The Atlanta Police Department’s internal affairs investigation into the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man by one of its officers last month contains damning new information that undermines the officer’s justification for firing his gun.
Officer James R. Burns admitted to investigators that he shot into a vehicle not knowing if the person driving was the suspect he had been called to an apartment complex in northeast Atlanta to help investigate, according to the internal affairs file into the shooting death of 22-year-old Deravis Caine Rogers.
Burns, who joined the force in 2013, fired through the passenger side window, but told investigators that he shot because he feared for his life as he answered the call on the night of June 22.
“I didn’t know to block that particular car,” Burns told investigators in an interview one week after the shooting, his attorney by his side. “I shot at the car who was trying to run me over and kill me.”
But Atlanta Police Chief George N. Turner and his investigators roundly rejected Burns’ version of events. An Atlanta police spokesman said evidence, including a pair of dashcam videos, contradict the officer’s claims.
“The evidence in the file does not support his version of what happened,” said Sgt. Warren Pickard.
The new details about the controversial shooting come as protests have erupted in Atlanta and around the country over police use of excessive force. National police leaders have urged greater transparency in shooting cases, and APD’s swift action in Rogers’ shooting was an indication that some agencies are heeding that call.
APD fired Burns July 1, less than two weeks after the shooting, and his case is being investigated by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation for possible criminal charges.
Chief Turner told Burns unequivocally that he violated police policies in a July 1 disciplinary memo that found the shooting to be an unnecessary and excessive use of force. That same day Turner informed Burns he was firing him from the police department.
“As the vehicle approached you, you were in your vehicle,” the memo said. “The driver of the vehicle posed no immediate threat to you…You did not have probable cause that the driver posed a threat of serious physical harm either to yourself or others.”
Shooting was in northeast Atlanta
Burns had been called to the Monroe Place Apartments just before midnight to assist an off-duty officer who saw a suspicious person thought to be breaking into vehicles and who ran from him on foot.
As he drove into the apartment complex, Burns saw a car parked on the wrong side of the road that began pulling away from the curb. The car started driving toward his patrol car and the officer turned on his blue lights and chirped his siren, positioning his police cruiser to stop the car.
Rogers, at the steering wheel of a silver sedan, attempted to drive past the patrol car on the officer’s passenger side, according to the investigative file. Burns jumped out of his car, slammed his door and yelled for the driver to stop. He said he was positioned near the front headlight of Rogers’ car as Rogers gunned the engine. The officer said he was initially blinded by the oncoming headlights.
He fired a single gunshot that struck Rogers in the head. His vehicle coasted down Monroe Place before striking an SUV parked in the parking lot of Cirque Daiquiri Bar and Grill on Monroe Drive. Rogers was pronounced dead at Grady.
The shooting was not captured by the dashcam videos, but another officer’s video captured what happened right afterward. That officer’s video shows Burns stepping from behind his patrol car into the area where Rogers’ vehicle just passed, according to Turner’s memo.
“You did not have reasonable suspicion that the driver of the vehicle engaged in, or was about to engage in, criminal activity,” Turner says in his memo. “Yet rather than allow the driver to drive past you, you exited your vehicle and ultimately prevented the driver from driving away through the use of deadly force.”
The agency’s investigative report also drastically corrects the narrative of how and why Rogers was shot.
But the report now makes clear that the officers on the scene, including Burns, didn’t know if Rogers was, in fact, the suspect they were seeking. Pickard, the APD spokesman, said on Wednesday there is no evidence of actual car break-ins in the complex or anything linking Rogers to criminal activity that night.
“There’s a lot of questions,” Pickard said. “We don’t know what Rogers was doing. We don’t know why he was there.”
Since January, APD George Turner has turned over the criminal investigation of police shootings involving his agency to the GBI.
The state agency will turn over its findings to Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard’s office, which is conducting its own review as he determines whether to seek an indictment.
The officer’s statements in the internal affairs investigation, technically considered an administrative review, can’t be used against him in the criminal case.
Howard, for his part, has declined to discuss the case and the video evidence mentioned in the internal affairs file has not yet been released.
In his internal affairs review, Burns was represented by defense attorney Lance LoRusso, who has defended many police officers accused of criminal wrongdoing in shooting cases. LoRusso did not return calls for comment before deadline.