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How a ‘lens of fear’ can make officers more likely to use deadly force

Atatianna Jefferson was playing video games with her nephew when police arrived to check on a door left ajar. According to her nephew, Jefferson heard noises outside and pointed her gun at the window. Officer Aaron Dean shouted and immediately fired, killing Jefferson. Amna Nawaz discusses police training, race and the use of force with Seth Stoughton of the University of South Carolina.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The fatal shooting of a black woman by a white police officer in Fort Worth, Texas, has left anger in that community.

    And, as Amna Nawaz lays out, it is raising once again many questions on a larger scale about police training, race and the use of force.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, this shooting came less than two weeks after a former police officer in Dallas was convicted of murder for fatally shooting a man in his home.

    In this case, Atatiana Jefferson was playing video games on Saturday with her 8-year-old nephew when a neighbor saw her front door ajar and called the non-emergency police line to express concern.

    Body camera footage shows officer Aaron Dean and his partner circling around the home, walking through a gate into Jefferson's backyard, before stopping at a window.

    Dean then shouts, "Put your hands up," and then he fires his gun. Jefferson's nephew, who was in that room, says his aunt pointed her gun at the window after hearing noises outside.

    Joining me now is Seth Stoughton. He's an associate professor of law at the University of South Carolina. He is also a former police officer who served in Tallahassee, Florida.

    Seth Stoughton, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    I want to ask you about what we know about the exact circumstances in this case.

    The interim police officer — interim police chief, rather, Ed Kraus, said earlier, nobody looked at that video and said there was any doubt this officer acted inappropriately.

    You have seen that body camera footage. What, to you, says his actions were inappropriate?

  • Seth Stoughton:

    The thing to focus on here is the officer's approach as he walked up to the window, the actions preceding the shooting.

    What officers do leading up to a use of force can make a use of force either more or less likely. In this case, the officer's failure to identify himself, the officer's failure to attempt to contact anyone in the house led to a pretty tragic and horrifying result.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What other questions do you have right now? Based on what you know so far, based on what we have seen, what do you think we still don't know that you would like to know?

  • Seth Stoughton:

    Oh, there are lots of things we don't have right now. We don't have statement from the officer. My understanding is, at this point, he's not cooperated with the investigation.

    I haven't seen a statement from the partner. I understand there has now been an affidavit filed as part of the indictment for — from the 8-year-old nephew. I would like to see information that may not have been included in that affidavit, information about training and policy of the agency.

    The goal here should be twofold, one of which is to pursue legal action against the individual officer to hold him accountable, another of which is to see if we can improve what the agency and other officers are doing to make this less likely to happen again in the future.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You mention that training.

    I want to ask you about that now, because Aaron Dean, the officer in this case, joined the force in April 2018. He graduated from the police academy. He underwent some kind of training there.

    Based on your experience and what you know, what would that have entailed? How would he have been trained to assess risks and threats?

  • Seth Stoughton:

    So, there's a lot of variation in police training. There are more than 600 different academies in the country. And I can't speak to his particular training experience.

    Generally, though, what I want to see is officers getting a robust exposure to tactics. Tactics are the procedures and techniques that officers use to mitigate risk and threat, to make sure that they are as safe as the situation allows them to be.

    And because the officer is as safe as they can be, they don't have to use force against the individual with whom they're interacting.

    There is too much of an emphasis in police training on the risks that officers face and the severity of those risks. And, to be very clear, there are risks in policing, and we shouldn't underestimate those risks, but we also shouldn't exaggerate those risks.

    The tactics and equipment and training that officers get now make policing today significantly safer than policing was 15 or 30 or 50 years ago.

    Unfortunately, a lot of police training emphasizes to officers that they need to act without thinking, they need to act first, that any delay, any hesitation can be fatal, that complacency can be fatal, that anyone they interact with on any call can potentially be armed and willing to kill them.

    That sets up a really dangerous dynamic for officers. As they approach a situation, instead of reviewing the facts in front of them in a way that makes sense in the context of that interaction, they're reviewing the facts in front of them in a way that — looking through the lens of fear and risk and threat.

    It hurts community policing, and it can contribute to avoidable shootings.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I want to ask you something about the bigger conversation we're having now that we seem to have again and again, based on something that the attorney for the Jefferson family, Lee Merritt, said earlier today in a press conference.

    Take a listen to what he had to say.

    S. LEE MERRITT, Attorney for Jefferson Family: This is a moment where we get to have serious conversations about systematic problems within policing, particularly as it concerns policing the African-American community.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Seth Stoughton, you mentioned some of those training issues you would like to see addressed. We hear Lee Merritt mentioning these systematic problems.

    We seem to be having this conversation again and again every time there is another black American shot by a police officer.

    How do we stop from having this conversation? What needs to change?

  • Seth Stoughton:

    Well, at some point, we need the change from conversation to action.

    And we are. There's good reason to think that at least some agencies are moving in the right direction. Having the conversation is important and necessary, but we have been having the conversation. It's now time to do something about it.

    We could see not just changes to training or changes to agency culture, but also changes to state law, for example, changes to the way that officers are supervised are evaluated.

    Thinking beyond just throwing more training dollars at officers is going to be a necessary part of improving policing.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Seth Stoughton, a former police officer who is now an associate professor of law at the University of South Carolina, thank you very much.

  • Seth Stoughton:

    Thank you for having me.

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