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Civil rights groups call for reforms after latest police shooting

Someone set fire to the Atlanta Wendy’s where Rayshard Brooks, a 27-year-old black man, was shot and killed by Atlanta police Friday evening.
Someone set fire to the Atlanta Wendy’s where Rayshard Brooks, a 27-year-old black man, was shot and killed by Atlanta police Friday evening.

Credit: Steve Schaefer for the Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Steve Schaefer for the Atlanta Journal Constitution

Civil rights groups ratcheted up calls for police reforms Sunday as protesters peacefully demonstrated into the early evening against use of force and the police shooting death of a black man Friday night south of downtown Atlanta.

The Georgia NAACP, JUST Georgia, ACLU of Georgia and the state chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations condemned the killing of Rayshard Brooks, who was shot Friday night outside a Wendy’s restaurant after an altercation with police.

Atlanta’s legislative delegation, meanwhile, said members will introduce a package of bills — including changes to qualified immunity for police, and requirements that agencies report every use of force.

On Monday, the Georgia General Assembly will reconvene after the session was suspended because of the threat of COVID-19, and lawmakers are expected to debate a hate crimes bill.

“We absolutely will not tolerate anything less than change,” said state Rep. Kim Schofield, D-Atlanta.

The killing of Brooks inflamed tensions over racial injustice and police brutality that have led to demonstrations in Atlanta and cities across the nation since Memorial Day when George Floyd, a black man, was killed in police custody in Minneapolis.

“We believe there has to be a transformational culture shift within the Atlanta Police Department,” said Tiffany Roberts, a leader of JUST Georgia, which formed following the February shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick.

Protests downtown and at the Wendy’s remained largely peaceful well into the evening hours Sunday and storms seemed to scatter demonstrators near dusk. Officers confronted demonstrators on the Downtown Connector and deployed pepper spray.

Eyewitness video of the Atlanta shooting went viral Saturday and by the end of the day Atlanta police Chief Erika Shields resigned from her post — though she remains employed with the city. The city also fired Garrett Rolfe, the officer who shot Brooks. A second officer, Devin Brosnan, is on administrative duty.

By nightfall Saturday, what started as a peaceful protest outside the fast food restaurant on University Avenue turned violent. The Wendy’s was torched, protesters shutdown a nearby freeway and police launched tear gas and fired what are known as less-lethal projectiles to disburse the crowd.

Some three dozen people were arrested Saturday night.

Civil rights groups on Sunday objected to the use of tear gas and other tactics against protesters who, they said, were exercising their First Amendment rights. Roberts said children were in attendance.

“For there to be such a cavalier utilization of these types of weapons against community members is an escalation of violence that is unnecessary,” Roberts said.

Atlanta police did not return a message seeking comment.

The Rev. James Woodall, president of the Georgia NAACP, called Shields’ resignation “symbolic” and called it a political move by Bottoms, who is reportedly being vetted as a potential running mate for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. Woodall demanded Shields’ complete separation from the city.

“I want to be very clear that simple piecemeal solutions and symbolism just will not work,” Woodall said.

The Georgia NAACP will be back at the Capitol on Monday, leading a march for criminal justice changes, including passage of a hate crimes bill and an end to citizens’ arrest laws.

A spokesman for Bottoms did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Bottoms was scheduled to appear Sunday night at a CNN town hall on racial inequality and the coronavirus pandemic with other prominent black female mayors.

From calm to chaotic

Friday night, police were called to the Wendy’s on University Avenue to a report of a man asleep in his car, blocking the drive-through window. Officers confronted Brooks, 27, who authorities said failed a field sobriety test.

Police video showed the interaction between Brooks and officers was calm until officers attempted to handcuff Brooks.

Brooks resisted and a struggle ensued. Video shows Brooks wrestled a Taser away from officers and fled.

Restaurant surveillance video shows Brooks running away. He turned and appeared to fire the Taser at the pursuing officers and he was shot.

An autopsy report released Sunday said Brooks suffered organ damage and blood loss from two “gunshot wounds of the back.”

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which typically conducts probes into police shootings, is investigating the matter, as is the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office.

GBI Director Vic Reynolds has urged patience and asked the public not to rush to judgment.

In an interview with CNN, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said a decision about charges could come “sometime around Wednesday.”

“[Brooks] did not seem to present any threat to anyone,” Howard told CNN. “The fact that it would escalate to his death seems unreasonable.”

CNN reported three charges are being considered: murder, felony murder and voluntary manslaughter.

National reaction

The Brooks shooting elicited responses across the political spectrum.

“We don’t know what was in the mind of the officer when someone turns around and points a weapon at him,” Ben Carson, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said in an interview on “Fox News Sunday.” “Is he absolutely sure that’s a non-lethal weapon? This is not a clear-cut circumstance.”

Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City and a lawyer for President Donald Trump urged people to “suspend judgment until a full investigation is done.”

“Whatever the Atlanta shooting is, it is not the George Floyd case,” Giuliani said on Twitter. “This video appears to present circumstances which may justify this use of force.”

Former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, who is also seen as a possible running mate for Biden, called for greater police accountability.

“We need reformation of how police officers do their jobs, how law enforcement does its job,” Abrams said on ABC News’ “This Week.” “Because what happened [Friday] with Rayshard Brooks was a function of excessive force and the … fact that either they were embarrassed or panicked led them to murder a man who they knew only had a Taser in his hand.”

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said she supported Bottoms’ actions in response to Brooks’ death.

“As a country, we need to address the use of deadly force within police departments. And we need to do it now,” Warren said on Twitter.

Marches and memorials

Demonstrators in several groups crisscrossed downtown, marching on the State Capitol, the Atlanta Detention Center, Centennial Olympic Park and to the Wendy’s where Brooks was shot.

Many said they wanted to demilitarize cops and “defund the police,” and direct those monies to community services.

Allison Smith of Decatur, a member of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, delivered a message to state lawmakers while protesting outside the Capitol.

“We will keep fighting,” she said. “We will win. We will defund the police. We will overcome.”

Other speakers denounced Trump and urged marchers to vote.

Protesters erected a makeshift memorial of flowers and balloons for Brooks at the burned-out Wendy’s.

Phillip Smith, 45, said he served four tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan that he said left him with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Worried about his reaction to tear gas explosions and the chaos, the Army veteran skipped recent protests. But after Brooks died, Smith said he felt compelled to drive the 20 miles from his Stone Mountain home to the site of the shooting.

“There has to be justice,” he said, standing in the parking lot amid a sea of demonstrators.

White people can get away with things that no black man can, Smith said, as his wife, Monica, pulled up a video they’d watched on social media in the morning. In the video, a white man overpowers two cops in an undisclosed place and hops into a police vehicle.

Smith said the man in the video didn’t get shot like Brooks did.

“Should he have resisted arrest? No,” Smith said of Brooks. “Should he have taken the Taser? No. But at the end of the day, was he a threat running away? No.”

Councilman Antonio Brown said Shields shouldn’t shoulder all the blame. He tweeted that the City Council and Bottoms were equally responsible “for the unarmed black lives lost to police brutality.”

Brown represents a part of Atlanta west of downtown and wants more foot and bike patrols because he thinks officers need to be among the people, developing relationships with them.

“We’re never going to move forward if we don’t do that,” he said.