She had a history of mental illness, and early one Saturday morning, her erratic behavior led Shukri Ali Said’s family to call 911 for help. But when Johns Creek police officers arrived, Said refused to put down her knife.
The officers tried negotiating with the 36-year-old woman and used a Taser before shooting her. She died from her injuries, one of 30 people in Georgia killed in encounters with police since Jan. 1.
A review of records by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows that the number of fatal police shootings in the state for 2018 is on pace to double from the year before. In 2017, 30 people were shot and killed by police officers for the entire year, meaning Georgia has matched that total and it’s only July.
It’s not just fatal shootings that are on the rise. The GBI reports that there were 88 officer-involved shootings in 2017. The 51 that have taken place at the halfway point this year are on track to pass that.
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While experts point to a variety of reasons for the increase — nationwide and in Georgia — in officer-involved shootings, there are no easy solutions to reverse the trend.
“It’s almost like a perfect storm coming together,” GBI Director Vernon Keenan told The AJC. “There’s very much anti-police sentiment in some communities. You combine that with drugs and mental health.”
All total, there have been 51 shootings involving police officers so far in 2018 compared to 88 for all of last year. In 2017, there were 88 officer-involved shootings and this year’s total is on track to pass that, according to the GBI.
For the GBI, investigating officer-involved shootings has become a priority, and a time-consuming one, Keenan said. The incidents are coming with such frequency and each requires an in-depth investigation, contributing to a growing backlog at the state crime lab.
“These cases are a priority in the medical examiner’s office if there is a death involved,” he said. “There can’t be an error in the investigation or a mistake made because it’s just too important.”
Are the shootings justified?
Said’s family members believed she needed emergency help when they called 911 on April 28, according to director of the Georgia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR. Edward Ahmed Mitchell said the woman’s family believed an ambulance would be sent to take Said to a hospital.
“They were just trying to help her. They expected a completely different outcome,” Mitchell said. “When you call to help someone, you don’t expect them to die.”
Now, her family members are awaiting the completion of the GBI investigation, and they have questions on whether the officers involved followed protocol before shooting. Mitchell also said his group wants to know whether Said was treated differently because she was a Somali-American woman wearing a hijab and a dress. Plus, if no one’s life was in danger, why was Said shot, Mitchell asked.
“It raises the question why four or five officers could not figure out a way to subdue her without using violence,” he said.
Attorney Lance Lorusso, who serves as legal counsel for the Georgia Fraternal Order of Police, says a rise in violence against police officers has fueled the increase in officer-involved shootings, along with a segment of the population that believes they should not have to comply with police.
“When an officer puts their hand on someone to arrest them, there is no justification for using any force against the officer,” he said.
One Georgia police officer has been killed in a violent encounter on the job so far this year. In February, Locust Grove police Officer Chase Maddox was assisting Henry County deputies with an arrest when he was shot and killed. Tierre Guthrie, 39, fought with deputies and fired the fatal shot that killed Maddox. The two deputies, who were also injured, were able to return fire and kill Guthrie.
In most of the officer-involved shootings, according to Lorusso and Keenan, officers were justified in using force.
“There’s going to be controversial cases, and there’s going to be cases where the officers have used poor judgment and their actions are not justified,” Keenan said. “But that is a small minority of the cases.”
It’s rare, but sometimes law enforcement officers face criminal charges for their actions.
On June 27, Kingsland Police Officer Zechariah Presley turned himself in to the Camden County Sheriff’s Office. The GBI charged him with voluntary manslaughter and violation of oath of office after he shot and killed a man during a pursuit.
“Society has changed,” Frank V. Rotondo, executive director for the Georgia Association for Chiefs of Police, said. “And the respect for law enforcement and public service has changed. And we’ve given them a lot of reason to feel this way.”
More shootings, more work for the GBI
During an 11-day period in late April and May, there were 11 officer-involved shootings in Georgia. Then on June 19, there were three in a six-hour period in the City of Atlanta and DeKalb and Forsyth counties.
“It comes in spurts,” Keenan said. “There’s no predicting what’s going to happen.”
Investigating the police shootings is now a top priority for the GBI, meaning other investigations, including some drug and property crime cases, have been pushed aside.
Typically, the highest number of crimes occur during the hottest part of the summer and during the Christmas holidays, Keenan said. But with some officer-involved shootings from 2017 still under investigation, plus the current year’s cases, GBI agents have more than enough work. Often, agents from other units will be shifted to investigate the shootings, he said.
“You have to respond immediately, and then you have to go forward with the investigation as rapidly as you can efficiently,” Keenan said.
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. Libby says police agencies are now more cautious that ever at policing themselves, and thorough investigations are necessary because each case has different circumstances.
“Law enforcement now does all sorts of checks and balances,” he said. “You want to make sure you’re doing everything appropriately.”
But the number of shooting investigations can be overwhelming for agents.
“You get called out three times within a week, and you’ve got most of the office responding, the investigators themselves are getting stressed,” Keenan said.
But families and communities need answers when officers shoot, he said. And whether or not officers are prosecuted depends on the GBI investigations, which are then sent to district attorneys to review.
“If the outcome of the incident is not what a family, a community or an activist group wants, the first thing that is attacked is the integrity of the investigation,” Keenan said. “We’re taking many additional steps that five years ago we didn’t do.”