Deadly officer-involved shootings in Georgia on the rise

Hall County sheriff’s deputies killed a man they said fired multiple gunshots at them on June 14. The deputies were placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of a GBI investigation. The Hall County shooting was the 44th officer-involved investigation opened by the GBI this year. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Hall County sheriff’s deputies killed a man they said fired multiple gunshots at them on June 14. The deputies were placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of a GBI investigation. The Hall County shooting was the 44th officer-involved investigation opened by the GBI this year. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is trying to learn more about the circumstances that cause officer-involved shootings amid the deadliest year for the incidents in the past five years.

According to data from the GBI, there have been more deadly officer-involved shootings so far in 2018 than in any year since 2012 — and there are still four months left to go before the year is over.

Since Jan. 1, the GBI has opened 33 investigations into deadly officer-involved shootings, a number already exceeding 30 deadly officer shootings last year. The years 2016 and 2015 had 27 and 29 deadly shootings, respectively.

Whether or not officers are prosecuted depends on the GBI investigations, which are then sent to district attorneys to review.

The GBI and the Georgia Public Safety Training Center are trying to understand the circumstances that lead to deadly police shootings. That’s a task made more difficult by the dearth of available data on these incidents, said Jon Shane, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

Nationally, there’s very little research on cases of deadly police shootings, but Shane is looking for patterns so that officers will be better equipped to handle confrontations.

“We know the number (of deadly shootings) has increased this year, and it is still very troubling to us,” said Dwayne Orrick, director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police. “Only one in one thousand police encounters involve use of force.”

The GPSTC trains all state and local public safety agencies in Georgia. A key part of officer training is when and how to use force, which can be anything from a raised fist to pepper spray to a gun. Through an eight-hour class and multiple simulations, officers learn to make decisions about when and what kind of force to use.

According to Chadd Wilson, an instructor with the training center, many incidents involving force used by law enforcement in Georgia are justifiable events.

“Any time an officer has to use force, it is troubling,” he said, “but it’s not alarming unless it is not justifiable.”

Wilson said Georgia’s police academy, like most police academies, looks to the U.S. Supreme Court case Graham v. Connor as a precedent for the use of force. In the 1989 case, Dethorne Graham asked his friend to drive him to a convenience store to buy orange juice. He was in a hurry; the diabetic man was trying to counteract an insulin reaction. Graham walked into the store and left quickly, deciding that going to a friend’s house would be faster than waiting in line.

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Connor, a police officer in Charlotte, N.C., was suspicious of Graham entering and leaving the store so quickly. He followed Graham, stopped him and his friend, handcuffed him and ignored Graham’s attempts to explain his condition. After the encounter, Graham was left with bruises, cuts and a broken foot. He filed a claim against Connor.

But the Supreme Court ruled in Connor’s favor.

The court ruled the use of “physical coercion or threat thereof” is often necessary when law enforcement officers are making a stop or arrest. The court also wrote that what constitutes a reasonable use of force is subjective and can’t be precisely defined.

“The side of the road is not the place to try your court case,” Wilson said. If a person resists arrest, regardless of whether they have a reason for being arrested, the person should comply or face an officer using force, he said.

That case is often considered by investigators and prosecutors trying to determine if an officer was justified in a shooting or police slaying. said GBI Director Vernon Keenan. He added the “outcome of most cases is that the officer was legally justified.”

GBI Director Vernon Keenan speaks during a public safety committee meeting at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta, Georgia on Monday, January 22, 2018. (REANN HUBER/REANN.HUBER@AJC.COM)

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Keenan cited drug use as a factor in many deadly confrontations with police. “In many of these cases the deceased had been using drugs,” Keenan said. “You have a combination of illegal drugs, mental health issues and a person that has a firearm having a disregard for the authority of law enforcement.”

Keenan said that the GBI’s ability to fully study the deadly officer-involved shootings is limited by the organization’s lack of resources to close other cases involving police use of force. The GBI must be involved anytime an oficer fires his gun, but they are also called upon to investigate some “use of force” cases.

“We investigate force other than firearms,” Keenan said of the GBI. “We work so many of these cases that we train all of our agents on how to conduct the cases.”

This year the GBI opened 75 investigations into officers’ use of force, including deadly shootings, but only six of those cases have been completed. Only 48 of the 116 cases from 2017 are closed. The 137 remaining cases are still being investigated.

Every one of the GBI’s agents are trained to investigate use of force cases, following a protocol “developed by us based on our years of experience working these cases,” Keenan said.

An investigator is supposed to learn the name of and interview every officer on the scene, interview the suspect involved in the shooting and pull any available video footage from police body cameras and dashboard cameras. A single investigation can take anywhere from six months to a year.

The GBI said it does not perform analysis or study trends in the cases it investigates — that would require resources that the GBI just doesn’t have, Kennan said. It is currently in negotiation with Shane for him to do a research project looking for commonalities in deadly shootings and in other “use of force” cases involving officers injuring suspects, but not killing them.

A better understanding of the incidents might lead to changes in the way law officers in the state are trained on how and when to use force, Keenan said.

Deadly Officer-Involved Shootings in Georgia

2017 - 30

2016 - 27

2015 - 29

2014 - 26

2013 - 31

2012 - 42

2011 - 30

2010 - 27