Nationally, the rise in officer-involved shootings has been much more gradual than seen in Georgia. The Washington Post, which maintains a database of police shootings nationwide, reports that, as of a week ago, there have been 27 more fatal shootings this year than in 2017.
GBI Director Vernon Keenan, whose agency investigates virtually all shootings by state law enforcement officers, said the sharp increase in Georgia, from an average of two such incidents per week, is unprecedented. While investigators will help determine whether the shootings were justified, Keenan said the violence directed toward law enforcement also is unparalleled.
“First off, you’ve got the drug problem,” he said. While the opioid epidemic captures the headlines, methamphetamine remains a greater threat to public safety.
“Opioids will kill you. Meth will make you want to kill someone,” said Keenan, who also cited criminal possession of firearms and poor mental health as drivers to violent confrontations with police.
» OVER THE LINE: POLICE SHOOTINGS IN GEORGIA
Mental health appeared to play a role in McCann’s death. According to Polk County police, McCann had called police to her home on Sunday, where she engaged in a heated exchange with the responding officers. She called 911 again later in the day to report police had shot at her and her dog.
Officers returned a second time after reports of shots fired at her residence. McCann’s mother told law enforcement that her daughter suffered from delusions and it appeared she had not been taking her medication.
One day before McCann's death, the GBI was called to investigate the fatal shooting of Terence Leslie, 32. Cellphone video showed Leslie, a father of four, picking up the officer and body slamming him after being stopped for a field sobriety test. The officer's arm was broken when the suspect grabbed at his Taser, but the officer was able to fire his weapon, hitting Leslie twice.
A Villa Rica police officer watches (left) as GBI agents investigate the officer-involved shooting scene at the Easy Quick Shop gas station at 1607 Bankhead Highway in Villa Rica on April 26, 2018. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
While not applicable in these cases, Atlanta attorney Chris Stewart said he worries officer-involved shootings will continue to increase now that the Justice Department, under the leadership of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has stepped back from providing any federal oversight over local law enforcement agencies.
“De-escalation is not a priority anymore,” said Stewart, who represents several families of the victims of police shootings. “And when you have a president that pretty much endorses police brutality, how does that not filter down to the officers on the street?”
Stewart was referring to a speech last July by President Donald Trump to a group of law enforcement officers in which he told them, “Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over? Like, don’t hit their head and they’ve just killed somebody — don’t hit their head. I said, you can take the hand away, OK?”
The GBI was on the scene investigating an officer-involved shooting on April 18, 2018, after a man went to the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office in search of shelter. Hours later, a deputy was forced to shoot him inside the facility. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
Keenan said de-escalation remains a priority in Georgia, noting that the state has increased the number of training classes aimed at tamping down potentially violent confrontations.
“Our goal is to have every officer in the state undergo de-escalation training,” Keenan told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Tuesday.
It's not yet clear whether such training could have prevented the shooting of 38-year-old William Davis outside a Georgia State University bus station on April 30.
Davis, who was unarmed, was acting erratically and harassing other patrons, according to the GBI, when an off-duty GSU officer intervened. A struggle ensued and the officer deployed her pepper spray on Davis, who continued to fight back. The officer responded with a single shot that sent Davis to Grady Memorial Hospital in stable condition.
Former DeKalb County Public Safety Director Cedric Alexander, who served on President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, said he was reluctant to connect any dots between changes in Washington and the actions of officers on the street.
“I think you’re seeing many police chiefs and sheriffs continue to recognize the importance of reforms and fostering a positive, working relationship with the communities they serve,” said Alexander, now deputy mayor of Rochester, N.Y.
It’s also true, he said, that “criminals are becoming more emboldened, more violent.”
An off-duty Fulton County sheriff’s deputy shot and killed a 46-year-old man outside a southwest Atlanta restaurant during the early morning hours of May 4, 2018, GBI officials said at a news conference. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
By the numbers, officer-involved shootings in Georgia
Through May 8, this year 20 people have been shot and killed by police in the state. Overall this year, there have been 34 officer-involved shootings.
At this same point in 2017, 12 people died out of 31 officer-involved shootings. By the end of the year there were 30 deaths from police shootings, fairly consistent with the totals this decade.