Most people in law enforcement, and many outside of it are familiar with the killing of Atatiana Jefferson by a Fort Worth, Tx police officer in October 2019. Here is a brief summary.
A neighbor called the police to say Atatiana Jefferson’s front door was open. This was at approximately 0200 or 2am. An officer responded and began walking around Jefferson’s house, using his flashlight to peer into windows. Unknown to him, and this is conjecture since we cannot ask Ms. Jefferson, Jefferson apparently saw his silhouette and light moving around outside.
Ms. Jefferson was playing video games in her bedroom with her nephew, who was visiting for the night. Ms. Jefferson evidently saw Ofc. Dean moving around and armed herself, think he may be an intruder seeking to gain access to her house. I say evidently because a firearm was allegedly seen in Jefferson’s hand by Dean, and a firearm was recovered near her body. As Ms. Jefferson stood in her bedroom holding her gun, possibly trying to decide if she had time to call 911 or needed to prepare to defend herself, Dean noticed her holding a gun standing in her bedroom. As evidenced by his body worn camera (BWC), Dean yelled, “Show me your hands!” Within 2 seconds after yelling that command, Dean fired one round at Jefferson, killing her.
We can, and many have, call this a tragic accident. Some, including the judicial system, have so far alleged this may have been a crime. Dean has been indicted for murder. However we want to see this event, we cannot see it as unpreventable. It was entirely preventable. How?
By learning, understanding, and incorporating the plethora of police decision-making principles, concepts, and skills, including the 5 Step Process, or PIE+ Process.
I will acknowledge that I am familiar with the case only through new and other media reports. I have not read any of the officer’s direct statements of his mindset or decision making. I speak from 20 years police experience, countless open door or burglar alarm calls, and as a 20+ year basic and advanced police tactics instructor. I am confident I can speak to my thesis statement in this situation based on what I do know. And based on the one step I will talk about that could have easily prevented this tragedy.
If Ofc. Aaron Dean had been a true practitioner of these concepts and only this % Step Process, Ms. Jefferson would still be alive. Dean based his actions on what he had already decided the situation to be, probably even prior to his arrival; an intruder had broken into Jefferson’s residence. Dean created a false picture of the situation. He created a "worst-case scenario" and didn’t gain updated information, or even an investigative approach, to confirm or change his mind.
A police officer’s mindset should not be that they are always operating in the “worst-case scenario”. We do prepare for the worst-case scenario. We become proficient with our firearms, alternate weapons, and our defensive and arrest control tactics. We do prepare and plan for what could be the worst possible situation. What I am talking about is preparing for that and also using tactical principles to know and understand when you are in a worst case and when you are not. You cannot use worst case tactics in a “not-so-bad” case. You will overreact.
I say overreact intentionally. We can respond, or we react. Response is a reasoned action based on education, understanding, and training. Reaction is a shocked, caught off guard, unprepared “knee jerk” type of mental and physical flailing. By these criteria, one cannot “over respond” either. A response will be appropriate in scope. Not too much and not too little.
If Dean had used only step number two of the 5 Step Process, basing our actions on the facts or information we know, he may have done things very different. Using only this one criterion of the entire process Dean might have done some variation of the following:
As he responded to the call, Dean could have asked himself, “What do I know about this call?” He may have reasoned that the only thing the informant knew was the front door of a residence was open at an add hour. This could give him reason to plan on possibly confronting an intruder, but he would have no confirmation there was a crime being committed at that moment.
Dean could have checked the premise history to see if there were any similar calls. Some people don’t close their door consistently. If it is a quiet, low crime neighborhood, the residents may often leave garage doors open at night. Part of our intel/facts are what is common for this area. Is this a low crime area, and therefore, a lack of security consciousness?
On arrival, Dean might have already known Jefferson’s contact info if he had checked, and it was in the system. Or a dispatcher may have been able to find her phone number. Dean could have parked at a distance to observe the house. Here our facts become what we observe firsthand. We should be updating our planning and our preconceptions of the situation as we gain direct knowledge. Dean obviously maintained a hyper vigilance throughout the event, as evidenced by his panicked shouts and immediate shooting. He was scared. Terrified might be more accurate.
Noticing no obvious movement or people running out carrying televisions, and after waiting a minute or two to continue observing, Dean could have either had dispatch call in to the house to speak with Jefferson, or he could have moved around the house at a distance, without his flashlight, to further observe. As much as abnormal movement or action, part of our intel is the lack of abnormal or violent activity. This information gives us the ability to slow down, take our time, and continue to observe.
After a few minutes of continuing to not see any criminal activity, Dean could have moved to the front door, which was open, and listened. Just listened. To listen instead of taking action, whether it be physical action or even talking, is one reminder that police constantly need. Sometime the best action to take is to not take any action. When we can slow down, we should, otherwise we become like a snowball rolled down a mountain that causes an avalanche.
Again, not hearing anything to connote a crime, Dean could have called inside, announcing his presence, his authority, and request whoever is inside to come to the front door. For those of you worried for him that he is standing at the front door and a burglar “could just shoot him”, let me finish. He could call out, then move away from the door to a position of cover. A tree, the corner of the house, somewhere else. If there is a criminal inside, they can either go toward him or away. They may run out the back door. Dean might see them. If they come toward him, he is no longer where the burglar expected him to be. That counters two other tactical principles, suspect advantage and the OODA Loop.
The situation being what it was, had Dean done anything close to what I described, things may have looked like this. Ms. Jefferson receives a phone call from Fort Worth Police who tell her a police officer is standing outside because her door was seen open. Ms. Jefferson assures the dispatcher nothing is wrong; she walks out front and speak directly with Dean. They giggle at her absentmindedness and she walks back inside, closing and locking the door behind her. Dean stands by until he hears the door lock, then walks back to his car, clearing the call as no crime, no further action, necessary action taken, however Fort Worth PD close calls like this one.
Or, Dean calls out from the door, moves away, and watches as Ms. Jefferson comes to her front door, looking for him. Dean contacts her from his position of cover, gains the knowledge (fact/intel) that nothing is wrong, that she is not a burglar, and approaches her. They giggle at her absent mindedness, and you know the rest.
We, as police officers, can sit all day and conjecture “yeah, but what if…” The possibilities are endless. Someone could have planted a nuclear device just inside the door. Someone could have slaughtered the entire household and be sitting in the dark waiting for the unsuspecting officer to just come traipsing in. But are there any facts or intel that would support those incredible thoughts? Do we have any information that would say something bad is happening inside right now?
We need to base our actions and decisions on the most solid information and facts we can obtain. Officers need to use time-tested principles, including the 5 Step Process, to help them successfully navigate tactical problems. We should not, we cannot, just snowball our way down the mountain causing avalanches.