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How A Neighbor’s Intended Welfare Check For Atatiana Jefferson Turned Tragic

Associated Press
Bouquets of flowers and stuffed animals piled up outside Atatiana Jefferson's home in Fort Worth.

When James Smith called a non-emergency number early Saturday morning, he was worried. He wanted to make sure his neighbor, Atatiana Jefferson, was OK.

The doors to her house were open. It was late. Smith found that strange.

“I haven’t seen anybody moving around,” he told a dispatcher. “It’s not normal for them to have both of the doors open this time of night.”

But when a dispatcher contacted officers, it wasn’t for a welfare check.

“Complainant advised the front doors to this address are open,” a dispatcher said.


What started as a neighbor’s desire for a welfare check turned into something much different – something classified as an “open structure” call, which indicated something potentially more serious.

Minutes later, Jefferson, a 28-year-old black woman, was dead, shot in her own home by a white police officer, Aaron Dean.

She had been playing video games with her 8-year-old nephew.

Ed Kraus, interim Fort Worth Police Chief, said the department was looking into what happened.

“The information came from the neighbor to the call takers and when it was relayed to the dispatch, it was determined to be an open structure call,” Kraus told reporters.

Kraus says an open structure could mean different things, like someone had left the door open by accident -- or that someone had broken in. Officers believed a crime may have been in progress.

“So they believed they were responding to an open structure call, not just a welfare check,” Kraus told reporters.

Kraus says the officers’ initial response seemed normal: parking down the street from the house, checking the home’s perimeter, and peering into windows.

But Kraus says nothing excuses what Dean did next: Never identifying himself as a police officer, and then shooting through a window and killing Jefferson.

Firing into a building like that would only be justified if the officer was actively being fired upon by the person inside, Kraus said, and if the officer knew that that person was alone.

Jefferson had a gun, according to police documents, but she did not fire the weapon. And her nephew was in the room with her.

“I realize no action we take can replace the loss suffered here. I’m deeply sorry for what occurred,” Kraus said. “I’ve received so many contacts from our officers who want to express how sorry they are as well, and how this is not indicative of what they do every day.”

On Monday, Dean resigned from the police force, and he was charged with murder and arrested. He is now out on bond.

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.