At around 2:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, Fort Worth, Texas, police officer Aaron Dean shot 28-year-old Atatiana Jefferson to death in her own home. She was killed while babysitting her 8-year-old nephew, during what was supposed to be a routine safety check: a concerned neighbor called a non-emergency number after noticing that Jefferson’s door had been open since 10 p.m. But, as documented in body camera footage, Dean entered the backyard of Jefferson’s dark house, and within seconds—without ever identifying himself as law enforcement—he yelled, “Put your hands up, show me your hands,” then opened fire.
Dean was subsequently placed on administrative leave—a familiar term in police-involved shootings—before resigning on Monday. But later in the day came a surprising development: Dean was arrested, charged with murder, and booked into jail on $200,000 bail. There were similar shock waves just 10 days prior to Jefferson’s death, in the same metro area, when former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger was found guilty of murder for fatally shooting her neighbor, Botham Jean, after accidentally entering his apartment instead of her own (Guyger received a 10-year sentence and will be eligible for parole in as soon as 5).
These consequences—Dean’s arrest; Guyger’s conviction—are (sadly) notable in their rarity: In many prominent cases of police-involved shootings that claim the lives of African American people, white officers are seldom charged at all, much less with murder. When they are, they are rarely convicted. We are, in fact, so accustomed to the lack of consequence that it is openly deemed “unexpected” when an officer is charged or convicted.
“We Should Not Have to Be Surprised by a Murder Conviction When a Black Man Is Murdered,” Jamil Smith headlined a Rolling Stone story on the Guyger verdict. “But she was a white cop killing an unarmed black man, so we expected her to go free.”
We expected Guyger to go free because George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watchman who killed unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012, went free after being found not guilty of second-degree murder. Because Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez went free—acquitted of manslaughter charges in the 2016 shooting death of Philando Castile—and Pittsburgh officer Michael Rosfeld went free too, cleared of homicide for fatally shooting 17-year-old Antwon Rose in 2018 after the teen ran a traffic stop. These are just a few of the cases in which charges were filed at all.
A grand jury chose not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014 (Wilson has since lamented not being able to get a new job as a police officer); former Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann was never charged for killing 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014; he was later hired by a smaller Ohio police department. The Baton Rouge officers who fatally shot Alton Sterling were not charged with any crime, nor was New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo, whose chokehold killed Eric Garner in 2014, galvanizing the Black Lives Matter movement. It took five years for Pantaleo to lose his job and benefits.
It all makes the comparably swift charging and arrest of Dean stand out as a rare example of an appropriate response from law enforcement. Coupled with Guyger’s guilty verdict, it sparks a semblance of hope for future justice, even if a cautious one: Will there finally be serious consequences for the police-involved deaths of African American people? Two outcomes certainly can’t balance or topple a long-held system of abusive police behavior toward the African American community. As Adarius Carr, Jefferson’s brother, told CNN of Dean’s arrest: “This is only the start. There’s no way this is enough. We know this is a good step in the direction where we want to go, but it’s definitely not the end.”
Originally Appeared on Vogue