Aaron Dean Murdered Atatiana Jefferson: a point by point rebuttal of William Choslovsky’s defense of cops

If officers are prioritizing their own safety over the successful completion of their job, they should not be officers. The job is inherently risky, and that’s why society generally recognizes law enforcement officers as ‘heroes’ and ‘public servants’. If the job is done right, it means that cops place the public welfare above their own safety.

This article serves to offer a point by point rebuttal of William Choslovsky’s opinion piece “Who would ever be a cop?”, published in the Chicago Sun-Times on October 16th, 2019.

The original article can be read on the Chicago Sun-Times website.

It is the opinion of En Bloc Press that Mr. Choslovsky’s views regarding law enforcement are logically indefensible when scrutinized and represent a generally flawed but widely held view of the role and expectations of law enforcement in our communities.

If Officer Aaron Dean is guilty of murder, what’s next? Should we charge doctors with murder when they make mistakes and someone dies?

This comparison doesn’t hold up. Hospital patients offer affirmative, legally recognized consent before any surgical procedure. They acknowledge that death or serious injury may be a consequence of surgery. They are voluntary participants who are made to understand the risks associated. And even after this high standard of consent, physicians can still be charged with medical malpractice in the event they make negligent decisions that are easily avoidable. 

Is professional malpractice really now a strict liability offense for murder whenever someone dies?

This is a blanket question that doesn’t acknowledge how willful negligence factored into Officer Aaron Dean’s decision making. He knowingly violated department policy by not announcing his presence. By failing to follow the procedures he was trained and honor-bound to follow, he made a conscious decision to be negligent. So yes; if one is consciously negligent and kills someone as a result, it’s reasonable that it may be considered murder. 

So is the new standard that whenever a cop — even just mistakenly — shoots a citizen while doing his job, it’s murder?

Asking officers to have positive identification of their target and a 100% understanding that their engagement is within prescribed use of force policies is the MINIMUM standard we should hold them accountable to. Killing people because you made a faulty decision while acting in an official capacity is not acceptable and SHOULD carry a murder charge. 

If so, then let’s be very clear what the natural consequence will be: cops will be less likely to do their jobs.

The problem isn’t cops being less likely to do their jobs. The issue is cops willing to do their jobs poorly and being allowed to do their jobs poorly. If you’re asking people to agree that killing innocent citizens in negligent circumstances is an unavoidable part of the job, then I think everyone would be okay with cops being less likely to do their jobs.

Really, would you want to be a cop?

This is a good question. We should evaluate this differently than we do now. There’s not a lot of evidence to suggest that modern law enforcements efforts have improved quality of life and safety in our communities. In fact, in many communities, the opposite is true. 

You get a call at 2:30 in the morning. Adrenaline running. You hear something. You overreact. You shoot. You kill an innocent.

That is what happened last weekend when Aaron Dean, a young, white, Fort Worth, Texas officer, killed Atatiana Jefferson, a young black woman. Dean was called to her home to investigate an open door early in the morning. He shot and killed Jefferson when she appeared on the other side of the window with a gun in her hand.

To be sure, Dean violated police policy by failing to identify he was a police officer when he suddenly saw someone — Jefferson — standing on the other side of the window. It is unclear whether in that split second he saw she had a gun. Either way, his violation was deadly.

This is admitting that Officer Aaron Dean broke the rules and killed an innocent Atatiana Jefferson because he made the wrong decision.

In the old days, when police had license to do anything, nothing would have happened to Dean. There would be no consequence. That was, of course, wrong.

But the pendulum has swung so far that today — because of a mistake with no ill intent — Dean is charged with murder. He went from being on patrol looking for a bad guy to being the bad guy in a split second.

In the state of Texas, intent is not required in a murder charge. And this officer wasn’t “looking for a bad guy”. This officer was on a welfare check.

That too is wrong. Very wrong.

The proper consequence should be you lose your job. You violated policy. You made a mistake. You were negligent in doing your job, and it cost a life.

If your cashier at the grocery store is startled by you and stabs you in the neck out of reflex, should they simply be fired? If your plumber is suddenly spooked by your phone ringing and beats you to death with a pipe wrench, should they simply be fired? Of course not. Behavior like this is well outside of acceptable conduct. Officer Dean made a decision to violate department policies and subsequently to end Atatiana Jefferson’s life negligently. People lose their jobs for being late to work — not for coming to work, knowingly breaking the rules, and killing an innocent person. His mistake was criminal in nature and was the consequence of deliberate misconduct.

You — and your employer the police department — may also be sued civilly for the mistake. Prepare for a big-money judgment against you.

The department SHOULD be sued. And the officer SHOULD go to jail.

But losing your job and suffering financial penalty is one thing. Losing your liberty is another.

Absent ill intent, an officer should, at most, be charged with manslaughter, the standard of which is usually gross indifference or recklessness.

This officer HAD ill intent by failing to identify himself, by breaking department policies, and by making a decision to discharge his firearm without having positive ID of a threat. The argument that he had no ill intent is tantamount to saying that someone had no ill intent before driving while severely intoxicated, or that a contractor had no ill intent by knowingly building an unsafe bridge. This officer had knowledge that he was violating policies he was honor-bound to uphold; that’s ill intent by definition. 

Such seemed the case with Amber Guyger, the Dallas cop who in 2018 mistakenly entered her neighbor’s apartment while off duty and tragically shot and killed Botham Jean. Guyger was convicted of murder.

But murder for an on-duty officer, like Dean this past weekend, for screwing up on the job? And perhaps piling on civil rights claims, as if an officer at 2:30 a.m. can make out race in a split second through a window, and then fire purposefully because of it?

Aaron Dean didn’t get a murder charge for “screwing up on the job”. He got a murder charge for making a decision to end Atatiana Jefferson’s life. A decision that was outside of acceptable use of force policy; Dean killed Jefferson AFTER knowingly violating policy by failing to identify himself.

And if an officer at 2:30am can’t determine the race of his target — who was not obscuring her face or physical characteristics — how can it be said he had positively identified a threat before firing? If an officer is uncertain of what he’s shooting at, how can he be said to be justified in shooting at it?

Dean’s case is particularly bad — meaning he should lose his job, not his liberty — because reports now state that Jefferson, scared the cop outside was an intruder, pointed a gun at him from inside the window. With a gun pointed at him at 2:30 in the morning, he made a split second, tragic decision.

A decision that Aaron Dean manifested through knowingly violating department policy. It’s highly unlikely that Atatiana Jefferson would have armed herself had she known law enforcement was present. It’s unclear that Jefferson’s firearm was even a factor in Deans panicked decision; but even if it were, she’s justified in her possession of it and was legally permitted to have the firearm.

You might, too, in that situation, no matter your color. The truth of the matter, which we will never know, is that had Dean not fired, Jefferson might have shot him, fearful he was an intruder.

Which would have been an indisputably better outcome. You can’t make an argument that Dean was defending himself from an overaggressive Atatiana Jefferson when Dean was creeping around looking into her home’s windows at 2:30AM after failing to identify himself as a law enforcement officer.

My goal is not to absolve all cops. As with any profession, there are rogue cops who cross lines. Murder charges for cops might at times be justified, as we sadly know here in Chicago.

But Dean’s case is not one of them.

If Dean is guilty of murder, what’s next? Should we charge nurses and doctors with murder when they make mistakes and someone dies? How about a firefighter who drives the truck too slow? Or the construction manager of the building in New Orleans that collapsed and killed a worker inside?

We already DO charge people in other professions with murder when they deliberately make decisions to violate known policies and they have a priori knowledge that negligence could result in loss of life. 

Is professional malpractice really now a strict liability offense for murder whenever someone dies?

As for the racial overlay, there is, sadly, enough racism in this world we don’t need to go looking and manufacture more. We don’t eviscerate our country’s sad racist history by charging white cops with murder every time they shoot a person of color.

The argument that “We can’t erase past racism by addressing modern racism, so why even try?” is deeply depressing. 

The logical consequence of all this will be police won’t get out of their cars, what some call the “Ferguson effect.” Like you, almost all of them just want to do their jobs and go back to their families.

If law enforcement officers prioritize their own safety over the successful completion of their job — to serve and protect their communities — they should not be officers. The job is inherently risky, and that’s why society generally recognizes law enforcement officers as ‘heroes’ and ‘public servants’. If the job is done right, it means that cops place the public welfare above their own safety.

We don’t even let soldiers in active war zones kill people simply because they’re “in fear for their lives”. Current EOF guidelines almost always require either being fired upon or positively identifying a weapon and hostile intent before engaging a target. That’s because being in fear for your life is part of the job. Making the right decision while you’re in fear for your life is what makes you effective. It’s what separates the public servant from the civilian. To erase this line is to descend into the tyranny of cowardice in power.

But if in doing their dangerous job they risk going to jail for murder when screwing up, good luck recruiting cops. Don’t complain when they stay in their cars. There’s way too much downside to do otherwise.

And as a result, we will all be less safe.

With cops like Aaron Dean on the beat, we are all less safe. Aaron Dean is a direct consequence of under qualified law enforcement officers with the wrong mindset acting as a militarized force that views everyone as a “bad guy”. Far too often we see cops making decisions out of fear rather than courage, and the people are starting to notice. And they’re starting to talk about it.

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Lee Enfield
Lee writes about 3D printing, guns, politics, and opinion. E-mail at [email protected] and on Twitter @enbloc_lee.
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