Gun violence spikes in Atlanta amid debate over police use of force

After months of hiding from COVID-19, many Atlantans emerged from their homes last month with rage rather than apprehension about the uncertain world.

With the recent death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, they felt safe enough to take to streets and demand police reform that would stop brutality against Black people.

Protesters marched and chanted loudly, so alive as they called for less senseless death. Atlanta Police stood stone-faced as protesters screamed, and many were outraged when fellow officers were fired and then charged with assaulting arrestees and, in the case of one cop, murder.

Beneath it all, a grim phenomenon was taking shape: Shootings among residents were rising in the city — homicides, too.

Ninety-three people were shot in Atlanta during the four-week period of May 31 to June 27, up drastically from 46 in the same period last year, the latest complete data available. And fourteen people died of homicide in that span, compared to six during the same time frame in 2019.

Those shot have included a 10-year-old boy who survived, an 18-year-old who may have been selling water on the street in Midtown when he was killed, and an 80-year-old man who died as the unintended target of a drive-by in his home.

The numbers are still climbing.

On Saturday, an 8-year-old girl was shot dead near the burned out Wendy’s where Rayshard Brooks was killed by an Atlanta cop. Atlanta police said it appears a group of armed people stopped the car in which the child was riding before someone shot into it.

A few hours later, 14 were shot during a fight at an outdoor party in northeast Atlanta where people had gathered to watch fireworks, police said. That shooting occurred about the same time a crowd was busting out windows of the Georgia State Patrol headquarters.

The spate of violence may be happenstance, but observers say it’s a safe bet multiple factors are at play: pent up energy and angst from quarantine; folks trying to handle disputes themselves rather than call police whom they distrust; and Atlanta officers working less proactively because of what they see as anti-police sentiment on the streets and a lack of support from local politicians.

“There seems to be withdrawal by police,” said Russell Covey, Georgia State University criminal law professor. “The lack of a police presence may create something of a vacuum of authority.”

Asked last week about the situation, Atlanta police officer Jason Segura, president of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers’ local chapter, said police are indeed pulling back. The violence spike can likely be attributed to officers taking a less proactive approach to preventing crime, he said.

“Officers are afraid to do their job,” Segura said last week.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said at a press conference Sunday that there was “no mass sick out” Saturday night.

“We’ve had 75 shootings in the past few weeks, you can’t blame that on APD,” Bottoms said at the press conference.

Lately, Segura said, every officer he talks with is angry about the treatment of the nine Atlanta officers who were charged by Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard in June.

Segura said he and other cops believe Garrett Rolfe, since fired, and Officer Devin Brosnan followed the Atlanta Police Department’s use of force policy in their encounter with Brooks. Rolfe, charged with felony murder and 10 other offenses, was granted a $500,000 bond and must wear an ankle monitor, have no contact with witnesses, abide by a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew, and not possess any firearms. He also was ordered to surrender his passport.

Brosnan, charged with aggravated assault for standing on Brooks with his boot, and three violations of his oath of office, was released on a $50,000 signature bond.

The arrests were galling — and confounding — to other officers, who feel they don’t have clarity on what city leaders want from them, Segura said.

After Brooks’ death, Police Chief Erika Shields stepped aside while Bottoms and city council members began talking about “re-imagining” the police department and changing use of force policies. Segura said officers will abide by whatever policy the city writes for them.

Bottoms addressed the increased violence during a conference call with the city council Thursday. She pointed out that overall crime is down 30 percent, while acknowledging the spike in shootings.

“But certainly we are in a very challenging period right now,” the mayor said, adding that a task force is working as quickly as possible to review the use of force policy.

The mayor has so far issued three administrative orders based on the task force’s recommendations. The orders seek to ensure officers’ body cameras are filming during use of force incidents; that witnesses who have their own footage can share it easily with investigators; and that the Atlanta Citizen Review Board is empowered to drive change in policing in the city.

Atlanta City Council is set to vote on other policing reform measures Monday, including a proposed ban on the use of choke holds.

Bottoms noted that other large cities have seen similar increases in violence recently because of “the state of the country right now.”

It isn’t clear how many cities have seen such a spike, but at least two have.

"Gun violence soars amid crises of health, public trust, officer reluctance," read a recent headline in Minneapolis' Star Tribune.

"Gun Violence Spikes in N.Y.C., Intensifying Debate Over Policing," read one in the New York Times.

In Atlanta’s Edgewood neighborhood, resident Quincy Jackson, 34, said he’s been hearing more gunshots lately and is hopeful Atlanta officers and officials can find common ground soon. He’s torn — he sees the merits of the Black Lives Matter protests, but he also knows the community needs police.

“I think they have slacked off some,” Jackson said Thursday on Edgewood Avenue, across the street from a mural of George Floyd. “Now it seems like the cops are scared to do anything, like they don’t want to get in trouble.”

Down the street, Alethea Carter, who’s lived in the neighborhood all of her 65 years, doesn’t have many warm feelings for the Atlanta Police Department right now.

As a Black mother, she said she was heartbroken by the death of Brooks. Now she’s even more upset with the police because, after those events that brought so much pain to so many people, the police seem to be even less invested in doing right by the community. She’s saddened by the rise in shootings on the streets too.

“If they don’t kill us,” she said, “we’re going to kill one another. It’s sad.”

In DeKalb County, where county cops and political leaders aren’t in the midst of such consternation, homicides were down by five in the same period where Atlanta saw killings increase by eight. Statistics on overall shootings there weren’t immediately available. DeKalb County officers police a population whose size is close to Atlanta’s.

In Atlanta, as officials, residents and police work to find middle ground, victims of violent crime and their loved ones are left to wonder if their plights could’ve been prevented.

When 80-year-old Clarence Knox was shot in the June 25 drive-by, Atlanta police had known for weeks his home was being targeted.

Back on June 3, he’d apparently been laying on the couch, where he often lounged while sipping Miller Genuine Draft and watching old Westerns, when bullets tore into the house. He called his daughter, Rochelle Thibodeaux, and said: “Baby girl, if I would’ve been sitting up on the couch you wouldn’t be talking to me right now.”

Knox also called 911 to report the shooting. The attackers, the family believes, were trying to hurt a young relative who Knox let stay in the home. The family told police that, as well as who might be after the young man, Thibodeaux said.

Thibodeaux tried to convince her father to come stay with her, but he didn’t want to be run out of his own home.

On June 26, the family hadn’t been able to reach Knox for a while, so they summoned police. Officers found him shot dead on the floor, clutching the phone as if he was trying to call 911, his daughter said. Officers reported finding as many as 20 shell casing outside.

Now, as Thibodeaux aches with grief, she wonders if police could’ve saved him.

“I feel like it could’ve been prevented if they put more police cars in that area after the first shooting. They never even followed up,” she said, frustration clear in her voice. “I know we have a lot of things going on, but this is our 80-year-old father.”