On Sunday, the Fort Worth Police Department released body-camera footage of the fatal shooting of Atatiana Jefferson. In the video, an officer shoots Jefferson through the window of her own home, in front of her 8-year-old nephew. At no time does the shooter identify himself as a police officer, news reports say. The entire interaction lasts three seconds, news reports say. I keep saying that because I refuse to watch the video.
Coming on the heels of Dallas police officer Amber Guyger’s conviction and sentencing for another unprovoked police-involved shooting of an African American, the senseless death of Jefferson has rightfully angered many across the nation and around the world. Once again, a trigger-happy response by police has ended with the loss of an innocent life, just as it did with Botham Jean and many others. The officer, identified as 34-year-old Aaron Dean, was arrested Monday evening and will be charged with murder, according to Fort Worth police. Dean had resigned from the department earlier on Monday.
Thanks to the increase of police-worn body cameras, dashboard cameras and home-security cameras, we have lately been able to view these shootings from many different angles. The recordings have been important in holding police departments and elected officials accountable.
In Chicago, the video of officer Jason Van Dyke shooting Laquan McDonald was made public only after journalist Brandon Smith sued the Chicago Police Department for its release. The same day as the video’s release, Van Dyke was charged with murder. In Charleston, S.C., officer Michael Slager claimed that he feared for his life in an altercation with Walter Scott. The video, filmed by Feidin Santana, showed a much different story. The day after the nation saw the footage, Slager was charged with murder. In Virginia, Bijan Ghaisar was shot and killed by U.S. Park Police officers in November 2017. Dash-cam footage, released by Fairfax County police show that the Park Police officers did not face any immediate danger and, in fact, escalated the interaction by unnecessarily drawing their weapons. The investigation is ongoing.
The sheer volume of footage, from so many different police jurisdictions, proves the long-denied pattern of ongoing police harassment (and much worse) of minority communities.
This behavior, shocking as it may be to some, is nothing new.
Yet, with video proof, the public can no longer doubt its existence.
So why do I refuse to watch the video? How can I avoid the temptation to hit play on the now-viral clip on Twitter?
Do I not need to see the video to come to my own conclusion?
The answer is no.
I do not need to see another young, innocent black person being murdered for no reason other than they are black.
I don’t need to see the video to know that the color of their skin automatically labeled them a threat — as someone or something to be feared.
As I discussed following the Guyger verdict, we have seen this before. Though the circumstances have shifted slightly, they do not change the fact that a black person was killed in their own home by a police officer.
My colleague Jonathan Capehart had a similar reaction to a police-involved shooting that happened in his neighborhood in 2016. Unlike Jonathan, it’s not numbness that I feel. My avoidance of the video is deliberate. It is a small bit of self-care that I need to go on living and interacting with the world around me: as a mother, wife, sister, aunt, friend, colleague and black woman in America. This is self-preservation.
Studies have shown that police killings have adverse effects on the mental health of black Americans. It goes to a total loss of security that most people take for granted. And there have been theories that continued exposure to this loss of security, sometimes called “weathering,” racial discrimination can negatively impact the physical health of black Americans. The mental burden of these injustices is heavy and weighs on so many of us. It’s not a death by a thousand paper cuts, it’s a complete erosion or diminution of one’s inner peace.
To be clear, I completely support the use of body cameras for all law enforcement agencies. The footage they collect can be used to protect both the public and the officers involved. However, just because the footage exists does not mean it must be played 24/7 on cable news. Additionally, just because the footage is released does not mean we are required to watch it. The videos have become a vehicle for mass trauma and it’s up to each individual whether to engage.
One day soon, I will sit my daughters down, and tell them about the ills of the world: discrimination, hate, misogyny, the list goes on.
And one day, I might use a video to highlight the reality that so many black Americans face in their everyday lives, past and present.
After watching such images, I pray that I will also have the right words to help protect their emotional well-being.
Until then, I will continue to safeguard my own.