How the City of Atlanta has failed to fundamentally address gun violence and police brutality before, during, and after police killings of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks
“We continue to have the same problem: gun violence and police brutality. There needs to be a fundamental addressing of the issue. And the buck stops at the mayor’s office. The buck stops at the city council. The buck stops at the police department. They still have yet to address it. And I think that it’s time for the city council to do something. Platitudes and empty rhetoric [are] not enough to address these issues, because we still have police-involved shootings happening in this city, in this state. There are 18 open cases in the Fulton County D.A.’s office, and a majority of them are Atlanta police officers that shot and killed somebody. So the mayor and city council need to address those issues.”
— Attorney Gerald Griggs
Vice President of NAACP-Atlanta, Georgia Alliance, Atlanta lawyer, social justice activist
The Mainline Podcast, Ep. 33, published on Jan. 22, 2021
ATLANTA — In 2020, more than 900 people were shot by American police while countless others were brutalized and arrested. Those injuries and deaths led to protests, uprisings, and calls to defund the police, reimagine public safety, and reallocate funds from police budgets to community programs across the country. Last year was not the highest or worst year on record in regards to police brutality and mistreatment, but it was certainly one of the most documented and garnered the loudest, largest public response since the civil rights movement. The uprisings in the wake of George Floyd were the largest consecutive protests in American history, and they were record breaking in Atlanta’s history following the police killing of 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks.
Across the country, officer-involved shootings have continued in the months following the deaths of Floyd and Brooks. Rather than being met with direct action in response to overwhelming collective grievances, demands for sweeping policy changes in state and local governments have been and are still largely being met with debates instead. Atlanta is no different.
Following Atlanta’s uprisings, we began to compile research on a number of APD shootings which resulted in either injury or death of civilians to further analyze the city’s response to police brutality and gun violence. These cases are a sample rather than a complete overview of Atlanta police-involved shootings and were collected based on certain criteria. It is important to note that more shootings occurred within the city of Atlanta that did not involve APD, and that this issue has a far wider reach than what this sampling covers. Each case in the sample was one in which an APD officer fired their service weapon and were directly involved. Each case is also accompanied by a GBI investigation.
Our research shows that during Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ first term spanning from January 2018 to August 2020, Atlanta police officers were involved in 31 shootings of civilians that resulted in injury or death. However, a majority of the cases did not receive nearly as much coverage as the Brook case did on June 12, 2020. Some victims even remain nameless as there was no follow-up coverage by local news sources, or updates from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and District Attorney investigations.
Three common threads in these cases are the deafening silence from Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and her office, the lack of justice for the victims sought by the former Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard, and the lack of significant policy changes from the Atlanta Police Department and Atlanta City Council.
Bottoms’ and her office’s silence in the case of D’ettrick Griffin, who was shot and killed by a member of Bottoms’ security detail on Jan. 15, 2019, is particularly alarming. The security detail officer, Oliver Simmonds, was also an APD officer. The incident did not receive any public acknowledgement from the mayor, even though it was a member of her own staff that committed the shooting. However, the Mayor’s Office for Communications responded with an awareness comment, delivered to the media by Press Secretary Michael Smith. The comment stated, “We are aware of the incident. It is now under active investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. All inquiries should be directed to the GBI.” Griffin’s case remains unresolved and multiple lawsuits against Simmonds from the Griffin family and other victims are still pending.
Bottoms’ and her office’s silence in Griffin’s case wasn’t an isolated incident. Thirteen of the 15 Atlanta police-involved shootings we have on file, including that of Jimmy Atchison and Oscar Cain, have been met with no acknowledgement or official statement from the mayor or the office’s communications department. Both the Atchison and Cain cases have received notably more press than others, such as that of Dashaun Shepard, Jeremiah Perdue, and Andrew Smyrna. Prior to Brooks’ shooting, which garnered national attention during an election year and on the heels of the police killing of Floyd in Minneapolis, Atlanta activists had been continuously ignored by Bottoms and her administration for months.
Media outlet’s portrayal of Mayor Bottoms’ leadership in response to last summer’s events differs greatly from the experience held by many Atlanta residents. Multiple media sources praised Bottoms for guiding her city through such troubled times. She was featured in multiple magazines, on CNN, late night shows, and even penned her own op-ed for the New York Times. Her name was also floated as a potential vice presidential candidate for then-Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. Back home, activists, protesters, and other community leaders called on the mayor to take bold steps to protect citizens. The images of Atlanta as a “Black Mecca” and the “city too busy to hate” were also called into question, because not only are the victims of gun violence and police violence Black, but so are the officers.
As it stands today in the country’s judicial system, prosecutors across the U.S. remain at a standstill when it comes to using the law to serve justice. In Atlanta, there is an ongoing issue of lack of transparency between the Fulton County District Attorney’s office and the police, which includes both the APD and the GBI. Last year, an independent investigation into the standard operating procedures (SOPs) between the D.A.’s office and the APD showed that although SOPs were in place, there is a lack of oversight and enforcement of any real accountability.
Regardless, during his time as district attorney, Howard failed to swiftly enforce any means of accountability or seek justice for victims’ families. More often than not let officers carry on committing more police brutality — hence, he came under fire when he quickly brought charges down on Rolfe and Brosnan for Brooks’ death while leaving so many other families waiting for justice. The charges in Brooks’ case were then met with calls from loved ones whose cases, like Griffin’s, remain unresolved for months or years.
Additionally, new instances of police brutality and mistreatment have been linked to previous and sometimes unresolved cases. What’s alarming is that many officers remain at their posts with little to no reprimands after these shootings, which means the newer occurrences could have likely been prevented. Take Officer Willie Sauls, for example, who was under investigation for his role in the death of Jamarion Robinson. Sauls went on to brutally tase college student Taniyah Pilgrim last summer when she and Messiah Young were stopped on the first night of curfew. Sauls and the other officers involved were charged by Howard a few days after the incident, but Robinson’s case is still unresolved.
Howard, who had been in office since 1997, lost his re-election campaign against Fani Willis. Willis recently requested to be removed as D.A. in the Brooks case as well as the excessive force cases of Pilgrim and Young. The case is now under review with Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, and the fate of the case is still pending. On Feb. 1, it was reported that two of the APD officers who were fired due to their involvement in the brutal tasing incident were reinstated. According to the report, the Atlanta Civil Service Board ruled in favor of both officers Mark Gardner and Ivory Streeter for their reinstatement.
Following Griffin’s death, then-police chief Erika Shields, who served in the APD from Dec. 28, 2016, through June 13, 2020, called the family and offered her condolences. Throughout her time as police chief in APD, she oftentimes replied to police-involved shootings with public statements. Additionally, she made a few changes to personnel and established some new policies after many of the incidents, specifically following the police shooting of 21-year-old Atchison on Jan. 22, 2019.
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the APD officer who shot Atchison was serving a warrant as part of a federal task force that was working with the APD. The FBI reportedly had information that made Atchison, who was suspected of an armed robbery charge, was staying in the apartment complex in northwest Atlanta where the altercation occurred. The Fulton County District Attorney’s office recently completed its investigation through its Public Integrity Unit which found that Atchison’s death was unjustified, as reported by attorney and NAACP Atlanta Vice President Gerald Griggs. That report was released to the family in recent weeks and was shared on Griggs’ personal social media page on Jan. 29.
After Atchison’s death, Shields had the APD removed from the federal task force that partnered APD officers with FBI agents. However, Shields fell short when she did not fire Sung Kim, the APD officer who fatally shot the unarmed Atchison, directly resulting in his death. Kim, who had an apparent history of using excessive force before the 2019 shooting, retired when lawsuits, media coverage, and investigations ramped up surrounding the case.
Last summer, Shields resigned as Atlanta’s police chief following the shooting of Brooks by then-Atlanta police officer Garrett Rolfe and the aggravated assault of Brooks committed by the accompanying officer, Devin Brosnan. It was later revealed and reported by The Guardian that Rolfe was involved in a 2015 shooting resulting in the death of Black man Jackie Harris. The investigation also states that court documents show that police officers did not report the incident. Shields was replaced by interim police chief Rodney Bryant, who is still serving today.
Since her swift resignation following Brooks’ death, Shields has gone on to become chief of police for the Louisville Metro Police Department — the same department whose officers are responsible for the murder of Breonna Taylor. Two of those officers, Joshua Jaynes and Myles Cosgrove, were fired by LPD interim police chief Yvette Gentry the same day it was announced that Shields would be the next police chief.
Across the way in the city’s legislative branch, things have not progressed much in response to ongoing issues of gun violence and police brutality in the city. During the nation’s racial reckoning, Atlanta’s city council could have led the way with ordinances like the Rayshard Brooks Bill, crowd control alternative resolutions that would have addressed APD’s violent responses to peaceful protesters, or Ordinance 20-O-1486 that would have established new systems of accountability between the District Attorney’s office and the police. All of these pieces of legislation were introduced by Councilmember Antonio Brown, District 3, and were met with notable resistance from his colleagues across the board. Overall, more than half of the city council demonstrated a large resistance to significant policy change and direct action all throughout last year in response to the movement. Meanwhile, the city council’s unanimously supported 8 Can’t Wait legislation was vetoed by Mayor Bottoms in July. Further, when the time came to override it, the city council didn’t consider it even though they had the votes to do so.
The 8 Can’t Wait legislation was, however, unanimously passed in the City of South Fulton along with a police weapon accountability resolution. According to a news release, “The ordinance requires officers to file a report every time they draw a gun, mace, or taser while on duty, even if the item is not discharged.”
Days after Brooks was fatally shot by Rolfe, the city council chose to ignore more than 17 hours of public comment calls from citizens to reallocate funds from the APD budget to community resources during the pandemic. Instead, they increased the FY21 Department of Police Services budget by 5.90% to more than $217M. Not only did the city council ignore an immense wave of concern from a large number of constituents, they actually moved on policy to limit calls to the council’s public comment line, as proposed by Councilmember J.P. Matzikgeit.
Mayor Bottoms has also since introduced One Atlanta: One APD Immediate Action Plan to “address violent crime in the city.” To be clear, the One Atlanta: One APD plan was not introduced directly after Brooks’ death or the senseless death of 8-year-old Secoreia Turner on University Avenue in Southwest Atlanta last summer. Instead, the plan was introduced after an uptick of violent crime from street racing and shootings in the Buckhead area. A stray bullet from one shootout led to the death of 7-year-old Kennedy Maxie who was riding in a car near Phipps Plaza in December.
The One APD plan includes the following actions:
- Expand enforcement of nuisance properties
- Focus additional resources and increase targeted enforcement on gangs and gun violence
- Expand the Operation Shield camera network
- Support neighborhood safety planning
- Continue to focus on disrupting street racing and auto crimes
- Explore a new Public Safety Training Academy
- Improve APD recruiting and retention.
Policies like increased surveillance through Operation Shield cause more concern since Atlanta already ranks in the top 10 of the most surveilled cities in the world. Further, this plan (or any other city plan) does not include closing non-essential gathering spaces like malls, nightclubs, strip clubs, and bars where some of the most violent shootouts have occurred. Clubs can remain open until 3 a.m. while alcohol can be sold until 2:30 a.m. while COVID-19 continues to ravage not only Atlanta, but the country as a whole. Nonetheless, some parts of the city remain open as if the pandemic is not disproportionately affecting a large portion of the population. For months, the CDC has warned against these types of large gatherings attended by locals and out of towners alike, but strict enforcement of those recommendations has not come to the city of Atlanta throughout the span of the entire pandemic.
Further, the One Atlanta plan is accompanied by the Buckhead Security Plan initiated by Buckhead’s political, business, and neighborhood leaders. The $1.6M plan calls for a private police force to only patrol the Buckhead business district, increase surveillance, and utilize newly installed license plate readers. The plan and its components are also receiving $125,000 in funds from city council members Matzikgeit, Howard Shook, and Matt Westmoreland.
Councilmembers also received complaints from Buckhead residents regarding street racing and quickly implemented new ordinances in response to their concerns. The ordinances essentially criminalized those participating in street racing, including those who were bystanders. Not long after that, interim police chief Bryant reinstated the long-contested police chase policy in early January. Bryant states the new policy includes stricter protocols for who can be chased and how many patrol cars can be involved in the pursuit. The original policy was suspended by Shields last year because of the senseless deaths of suspects and civilians as well as the lack of prosecutions that resulted from the pursuits.
Last year in a press conference about the policy change, Shields said, “I don’t want to see us cost someone their life in pursuit of an auto theft person or burglar, when the courts aren’t even going to hold them accountable. How can we justify that?”
On Jan. 4, after many failed attempts to bring broader and more significant action measures to the city in response to gun violence and police brutality, Councilmember Brown successfully introduced a resolution to conduct a feasibility study and compile comprehensive recommendations to establish a Department of Public Safety and Wellness within the City of Atlanta. If established, the department would “manage non-emergency services, ease the administrative workloads of the police and fire departments, and build new community partnerships.”
The study also seeks to analyze outcomes of the establishment of an Office of Communications in the department. This department would take in emergency and non-emergency calls through 911, 311, and possibly 611. The 311 service has been up and running as a city services line for citizens to report downed trees, potholes, and other non-emergencies. Recently, the Policing Alternatives and Diversion Initiative (otherwise known as “PAD”) partnered with Atlanta 311 to begin accepting calls concerning mental health, substance use, or extreme poverty. This new expansion of service is only for residents in APD zones 5 and 6 and is available between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. Zones 5 and 6 are comprised of the city’s downtown, midtown, and east side neighborhoods.
While this service was announced on Feb. 2, Atlanta already utilizes other community and holistic approaches to crime prevention such as Pre-Arrest Diversion and At-Promise Youth centers. Additionally, well-documented history and analysis of outcomes from non-emergency services programs and well-funded community resources already exist, showing positive outcomes in favor of emboldening community programs over policing. Some community responder programs and crisis intervention departments throughout the U.S. and the world have been successfully operating for decades with healthy budgets, people not dying, and more community involvement. Armed officers called to non-emergency or mental health crises have proven to do more harm than good, particularly in communities of color and other groups who have been disproportionately affected by the American criminal justice system. Experts across the board agree and confirm that increased surveillance and police presence do nothing to lower crime.
Although council agreeing to take on yet another study in support of a Department of Public Safety and Wellness may appear to be a step in the right direction after a long year of inaction followed by even more inaction, this study could be seen as another stall tactic to slow progress. Directly establishing the department and processes recommended would be a better use of time and resources instead of using taxpayer dollars to pay a consulting firm for yet another study. There have been enough studies; it’s time to take the test.
The cases of Atlanta police violence mentioned in this article only highlight what has happened during the current administration’s past term and within the borders of the City of Atlanta. The AJC has also been documenting and mapping Georgia’s officer-involved shootings during the same time. The broader picture shows that throughout metro Atlanta, Fulton County, and Georgia, officer-involved shootings have increased along with the increase of police officers, surveillance, and police budgets. Further, the Washington Post’s database shows that this trend is common across the country.
We are not even two months into 2021 and there have already been 58 deadly police shootings nationwide, and counting. Police departments backed by well-funded police unions — a relationship exemplified between the APD, the Atlanta Police Foundation, and the International Brotherhood of Police — continue to operate with impunity. The possibility of real change could happen in this year’s municipal elections. This November, citizens will vote to fill the positions of mayor, city council president, all 15 city council members, all nine Board of Education members; voters will also show up to the polls to retain municipal court judges. With the lack of oversight, little to no grand jury indictments, prosecutions, strong arming from police unions, and few direct actions taken by local governments, calls for real change must and will continue.