One day after Fort Worth Police Officer Aaron Dean shot and killed my sister Atatiana Jefferson while she was inside her own home playing video games with our then 8-year-old nephew Zion, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris declared, “Being Black in your own home shouldn’t be a death sentence.”
But as we’ve seen countless times in cities all over the country, being Black anywhere can be a death sentence—in our own homes, asleep in our own cars, changing lanes on the highway, or even playing in the park. When the color of your skin is the threat itself nowhere feels safe.
In 2018, my sisters Amber, Atatiana and I traveled to San Diego to visit our brother Adarius for his birthday. My mother Yolanda referred to the four of us collectively as the “A-Team.” Adarius was on active duty in the United States Navy and stationed at USS Essex (LHD-2) Naval Base San Diego. We hoped to make some memories before his deployment assignment—and we did.
We had such a good time, all of us together in a new city, that we made plans to do another “A-Team” trip to New Orleans the next year. Tragically, we never made that trip. One month before Atatiana’s 29th birthday, instead of serving and protecting our sister, Dean shot and killed her through a window.
Mr. President-elect and Madam Vice President-elect, what happened to Atatiana was not an isolated incident—not in Fort Worth, not in Texas, and not anywhere in this country. That’s why my family and I are calling on the Department of Justice under your leadership Mr. President-elect Joseph Biden to significantly ramp up its investigations into police misconduct, including the misconduct infecting the Fort Worth Police Department.
There are systemic problems within that police department with intractable roots, not an individual bad apple problem. These problems existed before my sister’s death, and they will continue to exist unless and until the Department of Justice conducts a thorough review of the Fort Worth Police Department and demands changes to the department’s policies, practices and culture. The only way to get rid of deeply entrenched, systemic problems is to dig them out at the root.
I am very grateful that, on December 20, 2019, the grand jury indicted the police officer who took my sister from us, but this is not just about my sister’s case. We all know indictments against police officers who kill are rare and accountability even more rare. Not only are police officers who kill almost never indicted, it is seldom that they are fired or even disciplined in any manner. When there is no semblance of accountability, this is taken as a stamp of approval to kill Black people in their homes, in their cars, on the streets, and even on playgrounds. Police officers and their unions often claim that punishment and accountability are the only way to deter criminal conduct. However, when it is police that are engaged in the misconduct, accountability is no longer the prescription. They would rather play by a different set of rules.
So, as grateful as I am for that grand jury indictment, I know that the fight for justice is far from over in my sister Atatiana’s case and in far too many other cases where the police kill Black people. Too many families are still fighting for justice on behalf of the sons, daughters, sisters, and brothers they’ve lost to police violence and misconduct.
President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris: Help us with this fight.
The Department of Justice is a powerful tool to fight police misconduct and you should wield it—not just better than the outgoing administration, but better than all previous administrations. To do better than the Trump administration is easy because the DOJ under Trump did very little about police misconduct. The Biden-Harris DOJ must do even better than the Obama administration, which actually did take some strides to hold police departments accountable. If 2020 has taught us anything it is that we cannot return to “normal,” if “normal” is just confining ourselves to the same limited – or failed – policies of the past.
Under your leadership, President-elect Biden, the Department of Justice must prioritize restoring public trust and holding law enforcement accountable. The DOJ can do this by:
1) increasing their investigations into police misconduct in cities and states all over the country;
2) pushing for stronger agreements with state and local law enforcement to improve internal policies and end police misconduct;
3) expanding the unit that prosecutes police;
4) creating a public database of police misconduct.
Even during a pandemic, people took to the streets to protest decades of police violence against people of color, especially Black people. And when they weren’t in the streets, they were making phone calls, sending text messages, and educating their communities about where candidates stood on racial justice issues, all to ensure voters could make their voices heard at the ballot box.
Mr. President-elect Biden you acknowledged these efforts as a call for your administration to “achieve racial justice and root out systemic racism in this country.” I hope, for the sake of my family, and all the families harmed by police violence in this country, you heed the call.
My nephew Zion, and all this nation’s children, deserve more than the trauma they’re inheriting.