The city of Fort Worth is considering an unprecedented settlement with the family of Atatiana Jefferson, who was shot and killed in 2019 by former Fort Worth police officer Aaron Dean.
City leaders will vote on the proposed $3.5 million police liability settlement at a future City Council meeting. It could provide Jefferson’s nephew Zion Carr — who was present at the time of the shooting — with a base amount in trust to provide for his living expenses. The settlement would also include a college savings plan, attorney’s fees and an annuity fund with scheduled payments to Carr through age 40.
The $3.5 million settlement would be the largest in the city’s history. The total amount paid to Carr should also gain interest and substantially increase over his lifetime, according to a statement released by the city. The lawsuit combines two separate lawsuits from Atatiana Jefferson’s estate and Zion Carr’s late mother, Amber Carr, who died in January.
Litigation with Jefferson’s estate remains ongoing.
“While it’s positive to witness the city taking responsibility, our primary focus is to ensure that Zion can enjoy a normal childhood and witness his growth,” Ashley Carr, Jefferson’s sister, said in a statement.
The settlement will need to be approved by Fort Worth City Council and Senior District Judge Terry Means, who is presiding over the case. Both parties in the suit have to file their agreement to dismiss the lawsuit and supporting documents by Dec. 14. The court appointed a guardian to represent the interests of Carr.
“I believe this settlement is the right thing to do, and I hope this can bring a degree of reconciliation and healing for Atatiana Jefferson’s loved ones,” Mayor Mattie Parker said in a statement.
Dean shot Jefferson, 28, in her home in October 2019 after he was dispatched there for a welfare check. Jefferson and her nephew Carr were in the home playing video games. Days later, Dean quit and was charged with murder.
“It may be unprecedented, the amount of settlement, but the reason why is because we were focused on a minor child who might have lifetime wounds and scars,” said council member Chris Nettles, who represents the Morningside neighborhood where Jefferson was killed.
The Report reached out to every Fort Worth City Council member for comment on the potential settlement.
“My sincere hope is that this will help Atatiana Jefferson’s family to heal and find some measure of peace,” council member Carlos Flores said in a statement.
The proposed settlement is more than a million dollars above the next-highest settlement in the city’s history. That settlement was handed down in 2010, for $2 million. Michael Jacobs Jr. died in 2009 after a Fort Worth police officer tasered him for a prolonged period of time.
The proposed settlement for Carr comes a little more than a year after the city gave $150,000 to Jacqueline Craig, a Fort Worth mother whose 2016 arrest sparked outrage nationally. Craig died in September.
Settlements like these can stir up concern among police officers, said Johnny Nhan, a Texas Christian University associate dean focused on criminology. Patrol officers worry that actions like use of force and high speed chases could result in a lawsuit that threatens their career, he said.
“Patrol officers in a lot of large cities typically feel they can’t do much, because it’s too risky and this has been going on for a long time. But it’s a little bit more extreme these days,” Nhan said.
Fort Worth has for years struggled to fill police department positions. In September, the department had more than 140 vacancies. Police leadership announced initiatives to recruit new officers ahead of the 2024 fiscal year, paired with an increase to the overall authorized staffing.
Nhan attributes some or most of the recent vacancies to concerns about potential litigation.
An analysis of police liability claims by the Fort Worth Report showed about a third of claims resulted in payouts for residents. From 2017 to 2022, residents filed 164 police liability claims. Of those, 54 resulted in costs to the city. The majority of the claims paid out somewhere between zero and $1,000.
While the prevalence of successful police liability claims may be lower in Fort Worth compared to other large cities, many officers still feel like the city and police leadership may not have their back when it comes to litigation whether or not there’s any concrete evidence, Nhan said. It’s an issue that is not unique to Fort Worth, he added.
“It is important for the executive command staff, like the chiefs level or right below the chiefs, to kind of be out there and better communicate, because when they don’t, then… usually, the assumption is always the worst,” Nhan said.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to clarify the status of two lawsuits brought against the city by Jefferson’s estate and Zion Carr’s late mother, Amber Carr.
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Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or via Twitter.