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Hundreds Gather At Vigil To Call For Change After Fort Worth Police Officer Kills Woman At Home

Community members gathered in Fort Worth Sunday night to protest the shooting death of Atatiana Jefferson by a Fort Worth police officer. A white officer fatally shot Jefferson, a black woman, in her home early Saturday morning.

Hundreds joined the protest, which began just before 7 p.m. on the steps of Masjid Hassan and went on for several hours. Many people gathered outside the home where Jefferson was shot.

There was anger, shock and sadness from activists and community members.

Chants of "no justice, no peace" and calls to "lock him up" were heard, referring to the police officer who shot Jefferson. Community members and activists took turns speaking, one calling for the community to police itself. 

Credit Christopher Connelly / KERA News
Hundreds of people gathered at a vigil Sunday night to honor Atatiana Jefferson, who was fatally shot by a Fort Worth police officer.

Deborah Peoples from the Tarrant County Democratic Party said Jefferson’s death was a tragedy, but also the product of systemic racism.

“The quality and the length of our lives should not be determined by the zip code we live in,” Peoples said. “When officers come in our community, they come in combat mode. We don’t have a chance.”

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price made a brief appearance. When asked for comment, she said she was there to show support, not to speak. But Price said the city would hire an outside firm to look into police department policy.

Jefferson was playing video games with her 8-year-old nephew just before she was killed. She went to the window when she heard the officer outside, who was responding to a neighbor’s call for a welfare check. He shot her through the window, and police say he did not identify himself as a police officer.

Credit Christopher Connelly / KERA News
Hundreds of people gathered in Fort Worth Sunday night to remember Atatiana Jefferson, who was playing video games with her nephew in her home when she was fatally shot by a Fort Worth police officer.

Jefferson was a graduate of Xavier University of Louisiana, getting her bachelor’s degree in biology in 2014, according to the university. A video found on Twitter shows Jefferson illustrating notes for students.

Standing with Jefferson’s relatives, family lawyer Lee Merritt described the 28-year-old, who worked selling pharmaceutical equipment and was studying to apply for medical school.

“They told me silly stories that she was a tomboy, that she was better at video games than most of the guys she played with, that when she ate fruit she took off the sticker and put it on her forehead every time,” Merritt said. “She was a normal human being, someone who should still be here today.”

Merritt says that Jefferson had been playing the video game Halo with her nephew. He says the 8-year-old witnessed the shooting. 

The Fort Worth Police Department said in a statement that officers saw someone near a window inside the home and that one of them drew his duty weapon and fired after "perceiving a threat." The video released by police shows two officers searching the home from the outside with flashlights before one shouts, "Put your hands up, show me your hands." One shot is then fired through a window.

"It's another one of those situations where the people that are supposed to protect us are actually not here to protect us," said Jefferson's sister, Amber Carr.

"You know, you want to see justice, but justice don't bring my sister back," Carr said.

An aunt, Venitta Body, said the family does not understand why Jefferson was killed.

"It's like from the moment we got the call, it's been more and more inconceivable and more confusing. And there has nothing been done in order to take away that confusion," Body said.

Police Lt. Brandon O'Neil said Sunday that the officer, who's been on the force since April 2018, is on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation and will be interviewed about the fatal shooting on Monday. His name was not released.

At a brief news conference at police headquarters, O'Neil confirmed that the officer did not announce he was police before he fired the fatal shot and that his failure to do so is part of the department's investigation.

O'Neil also confirmed that Jefferson's 8-year-old nephew was in the room with Jefferson when she was shot. He said representatives of the police department have spoken with the woman's family and "shared our serious and heartfelt concern for this unspeakable loss." Her family has said she was watching her nephew at the time.

O'Neil declined to answer reporters' questions and said Fort Worth Police Chief Ed Kraus plans to conduct a more in-depth news conference on Monday.

James Smith, who called a police non-emergency number about the open door, told reporters he was just trying to be a good neighbor.

"I'm shaken. I'm mad. I'm upset. And I feel it's partly my fault," Smith said. "If I had never dialed the police department, she'd still be alive."

Smith said Jefferson and her nephew typically lived with an older woman, who's been in the hospital.

"It makes you not want to call the police department," he said.

In an audio recording of Smith's call that was released by police, the neighbor said it was "not normal" for the house to leave its front door open for hours at that time of day.

Merritt said Jefferson's family expects "a thorough and expedient investigation."

The Fort Worth Police Department said it released bodycam footage soon after the shooting to provide transparency, but that any "camera footage inside the residence" could not be distributed due to state law. However, the bodycam video released to media included blurred still frames showing a gun inside a bedroom at the home. It's unclear if the firearm was found near the woman, and police have not said that the officer who shot her thought she had a gun. The police statement released Saturday said only that officers who entered the residence after the shooting found a firearm. Police did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment Sunday.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders on Sunday called on the Justice Department to investigate.

"The killings of unarmed Black Americans have got to end," Sanders tweeted. "Atatiana Jefferson should be alive."

The shooting comes less than two weeks after a white former Dallas police officer was sentenced to 10 years in prison after being convicted of murder in the fatal shooting of her black neighbor inside his own apartment. Amber Guyger, 31, said during her trial that mistook Botham Jean's apartment for her own, which was one floor below Jean's. Merritt also represents Jean's family.

KERA's Christopher Connelly, Bill Zeeble and Domini Davis contributed to this report, which includes reporting from The Associated Press.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.