the department.

The words were right. Now, the actions must be, too.

First, the case needs to go before a grand jury as soon as possible, and officials moved to expedite that late Monday with the arrest of the shooter, former Officer Aaron Dean, on a murder charge.

Kraus suggested earlier Monday that, although he has talked with the Texas Rangers, the investigation will remain with Fort Worth police. We think that’s a mistake, and the decision puts pressure on Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson to ensure the case proceeds quickly and transparently.

Next, the city must provide more information about exactly what happened. Kraus indicated Dean’s tactical response — parking around the corner with no lights and checking the yard — was appropriate. But why didn’t he identify himself as an officer? And why wouldn’t the proper response to a neighbor’s concern about an unusually open door be to knock and check on the occupants of the house?

We need more information about Dean’s training and record, too. He was on the force for barely two years and an active officer for scarcely a year and a half. What was his disciplinary record? What training did he have?

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Editorials are the positions of the Editorial Board, which serves as the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s institutional voice. The members of the board are: Cynthia M. Allen, columnist; Steve Coffman, executive editor; Bud Kennedy, columnist; Juan Antonio Ramos, editorial director of La Estrella, the Star-Telegram’s bilingual publication; and Ryan J. Rusak, opinion editor. Most editorials are written by Rusak and edited by Coffman. Editorials are unsigned because they represent the board’s consensus positions, not the views of individual writers.

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The mayor did the right thing by singling out Jefferson’s nephew and calling for the “entire city to surround him with prayers” and support. His life is forever altered, as is that of the neighbor, James Smith, who wanted only to help.

For decades, the mantra has been: “If you see something, say something.” If Dean’s actions mean people are reluctant to call police when something seems amiss, our community’s loss will be compounded.

Cooke indicated that national experts would review everything about the police department. Ensuring independence is paramount, but local voices, especially those who have long raised concerns about policing in Fort Worth, should be heard, too.

The investigation can’t be too thorough. It must look at hiring practices, training, tactical procedures, use-of-force instructions and de-escalation tactics.

And though it may cause discomfort, it must look at Fort Worth police culture.

There was a poignant moment Monday when Kraus, in response to a question, said that officers sometimes need to “react with a servant’s heart instead of a warrior’s heart.” Many officers exhibit heroism and compassion on a regular basis, and they shouldn’t be tarnished by Dean’s mistakes.

But changing the hearts of those with the wrong approach, or replacing them, is a long-term project that will take sustained attention from all levels of department and city leadership.

On Monday, leaders said the right things. Now, the community must be patient so they have a chance to take the right actions. But we all must be vigilant in holding them accountable, too.

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