District Attorney Paul Howard has long complained that Fulton County judges are too lenient in sentencing violent, repeat offenders. Now he’s defending his decision to consent to a signature bond for a suspect who allegedly exchanged gunfire with officers from the Atlanta Police Department’s SWAT unit.
Police say Kenneth Gilbert Jr. pointed a loaded Taurus pistol at four APD officers he believed had cut him off while driving last month on Moreland Avenue in East Atlanta. A SWAT member shot Gilbert, 29, who then allegedly returned fire. The suspect’s 56-year-old father and namesake was also shot. Both men survived and are walking the streets — an outcome that has generated outrage from citizens and cops alike.
“I’ve never heard of something like this happening before,” Atlanta Police Union President Steve Zygaj said.
Howard said he understands the furor but insists he’s simply following guidelines set by President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which calls for independent criminal investigations of incidents involving police use of force.
That is already underway. The GBI is investigating the police shooting of Gilbert and will present its findings to the district attorney — just as it does after virtually every officer-involved shooting in Georgia.
But only information provided by Atlanta police was available when Gilbert’s bond was decided, leaving prosecutors no choice, Howard said.
“That would not qualify as an independent or external investigation,” he said, adding that neither police nor civilians should be arrested before the GBI completes its probe.
The veteran prosecutor noted that the APD made the decision to implement all 59 of the 21st Century Policing report’s recommendations soon after the report was released in May 2015.
“I think it would be a huge mistake for the city to back away from these recommendations now,” Howard said.
But former DeKalb County Public Safety Director Cedric Alexander, who served on the 21st Century task force, said he disagrees with Howard’s interpretation of their report.
“I’m not questioning the DA, but I will say emphatically that the 21st Century task force recommendations in no way supported the release of a violent suspect who targeted police officers,” Alexander said. “There were no suggestions that the law be lenient against violent offenders.”
The task force’s report doesn’t address bond specifically. And Alexander stressed their recommendations were meant as a road map, not a series of mandates.
“This makes no sense to me,” Alexander said regarding Howard’s decision to release Gilbert Jr. on bond.
The Gilberts had previous run-ins with the law. Police said the elder Gilbert is a convicted felon with a warrant out for his arrest at the time of last month’s shooting. In August 2017, Gilbert Jr. was arrested for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, records show.
Their case is the latest chapter in the ongoing controversy surrounding the high volume of repeat offenders committing violent crimes in Fulton.
Howard said judges’ light sentences have given criminals little incentive to go straight.
“That’s the probation office’s main complaint, that the sentences don’t offer deterrents,” he said in a recent interview. “When that doesn’t happen, you have that revolving door.”
But the animus goes both ways. In February, retired Superior Court Judge Wendy Shoob told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the district attorney’s office is filled with inexperienced lawyers reluctant to forge workable deals with the defense. They instead push for tough sentences to curry favor with their boss, leaving the judges caught in the middle, she said.
Meanwhile, the cops on the street are left to handle the fallout.
“Fulton County is a joke,” Zygaj said. “But we’re used to it.”
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