“You were put here to protect us
But who protects us from you?” — Boogie Down Productions, 1989
The audio of a non-emergency phone call a man in Fort Worth made out of concern for his neighbor was released on Sunday and showed that while there was worry in the caller’s voice and tone, there was also a decided shared absence of any urgency.
Turns out there was no reason for anyone to be worried at all. Atatiana Jefferson and her 8-year-old nephew were just playing a video game in the middle of a weekend night and having fun.
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This is Zion. Saturday morning he was playing Halo with his Auntie Tay. She was really good for a grown up. In fact, he would never admit it but, she was better than him. They stayed up all Friday night, into the early morning hours playing X-box and enjoying a Fall breeze with the doors open. They had lost track of time but he could tell it was really late when they both heard movement outside of Tay’s bedroom window. They looked at each other and listened more intently when they heard it again. Someone was outside. Tay went to the window to see who was out there. Suddenly a man’s voice was screaming something Zion couldn’t make out and then BANG! Atatiana Jefferson crumpled to the floor. I didn’t ask Zion what he saw next. I didn’t want him to have to relive that moment with me. I don’t know how this is possible but Zion’s eyes are still so full of light, love and optimism. Today he was focused on the beads I wear on my wrist. My own 8 year old son won them for me at Dave & Busters. We played games together for hours and at the end of the night he used the tickets he won to buy me these beads. I split them with Zion because prizes is what you expect after playing games all night with a cool adult … not this. I’m hurt. I’m angry. I’m a little afraid when I’m honest. I hate this happened to Zion. I hate it happened to Tay and her beautiful family. This has to stop now. Enough.
But the neighbor didn’t know that and told the non-emergency operator that Jefferson’s house doors being open after 2 a.m. was “not normal.” That prompted the operator to dispatch an officer to conduct a wellness check.
That revelation of the call’s contents answered some questions but renewed others. Chief among them was why the still-anonymous Fort Worth police officer who killed Jefferson within seconds was so trigger-happy during what should have been a routine wellness check without any element of suspicion.
But there was another pressing question that’s been looming large for decades and fits neatly into the conversation surrounding Jefferson’s killing: When, if ever, should Black people call the police?
That may seem like a silly question to some, but for others, it has become increasingly apparent that any interaction police have with Black people can many times be a death sentence.
That’s certainly the question that Jefferson’s neighbor, James Smith, implied when he explained why he made the call. Smith said he called out of concern for Jefferson’s well being, not because he thought doing so could end up getting her killed.
“I’m shaken. I’m mad. I’m upset. And I feel it’s partly my fault,” Smith told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram hours after the shooting. “If I had never dialed the police department, she’d still be alive.”
There have been some other notable instances of Black people calling police for help and having it backfire fatally. But a lot of those calls were to seek help with a family member suffering from mental illness. That was not the case that early Saturday morning.
Astonishingly enough, Saturday was not the first time the Fort Worth Police Department has ever killed an innocent and nonviolent victim while responding to a wellness check. It showed that it’s not only Black folks who are in the crosshairs of trigger-happy cops; just mostly Black folks.
But two things can be true, and in this case, it is very true that 1) the Fort Worth Police Department has some serious problems and 2) research shows that Black people have a much higher chance of ending up dead from a police encounter than anyone else regardless of gender.
Under the larger context of Black people already having some very real and valid trust issues with law enforcement, those two aforementioned truths collided in the worst of ways Saturday morning and seemed to leave no alternative practical points of recourse for Black people in need of help in both emergency and non-emergency situations.