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When a police wellness check becomes a death sentence

The tweet is blunt: “Dear neighbors (and I mean this in the most sincere way) please don’t ever, EVER call the police to do a welfare check on me. PERIOD.”

It’s a sentiment some African Americans are expressing on social media and elsewhere since Atatiana Jefferson, a 28-year-old black woman, was shot and killed last weekend by a Fort Worth, Texas, police officer who was conducting a wellness check at her home.

DJ Cunningham, a clinical psychology doctoral student in New Jersey, called Jefferson’s fatal shooting an “eye-opener.”

In an interview with CNN, he said the incident — and the 2018 accidental killing of a black man in his home by a Dallas police officer — have made him more cautious at home.

“This could easily be me. Someone could stumble into the wrong apartment after a long shift and ‘bam’ — I’m not able to talk to my mom again,” said Cunningham, who urged his followers on Twitter to never call the cops if they wanted to check on him.

“It makes you recognize your blackness,” he added. “You’re almost instantly seen as a threat as opposed to a kid or another member of society.”

For many black Americans, Jefferson’s fatal shooting has revealed yet another sobering facet of modern life. Blacks have long feared interactions with police while driving. And recent years have seen a litany of incidents in which African Americans have been questioned or detained by police while going about their daily business.

But now some blacks say they are increasingly worried about the dangers of confronting police in their own homes.

Achmat Akkad, a mental health first aid teacher in New York, told CNN he’s experienced wellness checks himself. Often officers respond as if the people they are checking on have done something wrong, he said.

“Just their presence when you open your door, especially as a black male, that can be very frightening,” he said.

For these Americans and others, it creates yet another layer of mistrust between law enforcement and the black community.

It’s not the first time this type of thing has happened

In recent years there have been other incidents, similar to Jefferson’s, in which black people were killed during a wellness check.

It’s not clear if race is the reason

Are black people really more in danger of being killed during a wellness check?

There hasn’t been enough research on the subject to prove that, says Johnny Nhan, a criminal justice professor at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. He says it’s complicated because there are lots of factors that can turn a wellness check into a police shooting, such as if the person is armed, if they attack an officer or if they have a mental illness.

“In general, however, if you’re talking about police bias against blacks and other minorities, that has been an ongoing issue that we’re still trying to understand,” Nhan told CNN. “There has been research in the past few years on implicit bias and the idea that black people are perceived of as more dangerous than whites.”

Jefferson was playing video games with her nephew in the back bedroom of her home late at night when they heard noises coming from outside, according to court documents. She then pulled her handgun from her purse, her nephew told police, and was pointing it toward a window when she was shot by an officer who was outside the house.

Nhan says the officers seemed to approach the situation at Jefferson’s house as being more dangerous than just a run-of-the-mill wellness.

“The officer(s) I’m guessing is thinking this is 2:30 at night, the door is open, etc. This may be something they have seen before with something related to crime and danger, so their approach would be to assume it’s a dangerous situation, such as a burglary,” Nhan said. “So in other words, it’s difficult to say if and how much race has to do with these.”

Authorities are looking into what Aaron Dean, the Fort Worth police officer who killed Jefferson, and his partner were told before arriving at her home.

“The information came from the neighbor to the call-takers and while it was relayed to the dispatch, it was determined to be an ‘open structure’ call,” Fort Worth interim Police Chief Ed Kraus told reporters earlier this week.

Experts say the classification of an “open structure” call — about a home or building with a door left open — escalated things beyond a wellness check and meant the officers would respond differently.

Dean resigned from the department on Monday, just hours before he was arrested and charged with murder. If Dean had not resigned, he would have been fired for several policy violations, including the department’s use of force and de-escalation policies, and unprofessional conduct, Kraus said.

It’s in law enforcement’s best interest to fix this

It’s important to law enforcement’s legitimacy to get a handle on these types of incidents, Cedric L. Alexander, a past president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, wrote in an op-ed for CNN Digital.

“Every police executive and every police officer knows, or should know, that while the law gives them their official authority, it is the public who gives them their legitimacy, which is their more immediate authority — their street authority,” Alexander writes.

“Legitimacy is granted when people are confident that the police are competent, just, reasonable, fair and courageous. Most of all, people want to be safe in their homes. When people feel they can count on the police to enhance their safety at home, they grant them legitimacy. When the police themselves threaten their safety, they withdraw that legitimacy.”

A 2016 study from the Pew Research Center seems to back up Alexander’s message. It found that black people were half as likely as white people to think that their local police were doing a good job when it comes to using force, treating different racial and ethnic groups equally and holding officers accountable for misconduct. And overall blacks were less likely than whites to have confidence in their local police.

Alexander argues that law enforcement agencies need to do three things to stop regular wellness checks from turning into deadly situations. He says police departments must re-evaluate the kind of people they hire, take a hard look at how officers are trained and reassess the kind of leaders picked to supervise the police force.

Akkad, the New York mental health teacher, says tragedies like Jefferson’s death can compound problems because they further erode the trust that communities have with the police, he said.

“It leaves communities in limbo of letting people die, because they don’t know how to reach out to someone for help,” he said.

It all comes down to training

Police departments across the nation have made attempts over the years to improve their training, diversify their ranks and educate law enforcement officers about minorities and their histories.

Police in Washington, DC, last year added a nearly 10-hour training program that includes a trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture so that officers can learn about the historical interactions between law enforcement and minority communities.

Similar training programs have been established in Chicago, Philadelphia and by policing agencies and academies in California.

But the best training isn’t good enough when law enforcement agencies hire the wrong kind of people, said Maria Haberfeld, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

“It has to start with proper recruitment and selection, and for this departments need to make transformational changes,” Haberfeld told CNN. “Assess the potential candidates based on their emotional maturity rather than how many push-ups they can do in a minute.”

Agencies need to start recruitment at an older and more mature age, said Haberfeld, who added that training for recruits should include components of emotional intelligence and more realistic scenarios.

“It’s there but just not enough,” she said. “It’s like teaching algebra with offering the students just the most basic equation.

“Police training is a complex and complicated subject that needs to be delivered by academic experts together with practitioners — at the same time,” she added. “Only this will generate the desired results.”

CNN