If you were gassing up a 2003-05 Chevrolet Tahoe at the Valero station on Moreland Avenue at 12:19 p.m. on March 13, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard is waiting for your call.
Same for the driver of a 2008-10 dark gray Ford F150 pickup, stopped across the street from the Valero at the same time, in plain sight of a man holding a gun at the intersection of Moreland and Memorial avenues.
By then a second series of shots had been fired in a non-lethal exchange between the Atlanta Police Department’s SWAT unit and a father-and-son duo, Kenneth Gilbert, 56, and 29-year old Kenneth Gilbert Jr.
The incident, like all officer-involved shootings in the state, is under investigation by the GBI. Typically, the GBI presents its findings to the district attorneys, many of whom conduct concurrent probes before deciding whether an officer’s actions were justified.
But in a first for his office, Howard is making a concerted effort to involve the public in the process with the purchase of five billboards across Fulton County. The billboards ask people to come forward with any information about the Moreland Avenue shootings and two other recent cases — the fatal shooting in January of 18-year-old D’Ettrick Griffin by Oliver Simmonds, a member of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ security detail, and a shooting in December by officers from South Fulton and East Point police that left 35-year-old Devin Nolley paralyzed from the waist down.
“On several occasions we’ve had jurors and citizens say to us, ‘Why don’t you provide us with citizen testimony?’” Howard told reporters Wednesday. “My experience is our community seems to make a greater belief when a citizen who is not involved with either of the parties comes forward.”
The solicitation for witnesses of the shootout between the Gilberts and APD stands out from the other cases in that it targets specific people — captured by security cameras — who have not been interviewed by authorities. Two white Ford pickup trucks were also seen in surveillance photos and will be spotlighted on the billboards, which have been reserved for the next three weeks at a total cost of $9,147, said DA spokesman Chris Hopper.
“If we can get just one witness, I think it’s worth it if that person can come forward and shed some light on what has happened,” Howard said.
Such input could be particularly crucial to the Gilbert investigation, where officials are dealing with sharply conflicting accounts of what transpired.
Police say Gilbert Jr. pointed a loaded Taurus pistol at four APD officers he believed had cut him off while driving in East Atlanta. A SWAT member shot Gilbert, who then allegedly returned fire. The senior Gilbert was also shot. Both men survived.
The case has been something of a headache for Howard, who came under fire after it was revealed the Gilberts were freed on a signature bond.
“I’ve never heard of something like this happening before,” Atlanta Police Union President Steve Zygaj told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last month.
Howard defended his decision, saying his office was 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.
Information provided by APD “would not qualify as an independent or external investigation,” he said at the time.
Wednesday’s announcement was just the latest in a series of progressive policy initiatives put forward by Howard, now in his sixth term as district attorney. Last week, he announced the creation of a Conviction Integrity Unit that will review previous Fulton County prosecutions as warranted by compelling new evidence.
“It shows an awareness of what’s of concern to his constituency,” said Atlanta criminal defense attorney Esther Panitch, who served as foreperson of the Fulton grand jury earlier this year. “It’s encouraging, but we’ll have to wait and see how all this plays out.”
And it is consistent with a national movement in the nation’s urban centers toward more progressive prosecutors.
In Philadelphia, Larry Krasner was elected district attorney in 2017 on a platform that called for an end to mass incarceration. New district attorneys in Houston and Boston’s Suffolk County, meanwhile, have prioritized marijuana decriminalization and the repeal of mandatory minimums for drug offenses.
Anyone with information about the three officer-involved shootings is asked to call the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office Hotline at 1-833-432-7285.
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