By Charlene Muhammad National Correspondent @sischarlene
When Black men, women or children are gunned down by police, oftentimes a disturbing yet familiar pattern emerges. The victim is portrayed in a negative light and is subtly or not so subtly blamed for what happened to cause their death. In many cases, past indiscretions or personal details about their lives is made front page news.
Amber Carr, center, wipes a tear as her sister, Ashley Carr, left, and attorney Lee Merritt, right, listen to Amber and Ashley’s brother Adarius Carr talk about their sister Atatiana Jefferson during a news conference, Oct. 14. Photo: AP Irwin Thompson
A White, male police officer who shot a Black woman inside her Ft. Worth, Texas home said he saw a person at the window. But later authorities claimed Atatiana Jefferson’s traumatized eight-year-old nephew, who witnessed the incident, said she took a gun out of her purse and pointed it at a window.
Activists and advocates complained police in Ft. Worth Texas, added to Black outrage and agony by attempting to blame the victim and twisting the facts.
Sadly, it wasn’t the first time that a Black life was lost and police and other authorities tried, in some way, to smear the Black victim, they added.
In case after case across the country, from Trayvon Martin to Sandra Bland, “blaming the victim” in police killings and other racially connected killings of Blacks has been a constant strategy, activists and advocates argued.
Victim blaming happens as law enforcement and media seize on any blemish in the victims’ past to paint them as somehow being worthy of death or imply the victim caused their own demise. It can taint the court of public opinion and, when used in courtrooms, may impact conclusions of jurors.
Aaron Dean, who shot Ms. Jefferson to death and resigned days after the shooting, has been charged with murder. The 34-year-old was arrested on Oct. 14 and is out of jail on $200,000 bond.
“Right now, the city of Forth Worth is actively pushing a narrative that Aaron Dean was a bad cop on a good police force. It was the ‘good police force’ that interrogated an eight-year-old child. It was the ‘good police force’ that put out a photograph of a gun to insinuate some criminality upon the victim. It was a ‘good police force’ that released a warrant that rejected this clear evidence of the two trained professionals who didn’t mention a gun, and the video … and relied instead on the word of an interrogated, terrified, eight-year-old child,” Atty. Lee Merritt, who is representing the victim’s family, told The Final Call.
The eight-year-old was Ms. Jefferson’s nephew, Zion, who was with her when she was shot to death. When Ft. Worth police put out a warrant for the arrest of the killer cop, they reported that the child said his aunt pointed a gun toward the window. A bullet, fired by then-officer Dean, came through the window and killed Ms. Jefferson.
The police interrogation of young Zion is extremely problematic, said Atty. Merritt. “The child did not have counsel present. The child did not speak with their parent. They interrogated a child after murdering his auntie in front of him. They will face legal consequences for that unlawful interrogation. It was abusive. It’s altogether a separate issue, and nothing the child allegedly said should be relied upon by the public, and it will not be admissible in court,” Atty. Merritt said.
According to the arrest warrant, Mr. Dean did not report seeing a weapon, but the other responding officer, C.A. Darch, saw Ms. Jefferson in the window.
“If the gun was a factor—and I’ll say quite frankly it was not—the firearm that Atatiana legally owned would not have been able to be seen from outside in the dark with the shades drawn. We know that, because the officer didn’t say, ‘Gun! Gun! Gun!’ as they are trained when you see a gun. He said, ‘Show me your hands,’ ” observed Atty. Merritt.
In addition, he argued, frame-by-frame video analysis further contradicts the police account in the warrant. It shows the same angle Mr. Dean would have had and Ms. Jefferson’s figure in the window, but no firearm, which would have been significant enough to report, Atty. Merritt stated. “But what he (Mr. Dean) said instead was accurate. I saw a person, and that Black woman represented a threat to me; not a firearm. They said they later recovered a firearm within the bedroom,” Atty. Merritt continued.
“Using police jargon that the officer ‘perceived a threat’ without being clear about what the threat was and releasing pictures of a gun lying on Ms. Jefferson’s floor gives the impression that she would be blamed for her own death. That is irresponsible,” said the National Black Police Association in a press statement.
The organization chided the Fort Worth Police Department for parceling out small pieces of information, and said the incident highlights another violation of procedural justice, which calls for fairness, impartiality, and unambiguousness.
“The death of Black citizens by White officers has reached critical mass. The argument that we cannot prove that race plays a part in these encounters can no longer be ignored, and community members are traumatized. That these events do not happen in other communities at the rate that they do Black communities is becoming more and more apparent, and police departments all over the country should be taking a collective introspective look at the nature and culture of their organizations,” said the National Black Police Association.
Ms. Jefferson’s death comes on the heels of the conviction of an ex-Dallas police officer’s killing of her 26-year-old neighbor Botham Jean while he was eating ice cream in his apartment. Amber Guyger, a White female, was sentenced to 10 years in prison. She claimed she thought she had encountered an intruder in her own apartment. Mr. Jean’s apartment was one floor below hers.
Despite Mr. Jean’s sterling reputation as an accounting professional and active churchgoer, Dallas police reported the presence of marijuana in his apartment shortly after his killing. Many Blacks were incensed by the report in the face of his death.
“We learned in the trial of Botham Jean that when law enforcement not only commits a crime, but others within the law enforcement community actively conspire to blame the victim and to cover up, it undermines the integrity of the entire department. You realize that it’s not a lone wolf situation,” said Atty. Merritt.
The police killing of Ms. Jefferson is indicative of a pattern and practice of police slaying then blaming Black people in Fort Worth, which makes them suspicious of police, activists say.
“I was devastated to begin with, and now I’m being equally devastated to listen to them try to twist and spin the facts to make the narrative fit their defense, as opposed to the truth,” said James Smith. He is Ms. Jefferson’s neighbor who said he called police for a wellness check, because he was concerned for his neighbors’ safety. He noticed her door was open for an extended length of time, which was unusual, he said.
“That’s bothering me, for real … I’m feeling extremely guilty, not because I committed the act, but if I had not called them, she would still be alive, not that I had anything to do with it,” Mr. Smith told The Final Call.
“Now, they’re trying to say that my call wasn’t a well care call, it was a burglary call. Then the next couple of hours, they’re saying no! It wasn’t a burglary call. It was an open structure call. Well even so! This is what’s happening right now, and I’m getting frustrated and devastated all over again, because I see what they’re doing, and the reason I’m taking your call now, is because if they wanna play games, then every chance I get, I’m gonna repeat my statement and not let them brush this up under the rug,” said Mr. Smith.
“You’ll see a headline that says, well the officer, he wasn’t rushing to a welfare call after all. Oh yes he was! When did it change? Who changed the nature of the call, and when did you change it, because nobody told me!” he added.
A disturbing pattern
Defense lawyers used false “thuggish” images to portray young, Trayvon Martin as a menacing brute who overpowered volunteer neighborhood watcher George Zimmerman who shot the 17-year-old to death in February 2012 in Sanford, Fla. Photos of Trayvon wearing a common hooded sweatshirt or “hoodie” somehow became synonymous with young, Black males being troublemakers. The teen was portrayed as the aggressor despite Mr. Zimmerman being instructed by police not to follow the teen who was headed to his father’s home.
Court filings in the case showed that part of the defense strategy involved depicting Trayvon as a “troublemaker and pot head,” wrote the late journalist George Curry.
Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old found hanging in her jail in Waller County, Texas, was painted as an “angry Black woman” for questioning why a Texas State Trooper stopped her for switching lanes without signaling and for protesting her brutal arrest on July 10, 2015.
Arresting Trooper Brian Encinia called her combative and uncooperative in his arrest report. Harry Houck, former New York Police detective, said she had an “arrogant attitude.”
In Minnesota, Philando Castile was shot and killed by St. Anthony police officer Jeronimo Yanez seconds into a traffic stop on July 6, 2016. Mr. Castile alerted the officer he was carrying a gun. The 32 year old cafeteria worker who had a permit for the weapon was still blamed by critics. Officer Yanez allegedly smelled marijuana in the car when he stopped the vehicle for a broken taillight, and then shot Mr. Castile five times point blank with his fiancée sitting next to him and her four-year-old daughter in the back seat. The defense argued Mr. Castile was high on marijuana and was pulling his gun out when the cop told him not to. The powerful National Rifle Association, staunch Second Amendment advocates criticized Mr. Castile. Mr. Yanez was acquitted of manslaughter charges.
Sacramento police officers fired 20 shots at Stephon Clark, striking the young, Muslim father of two, eight times on March 16, 2018. Prosecutors ruled the shooting lawful. District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert released text messages detailing domestic issues between Mr. Clark, 22, and his fiancée Salena Manni and information about his mental health.
Peter Bibring, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and director of police practices for the American Civil Liberties Union of California, said it is important to distinguish between “victim blaming” and figuring out whether shootings are justified.
Under the laws in every state, or the Constitution, courts and police departments always decide whether shootings are justified by looking at the threat the officer faced and the options they had to resolve them, and some of that is going to involve considering the behavior of the victim, he told The Final Call.
“All too often, police and the media go beyond just looking at what happened in the incident and bring out accusations about criminal conduct in separate instances, often long ago, that the officer never would have known about. That’s no longer about looking at what happened in the incident and devaluing the worth of the victim and getting the public not to care about, and that’s not appropriate,” said Atty. Bibring.
Catherine Mendonca, a Cop Watch journalist with United Against Police Terror San Diego, argues victim blaming creates a divide between loved ones of armed and unarmed victims. Both obviously are a tragedy, but even when someone’s unarmed, police officers still shoot to kill, she stated.
“They don’t shoot to disarm, and they don’t put their lives on the line. There’s a lot of talk about officers put their lives on the line, but court cases have come out saying they have no duty to protect,” Ms. Mendonca told The Final Call. Multifaceted tactics are required to stop law enforcement and the system from victim blaming, she added.
Get rid of respectability politics which deem who is or isn’t worthy to be killed, and who dies based on if they approached police the right way or not, she said. Also, defund the police, said Ms. Mendonca.
“There’s always the dialogue that officers need just more training, so they don’t kill somebody, but that’s just an excuse to fund them, and that’s why they have so much power and have so much authority,” added Ms. Mendonca.
Alton Sterling, Eric Garner and even 12-year-old Tamir Rice, all died at the hands of police and were smeared or blamed for the actions of those sworn to protect and serve.
“District attorneys have repeatedly engaged in what victims’ families describe as cruel and painful smears of the dead. In some cases, prosecutors assigned to investigate killings present irrelevant and inaccurate information about victims and their pasts while exonerating the police – a kind of ‘character assassination’ that spreads in the media. The tactic, critics say, emboldens racist policing,” wrote Sam Levin in an article published by the Guardian titled, “Killed by police, then vilified: how America’s prosecutors blame victims.”
The root of the problem
The problem is rooted in the nature of Whites and Blacks, and their irreconcilable perceptions of reality, said Student Minister Dr. Ava Muhammad, national spokesperson for the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan. Whites address all aspects of life through the prism of White superiority and Blacks are left to choose whether they want to accept the myth of Black inferiority or fight against it. That’s the root of every problem Blacks have, said Dr. Muhammad, a former prosecutor.
“The predisposition or the tendency to find fault with the victim is always connected to the race of the victim, and it’s Black! It’s a Black person. It’s your fault because you’re Black,” said the attorney, author and radio talk show host.
“Because you’re Black and you’re inferior, you are by nature engaged in unlawful activity. You are by nature in places you should not be. You are by nature doing what you should not be doing,” she said, illustrating the cause-and-effect mindset of White supremacy that surfaces in police killings nationwide.
The dilemma in Ms. Jefferson’s case is the Ft. Worth police chief has already sided with the victim’s right to protect herself in the gun-toting state of Texas, said Dr. Muhammad. Not only do they permit gun possession, but they’re very aggressive with the ownership and use of weapons, she said.
“What you can’t do is change the reality and the facts: She was in her house! … Just like Botham Jean was in his house,” Dr. Muhammad stated.
She recalled how one juror asked why was Trayvon Martin out so late? “It was six o’clock in the evening, but she was an old White woman. What she was alluding to is when she came up, in that town, there were ‘sunset’ laws, where Black people were not allowed to be out in the street after dark. So she’s saying why would you be out in the dark? You’re asking to be killed. We don’t allow you all to be out,” she said.
“The media is always complicit in these things, because they’re the filter that things come through … It’s this paradigm of racism that permeates every aspect of life in this country, so it’s not an either or. It’s everybody … Why do we have to prove that we’re contributing to society, to your society, you, a terrorist? They don’t have to say all that when it was a White victim. All they’ve gotta do is be White.”
(Final Call staff contributed to this report.)