State Sen. Beverly Powell is urging lawmakers to focus on policing and community safety after a white Fort Worth police officer fatally shot a black woman in her home.
Powell, a Democrat from Burleson, sent a letter to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, and chair of the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice, on Thursday to request the committee develop recommendations on improving training and diversity within law enforcement statewide.
“The Committee should identify opportunities to increase safety, accountability and transparency in our communities, for both our peace officers and the people they serve, and reduce the use of deadly force wherever possible,” Powell wrote.
Powell suggested looking at avenues to improve training, standards, data collection, community policing and increasing diversity.
Atatiana Jefferson, 28, was up late playing video games with her 8-year-old nephew on Oct. 12 when she was fatally shot by an officer who had been sent to the house after a neighbor called police because he noticed the doors had been left open for hours.
The officer, Aaron Dean, failed to identify himself before he fired his gun through Jefferson’s back window, according to body-camera footage. He has been charged with murder.
“This shooting was a tragic moment in Fort Worth’s history,” Powell said in an interview Friday. “There should never be a moment when people don’t feel safe in their homes, with the confidence that our public safety officials are there to protect us.”
Whitmire said he was shocked and dismayed by the shooting, and believes Powell’s request should be a priority. He cautioned he didn’t want to interfere with any investigation or prosecution, but welcomed hearing from community members and law enforcement organizations from across the state.
“This individual officer for certain just did not follow police best practices. If anything, it was the worst practices,” Whitmire said. “If done properly, maybe we can make something productive come out of such a tragedy. It’s just unimaginable.”
Powell said residents — like Jefferson’s neighbor James Smith, who made the call requesting a welfare check — should not have to worry that actions intended to look out for their neighbors are instead putting lives at risk. Since the shooting, Smith hasn’t been able to get much sleep, he told the Star-Telegram.
The shooting has rocked the community and garnered national attention, spurring hundreds to voice their demands at City Hall, in addition to vigils, marches and calls for increased oversight of the police department.
And it’s a frustration that has been building for many of Fort Worth’s black residents, in a city that has seen seven people shot — six of them fatally — by Fort Worth officers since June 1. Of those shot, four of the people were black, two were white and one was Hispanic, according to records.
In the wake of Jefferson’s death, local officials have moved forward with plans for increased oversight, including the hiring of an independent, third-party panel of national experts by Nov. 19 to review the department’s policies.
But some residents want to see more.
Faith leaders and community activists renewed their calls for the police department to enter into a federal consent decree, like other troubled departments in Ferguson, Missouri, and Chicago have been required to do. Members of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus also called for changes to state laws, advocating for uniform procedures, a stronger emphasis on de-escalation and clarification on when deadly force can be used.
“It’s understandable that tensions are high,” Powell said. “There’s there’s no question about that.”
Powell said she would have to read more about entering into a consent decree before she could comment on whether she thinks the department should. But she said she supports the efforts of the Black Caucus and the steps city leaders are taking, like hiring an outside panel of experts.
“When we have questions that we have to answer about our own policies and procedures, let’s get that third voice in here to take a look at what we’re doing,” Powell said. “As a state official, I think it’s my responsibility to work in concert with our own local officials. I’m encouraged by their diligence. I’m encouraged by the compassion that they’ve shown throughout this process and the transparency with which they have have dealt with with this issue.”
Improved training, increased diversity and building trust between law enforcement and residents are areas where Powell said lawmakers could begin to assess.
“We have to be assured at the state level that we’ve set standards that protect both our citizens and our first responders,” Powell said. “We have to ask ourselves about the training for young officers, for new officers.”
Powell noted Texas is only growing increasingly diverse, and wondered how lawmakers can ensure that diversity makes its way into police departments’ ranks.
That’s true for Tarrant County too, where minority communities are experiencing extreme growth compared to the county’s white population. Meanwhile, the Fort Worth Police Department is still majority white, with 63% of staff identifying as white, 21% as Hispanic or Latino, 12% as African American and just 2% as Asian, according to a June 30 Demographics and Diversity report.
The issue of police brutality is not a new one nationwide or in Texas, where lawmakers are still discussing the circumstances around Sandra Bland’s 2015 arrest that sparked nationwide scrutiny, and passed legislation in the wake of her death.
Passing state laws often takes years, and in Texas, lawmakers meet only every other year. After they wrapped up the biennial legislative session in May, they won’t have an opportunity to debate legislation until they reconvene in January 2021.
“Whether that’s good or bad, we’ll leave that for a conversation on another day. But I think that it goes a long way for concerned citizens to understand that their elected officials hear what they have to say,” Powell said. “There’s a deep sadness that this could have occurred in in our community. And there is a sense of urgency that we address the problem. We are responding in measure to that sense of urgency in the best ways that we know how.”
Whitmire is the chamber’s longest-serving senator, elected in 1983, and he served in the House for a decade before that. And while there are encounters with law enforcement that go properly, he’s said he’s seen the “breakdown of respect and communication between officers and the community in which they patrol,” before.
“We deal with training and give them additional requirements, it seems like every session,” Whitmire said. “It’s hard to bring back a life — you can’t. But you try to prevent the next tragedy from occurring. And if I knew the complete answer to that, it would be a wonderful thing, but I don’t. But we’ll sure as hell try.”
Patrick ultimately determines what issues committees are tasked with discussing in the interim. His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday on whether Powell’s request will be approved. In 2017, the last wave of interim charges was issued by late October.
Powell said she has been in touch with Whitmire and Patrick’s offices and is “very hopeful” lawmakers will take up the issue.
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Published at Sat, 19 Oct 2019 06:38:30 +0000