When Jimmy Atchison was shot and killed by an Atlanta police officer on loan to a FBI fugitive task force, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms had a simple question for APD Chief Erika Shields.
“Why wasn’t (Officer Sung Kim) wearing a body cam?” said Shields, recalling the conversation in a recent interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
With a public outcry brewing after Atchison’s death, Shields said she knew something had to change. She asked the FBI and all the other federal task agencies where APD had assigned officers (31 at the time) if her charges could be adorned with body cams in the future. The response was uniform and unequivocal.
“They said we weren’t authorized to film anything,” Shields said.
So, APD announced recently that it has withdrawn from all federal task forces, a decision lauded by Fulton County District Attorney Howard and the chiefs of police from Union City and South Fulton. Atlanta is believed to be one of the first major metropolitan departments to make such a decision. Shields said APD will continue to collaborate with those same federal agencies in other ways.
“It was very frustrating for all of us,” she said. “We do value these relationships, but in the end the Department of Justice has a policy that does not align with ours when it comes to transparency.”
It’s difficult to say how many federal task forces operate nationwide. The FBI, for instance, coordinates several local partnerships out of its Atlanta field office, including the Cyber Task Force, Joint Terrorism Task Force, Metro Atlanta Child Exploitation and Human Trafficking Task Force and the Safe Streets Gang Task Force, said spokesman Kevin Rowson.
“We have various versions of those task forces and others throughout the state at our 13 resident agencies,” he said.
But Rowson said he could not disclose how many local officers are working with those various task forces. And federal agencies including the FBI and U.S. Marshals have declined to say why they are averse to body cams.
“The lack of accountability goes back many years,” said LaGrange Police Chief Lou Dekmar, who does not allow his officers to participate in such federal partnerships. “As a police chief or sheriff you have no control, no immediate oversight of your officers.”
Shields found that out firsthand in the aftermath of Atchison’s shooting on Jan. 22. The Atlanta man, wanted on an armed robbery charge for allegedly stealing a cellphone at gunpoint, fled to a friend’s apartment after heavily armed officers appeared at his door.
He was discovered hiding in a closet by Kim, who shot and killed him. Witnesses say Atchison, who has a history of run-ins with law enforcement, was unarmed, and no guns were recovered in the apartment.
Protesters demanded answers that the APD chief couldn’t provide.
“If we hadn’t had that shooting we wouldn’t be talking about this,” Shields told The AJC. “But it became clear that regardless of where our officers are assigned my audience is different than the feds.”
The investigation into Atchison’s shooting was initially handled by the FBI. Public pressure led BJay Pak, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, to have the GBI to conduct its own probe.
“This (FBI) investigation was over before it started,” said attorney Tanya Miller, who represents Atchison’s relatives.
How much information will be made available by the FBI remains to be seen. DA Howard said past investigations into federal task force officer-involved shootings have been exceedingly difficult.
Late last year, Howard filed a lawsuit against the Department of Justice accusing federal authorities of hindering his investigation into the 2016 death of 26-year-old Jamarion Robinson. The one-time Clark Atlanta University football player, who had struggled with schizophrenia, was shot 59 times by members of the U.S. Marshals Regional Fugitive Task Force.
Howard told the AJC he was denied access to key documents and blocked from interviewing many of the officers who were there. If they were made available, the Marshals insisted on having a representative there to determine which questions the task force members would be allowed to answer.
“There’s 13 witnesses and they don’t want to let them go before a grand jury,” Howard said. “I don’t think you should be able to come to someone’s jurisdiction, shoot someone and not be held accountable for it.”
The veteran prosecutor said since 2015, U.S. Marshals have been responsible for 64 deaths — none of which were charged criminally.
“That’s a lot of people without any prosecutions,” Howard said.
The U.S. Marshals have declined comment on the Robinson case, citing the ongoing investigation.
Dekmar, former president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said the lack of transparency by federal task forces puts local officers at risk.
“If you’re doing you’re job the right way you should be proud to show it off,” he said, noting the vast majority of officers are acquitted when shown on video. “Our officers have been wearing body cams for 10 years and we have never found them to be hindrances.”
Shields said she is fully committed to outfitting every APD cop who interacts with the public with a cam, one they must wear while moonlighting on private security gigs. Officers will also be equipped with a Signal Sidearm that activates video recording devices once a firearm is drawn.
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