The family of activist Manuel “Tortuguita” Teran says newly released body camera videos from Atlanta Police Department officers “raise more questions than they answer” about last month’s deadly shooting near the property where the city’s police foundation plans to build a $90-million training center.
Other activists, meanwhile, have seized upon a single line uttered in the roughly two hours of footage, holding it out as evidence of a cover-up of a Georgia State Patrol trooper being wounded by friendly fire and not Teran.
“Man,” the APD officer is heard saying before using an expletive, “you (messed) your own officer up.”
But it’s hard to suss out exactly what the officer meant — or could have possibly known — when he spoke, just minutes after the shooting and not within eyesight of the scene.
Teran, 26, was killed by Georgia state troopers on the morning of Jan. 18. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has accused Teran of firing first and “without warning” at troopers participating in that day’s “clearing operation” on the wooded property in southern DeKalb County. They allege that a firearm purchased by Teran has been tied to the bullet that wounded a trooper.
Because state troopers generally are not equipped with body cameras, there is no direct footage of the incident. But several other agencies were involved in the larger operation that day, including the APD — which released a set of four videos Wednesday night.
The body camera footage shows the officers’ actions after hearing a barrage of gunfire in another part of the woods.
The Teran family’s statement, provided Thursday by local civil rights attorneys Brian Spears and Jeff Filipovits, reiterated calls for more transparency and said the footage “calls into question previous reports regarding the events” that led to the shooting.
Likewise, the Southern Center for Human Rights said it was “deeply concerned” by the footage, which it said suggested APD “coordinated a raid that did not adhere to its own standard operating procedures relating to body cameras and other behaviors.”
Neither statement specifically mentioned the portion of video that set certain corners of social media ablaze with cries of “friendly fire” Wednesday night.
A new statement from the GBI, meanwhile, said the agency stands by its previous assessments of the shooting. They dismissed the APD officer’s remark as speculation.
“Speculation is not evidence,” the GBI press release said. “Our investigation does not support that statement.”
In its own statement, APD said the following: “Several responding officers are heard commenting about the shooting as they approached the site. We have found no evidence to suggest these officers had any information on the events surrounding the shooting prior to their comments.”
‘Is this target practice?’
It was unclear how many videos would ultimately be released, and Atlanta police did not immediately respond to requests for clarification. But the AJC reviewed all four of the videos that had been publicly posted as of Thursday afternoon.
In real time, the key moments take place over about a four-minute span.
The time-stamped videos show APD officers dismantling an unoccupied tent, confiscating a bookbag and continuing on through the woods until, shortly after 9:01 a.m., what appears to be four gunshots ring out in the distance. They’re almost instantly followed by a barrage of gunfire — likely dozens of shots.
“Is this target practice?” an officer wearing one of the body cameras says. There is an existing APD firing range on the site where the new training facility is planned.
Several people can be heard shouting through the woods, though it’s difficult to make out what they’re saying.
The group of APD officers takes cover behind nearby trees before advancing in the direction of the commotion. They eventually surround a green tent (which would ultimately be determined to be unoccupied).
“Was it a firework or somebody shooting at us?” a voice can be heard saying over an officer’s radio.
“To me it sounded like fireworks. It was rapping,” someone else replies.
One APD officer wearing a body camera offers his own thoughts: “No, that sounded like suppressed gunfire.”
Another nearby officer snorts. “Yeah it did.”
Over the radio, someone asks what agency was involved.
One APD officer mutters an expletive.
Another, the one who snorted, says those seized-upon words: “Man, you (messed) your own officer up.”
The radio traffic continues. They ask about the wounded trooper’s status.
“He’s ACB at the moment,” someone says, meaning alert, conscious and breathing.
The group of APD officers continues to stand with their guns aimed at the nearby tent. They begin to reposition a bit.
“Do we have an active shooter?” a voice on the radio asks.
“Negative,” comes the response.
It’s just after 9:05 a.m.
A plea for patience
Amid steadily growing calls for an independent investigation, the GBI’s probe into the shooting continues. It’s likely to take many more weeks.
The statement released by the agency on Thursday asked for patience, and said videos from any other law enforcement officers in the forest that day would be provided once the investigation is complete.
That could include footage from DeKalb County police, who were part of the joint operation — perhaps for the last time, if one county official has his way.
DeKalb Commissioner Ted Terry, whose district includes the training center site, said Thursday he intends to introduce new legislation that would bar the DeKalb County Police Department from working with other law enforcement agencies that do not require the use of body cameras.
He said DeKalb leadership should’ve known state troopers didn’t wear body cams and refused to participate in the operation that ultimately resulted in Teran’s death.
“Basic transparency and accountability gaps all along have created more mistrust in the leaders whose very oath is to serve the people,” Terry wrote in a text message to the AJC.
— Staff writer Jeremy Redmon contributed to this story.
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Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution