Two Atlanta officers fired for using excessive force, mayor says

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms apologized Sunday for what she said was clearly excessive force used by Atlanta Police in the arrest of two young African Americans during the city’s curfew crackdown Saturday night after protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms apologized Sunday for what she said was clearly excessive force used by Atlanta Police in the arrest of two young African Americans during the city's curfew crackdown Saturday night after protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week.

Bottoms said she ordered the firings of two of the five officers involved in the traffic stop after reviewing the body camera footage with Police Chief Erika Shields. The other three officers are on desk duty, pending an investigation.

The two victims were Spelman College student Taniyah Pilgrim, 20, and former Morehouse College student Messiah Young, 22. The two were near downtown Atlanta when they were ordered out the vehicle. Body camera video shared by Atlanta police late Sunday shows an officer trying to remove the driver from the vehicle, which is stopped in the middle of the street. The incident occurred at Centennial Olympic Park Drive and Andrew Young International Boulevard.

The vehicle, a dark-colored sedan, drives a few yards before stopping behind several other vehicles in the roadway. One officer repeatedly yelled for the driver to stop the vehicle and open the window. That officer repeatedly struck the driver’s side window with a baton before smashing the window. The officer then tased the driver while another officer tased the passenger. Both people in the vehicle screamed for the officers to stop.

Related: Complete coverage: Atlanta protests

Bottoms also ordered the discipline after she and Shields spoke with presidents of the Atlanta University Center Consortium on Sunday.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced a 9 p.m. curfew Sunday, March 31, 2020, as protests continued. At the press conference with Police Chief Erika Shields (right), Bottoms apologized for what she said was clearly excessive force used by Atlanta police officers in the arrest of two young African Americans on Saturday night. (Photo: Ben Gray for  The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced a 9 p.m. curfew Sunday, March 31, 2020, as protests continued. At the press conference with Police Chief Erika Shields (right), Bottoms apologized for what she said was clearly excessive force used by Atlanta police officers in the arrest of two young African Americans on Saturday night. (Photo: Ben Gray for  The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Four presidents of the consortium signed a statement Sunday calling for a thorough investigation of the encounter.

“It is clear that the behavior of law enforcement in this country must change,” says the statement, which was signed by Clark Atlanta President George French, Morehouse College President David Thomas, Morehouse School of Medicine President Valerie Montgomery Rice and Spelman College President Mary Schmidt Campbell.

“Incidents like the one last night and the many events of police violence (recorded and unrecorded) leading up to today heighten the urgency of this need for change,” the statement says. “And we support our students as champions and activists on behalf of change.”

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said his office was talking to Shields and is “moving rapidly to reach an appropriate charging decision” regarding the officers’ conduct.

Bottoms promised to set a new standard for police misconduct moving forward, as protests have rocked cities across the nation over Floyd’s death, which was captured on a disturbing video of him gasping for help as a white Minneapolis policeman kneed his neck to the street on May 25.

“I share (the officers’ firings) with you because that is what you will see happen each and every day with the city of Atlanta going forward,” Bottoms said. “Our attitudes toward how we not only police our communities, but how we respond to policing our communities, has to change.”

The Georgia NAACP and other civil rights groups on Sunday condemned the encounter, saying police were not justified in their harsh tactics, including using a stun gun.

“We are done with the brutality and dehumanization of black bodies,” the Rev. James Woodall, president of the Georgia NAACP, said at a press conference.

Bottoms said Pilgrim was released Saturday evening and Young was released Sunday. Neither will face charges.

May 30, 2020 Atlanta - There were heavy polices presence around the downtown Atlanta as protests continued for a second day on Saturday, May 30, 2020. A second day of protests Saturday began with a crowd outside the Governor’s Mansion and grew to include demonstrations in downtown Atlanta. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms implemented a curfew for the city following a night of chaotic protests Friday that led to vandalism and looting in parts of downtown Atlanta and Buckhead. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
May 30, 2020 Atlanta - There were heavy polices presence around the downtown Atlanta as protests continued for a second day on Saturday, May 30, 2020. A second day of protests Saturday began with a crowd outside the Governor’s Mansion and grew to include demonstrations in downtown Atlanta. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms implemented a curfew for the city following a night of chaotic protests Friday that led to vandalism and looting in parts of downtown Atlanta and Buckhead. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

“I offer my apologies to the students and look forward to speaking with them directly,” Bottoms said.

Police officials said they tried to arrest Young for impeding traffic and initially justified the use of tasers, saying that Young and Pilgrom had reached for a gun. No weapon was recovered from the scene.

Vince Champion, Southeast regional director for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, said the decision to fire the two officers was premature.

“There’s a process. There’s an investigation,” he said. “Then you determine what actually happened.”

Champion said he saw the video that led to the officers’ dismissal.

“I look at the video like I look at all videos,” he said. “I don’t know what happened prior to. We don’t know why that car was stopped. Until we know what happened, we don’t know if the officers did anything wrong or not.”

He said the arrests could have a chilling effect on officers out on the streets as the city prepared for another night of protests.

Bottoms said she understood that her officers were working long hours under an enormous amount of stress, but the use of excessive force was never acceptable.

Her remarks came days after a speech she gave condemning the looting and property damage following the first wave protests over Floyd’s death.

The speech won the praise of national commentators. But some argued that this is a moment that should inspire Bottoms and city leaders to aggressively address the social, economic and political issues that led to this weekend’s unrest.

Bottoms said that recent events involving police brutality demand swift action.

“We no longer have the benefit of time,” Bottoms said.

Young was taken to Grady Memorial Hospital Saturday for treatment. He was released Sunday morning, his representatives said in a news release.

A few hundred demonstrators gathered outside Liberty Plaza at the State Capitol where the Georgia NAACP press conference was held. The Capitol was ringed by dozens of law enforcement officers and National Guard members.

Woodall and other speakers called on lawmakers to repeal legislation that they say unfairly targets black Americans, including a repeal of citizens’ arrest laws, the blocking of legislation that would outlaw elimination of cash bonds and gang legislation championed by Gov. Brian Kemp.

“Literally right across the street we have military soldiers and personnel attempting to stop protesters,” Woodall said.

Staff writers Christian Boone and Alexis Stevens contributed to this report. 

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