Fulton County DA moves swiftly to charge six APD officers

Attorney Mawuli Mel Davis (left) speaks on behalf of Taniyah Pilgrim (second from left) and Messiah Young (second from right)during a press conference by the Fulton County District Attorney's Office in Atlanta, Monday, June 2, 2020. District Attorney Paul Howard and members of the Fulton County District Attorney's Office are pressing charges against 6 Atlanta Police Officers for their involvement in the assault and property damage to Taniyah Pilgrim and Messiah Young. Attorney Mawuli Mel Davis is representing Messiah Young. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Critics wonder if he’s using the case to his political advantage

Fulton County District Paul Howard’s quick decision to charge six Atlanta Police Department officers who violently detained two college students during weekend protests drew both praise and criticism along with suspicion that he is using the highly publicized case to his political advantage ahead of next week’s hotly contested primary.

The officers were charged with unprecedented swiftness. Howard said that was made possible by police body camera footage that captured much of the confrontation.

“I’m sure many people have a question, ‘why today?’” Howard, seeking a seventh term in office, said during a Tuesday news conference to announce the charges. “One of the reasons we’re doing this today is because the information is before us. Information that allows us to draw conclusions regarding probable cause. That is a lot different from many of the cases our office handles.”

RELATED: ‘We felt we were going to die’; students arrested by APD speak out

Messiah Young, 22, and his girlfriend, Taniyah Pilgrim, 20, were on a date Saturday night and say they didn’t realize they were out past the city’s 9 p.m. curfew when they encountered the officers on Centennial Olympic Park Drive.

“My investigation concluded they were so innocent almost to the point of being naive,” Howard said.

Two of the six officers, Ivory Streeter and Mark Gardner, investigators with APD’s fugitive unit, were fired Sunday by Chief Erika Shields. The others — Lonnie Hood, Willie Sauls, E. Armond Jones and F. Ronald Claud — were placed on desk duty pending investigation.

All but Claud and Jones were charged with aggravated assault. Hood was charged with two counts of aggravated assault and simple battery. Other charges included criminal damage to property.

Howard said he will ask a judge to grant a $10,000 signature bond. Each officer has until Friday to surrender.

“I feel a little safer now that these monsters are off the street and unable to terrorize anyone else,” said Young, a rising senior at Morehouse College who sustained a fractured wrist in the melee.

According to Howard, the incident started when Young tried to help a friend, Chancellor Meyers, who had been thrown to the ground by an officer. Meyers can be heard crying on the video.

The officers ordered Young, “Go, or go to jail!” Howard said. Young did as he was told before he was stopped roughly 10 yards away by traffic. Things escalated quickly from there.

“You can see one of the policemen try to break into the window and finally one of the officers used a device to break the window and after that happened Mr. Young was tased,” Howard said. “You can see Mr. Young try to protect Ms. Pilgrim, protecting her with his own body.”

Young was then pulled from the car and tased a second time. Pilgrim, also tased, was taken to a police vehicle where she sat for two hours.

“I’m happy they are finally being held accountable,” said Pilgrim, a psychology major at Spelman College. “Any police officer who thinks it is okay to drag someone, beat someone, do all this stuff because they are cops, I hope they are all going to be held accountable as well.”

Vince Champion, Southeast regional director for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, said Howard’s decision “reeked of politics,” pointing out a rash of recent scandals involving Howard. He has been sued by three past or present female employees who allege discrimination or sexual harassment, the GBI has announced an investigation into his use of funds and the state ethics commission accuses him of more than a dozen violations.

“In 25 years with the union I’ve only seen a handful of cases move this fast,” Champion said. “And those ultimately end up coming out in (law enforcement’s) favor.”

Before Howard’s Tuesday news conference, family members whose loved ones died at the hands of police held a press conference just a few blocks away from the Fulton County Courthouse. Some complained that Howard had been slow to prosecute officer-involved shootings, with the resolution of such cases typically taking years, not months.

“I’m mad as hell,” said Monteria Robinson, whose son, Jamarion, was shot at 76 times inside his girlfriend’s East Point apartment in 2016 by a fugitive task force made up of local law enforcement and federal authorities. The officers with several metro agencies and U.S. Marshals were trying to serve an arrest warrant on Jamarion Robinson, 26, who struggled with schizophrenia, for allegedly firing a gun at officers in a previous encounter.

“Paul Howard has failed my family and has not tried to indict the officers who murdered my son even though he’s been promising me he’s going to take action for nearly four years,” Robinson said. “Now he wants to make people think he’s going to indict the officers who dragged two students out of their car. I do not believe him at all!”

Howard has accused federal authorities of repeatedly hindering his office's investigation into Robinson's death by ignoring requests for information and even telling officers not to talk.

But there have been other cases with prolonged delays. Howard has still yet to announce a decision on prosecuting Officer Yasim Abdulahad for the Jan. 2017 shooting of 24-year-old DeAundre Phillips in the parking lot of an APD annex. Phillips was unarmed at the time.

“It shouldn’t take more than three years to make a decision,” said Fani Willis, Howard’s former chief deputy who is running against him.

Christian Wise-Smith, another former Fulton assistant district attorney running against his former boss in Tuesday’s primary, said he agreed with Howard’s decision to charge the officers.

“Kudos to him for taking action,” Wise-Smith said. “He knew what he had to do based on the climate of the country. Otherwise, I think we all know he wouldn’t have acted this quickly.”

Lonnie Hood: Two counts of aggravated assault; one count, simple battery

Willie Sauls: Aggravated assault, criminal damage to property

Ivory Streeter: Aggravated assault, poiting or aiming a gun

Mark Gardner: Aggravated assault

Armond Jones: Aggravated battery, pointing or aiming a gun

Roland Claud: Criminal damage to property

Gardner and Streeter were fired Sunday by APD Chief Erika Shields. The other officers were placed on desk duty pending investigation.

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