Experts say weapons, changing attitudes lead to officer-involved shootings

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The GBI said the suspect was in critical condition.

In a year that has already seen too many officer-involved shootings, during a six-hour period Tuesday three more people in metro Atlanta were shot by police — two of them are dead.

In Forsyth County, deputies shot and killed a 65-year-old man armed with a handgun. In Atlanta, police shot a man who allegedly attempted to hit the officer with his car. And in DeKalb County, officers shot and killed a man accused of firing shots after a standoff.

Between 4 p.m. and 10 p.m. Tuesday, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation was asked to investigate the three shootings. They bring the total to 47 officer-involved shootings the GBI is investigating this year. At this rate, the agency is on pace to match the 97 officer-involved shooting investigations from 2017.

Police shootings have increased across the country so far this year, according to The Washington Post, which maintains a database of police shootings nationwide. So far this year, 491 people were shot and killed by police, an increase of 24 over this time last year, according to the database.

Veteran law enforcement officers say it’s due to the amount of weapons available and changing attitudes toward police, but each case requires a thorough investigation to determine whether the use of force was necessary.

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A GBI investigator speaks with Hall County sheriff's deputies on the scene of a deadly deputy-involved shooting Thursday morning. JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM

A GBI investigator speaks with Hall County sheriff's deputies on the scene of a deadly deputy-involved shooting Thursday morning. JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM

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A GBI investigator speaks with Hall County sheriff's deputies on the scene of a deadly deputy-involved shooting Thursday morning. JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM

“Society has changed,” Frank V. Rotondo, executive director for the Georgia Association for Chiefs of Police, said Wednesday. “And the respect for law enforcement and public service has changed. And we’ve given them a lot of reason to feel this way.”

Rotondo, who began his law enforcement career in 1969, said there were times as a young officer that he didn’t use force when he should have, and he’s fortunate he survived.

“But the weapons at the time were generally handguns, single-shot revolvers,” he said. “Now we’re dealing with automatic weapons and a different type of criminal.”

Often, the officer shootings occur in more dense areas and higher crime areas, Rotondo said. But they also happen in suburban areas too, such as the recent shooting near Cumming.

Shortly before 10 p.m. Tuesday, a woman called 911 to report a domestic fight at a home on Carbonne Court near Cumming, according to the GBI.

Deputies determined the woman and a man in the home, Charles Spillers, had been in a physical fight, the GBI said.

“As officers entered the residence, deputies encountered Spillers brandishing a gun, the GBI said in an emailed statement. An officer fired at Spillers, striking him multiple times. Spillers, 65, died at the scene.

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A second officer-involved shooting happened just minutes later and about 50 miles away: A man was killed after a one-hour standoff with DeKalb County police at a Stone Mountain apartment complex, according to police. The man allegedly broke into an apartment at The Reserve at Stone Creek on South Hairston Road, held a woman against her will and barricaded himself inside one of the apartments. When police used tear gas to flush him out, he allegedly came out shooting. Officers returned fire, killing 20-year-old Jonathan Buckley.

Earlier Tuesday, shots were fired on Old Hapeville Road when an Atlanta police officer attempted to stop a car reported stolen in a carjacking, investigators said. The driver aimed his vehicle toward the officer, and the officer shot him, according to the GBI. The man, identified by the GBI as Nicholas White, 23, was taken to Grady Memorial Hospital in critical condition.

The GBI is investigating all three cases and will forward its findings to the respective district attorneys, which is protocol, according to an agency spokeswoman. The GBI usually accepts all requests to investigate officer-involved shootings that cause serious injuries or death, spokeswoman Nelly Miles said. Officer-involved shooting investigations are a priority for the department, she said, and agents interview the officers involved while looking at all of the evidence, including any video footage.

“When an officer does something intentionally wrong, then their heads should come off,” Rotondo said, adding, “There are going to be times when an officer makes a mistake.”

Veteran law enforcement officer Dan Libby, who retired as a chief deputy of a Florida sheriff’s office, now lives in Ellijay and continues to train officers. He said it’s hard to understand why the shootings come in bunches, like the recent three in metro Atlanta.

“It’s just the luck of the draw,” Libby said. “Police officers can go years without drawing their guns and then all hell breaks loose.”

It’s often a split-second decision an officer makes to determine if force is necessary, and each case has its own set of unique circumstances. Careful review of each instance where an officer fires his weapon should be part of law enforcement’s process of checks and balances, making sure protocol is followed.

“The bottom line is I’ve seen bad shootings, but I’ve seen a lot more justified shootings,” Libby said.