Mayor says councilmember interceded on armed protesters’ behalf

Ever since Saturday night’s devastating shooting of 8-year-old Secoriea Turner, the question has persisted. Why were armed civilians allowed to commandeer a public street without any pushback by law enforcement?

In a wide-ranging interview Wednesday with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial board, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said police had planned on clearing the area weeks earlier but were encouraged to wait after City Councilmember Joyce Sheperd requested more time to negotiate with activists.

“That was not the administration’s position,” Bottoms said. But ultimately, it was the mayor’s call.

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Protesters had been gathering for weeks around the Wendy’s on University Avenue near Pryor Street, torched after Rayshard Brooks’ June 12 shooting death. Two Atlanta police officers, since fired, face criminal charges in Brooks’ death.

Bottoms said Sheperd wanted to hold more discussions with the protesters on how best to move forward.

“I’m using the word ‘mediate’ for lack of a better term,” the mayor said.

Those negotiations came amid numerous reports of violence. There were at least two other shootings, at least one beating and multiple reports of threats against people approaching the site.

“Don’t make any sudden moves, or you will get shot,” an armed demonstrator told an AJC columnist reporting from the scene last month.

Sheperd told the AJC she still considers herself an activist and sees merit in listening to citizens with grievances. Had police immediately tried to run off the large group, some of whom were armed, the situation could easily have spiraled out of control, she said.

“I called in a couple of artists. I called in neighborhood people. What I said was, ‘Guys, let’s bring some healing to this site,’” Sheperd said. “I told people to bring flowers. There was singing. There was a lot of stuff going on for healing.”

But when armed people started blocking the road as if they were operating a checkpoint, Sheperd said she, along with area residents, told them to stop. After Brooks’ funeral on June 23, police cleared the barricades. Sheperd said she never saw the road blocked again and was encouraged that tensions were easing.

Bottoms said she drove through the area last week and found no cause for concern.

“There were lots of peaceful people there,” she said.

Negotiations began to sour last week after a protest leader grew suddenly hostile, Sheperd said. The city intended to barricade the parking lot but logistics problems necessitated a delay, according to both Sheperd and Bottoms.

“Never in our wildest dreams did we think somebody would block the street and a little 8-year-old girl would get killed,” Sheperd said.

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The mayor spoke out on a number of other public safety topics Wednesday.

She acknowledged morale among Atlanta police officers was very low, referring to a recent conversation with Interim Police Chief Rodney Bryant, who told her “the wounds were deep.”

“I’ve heard everything from officers are confused to officers are afraid,” she said. “I recognize this as a problem. It is incumbent upon me as mayor to give clarity to our officers, which we’ve been working around the clock to do.”

But Bottoms disputed claims she didn’t have the police department’s back.

“To discipline certain officers, and to demand change, is not one in the same as abandoning and supporting our police department,” she said.

The “blue flu” had no impact on the rash of shootings over the holiday weekend that left 31 injured and five people dead, Bottoms said. About 170 Atlanta police officers called out sick in the days following Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard’s decision to prosecute Garrett Rolfe, facing felony murder and 10 other criminal counts; and Devin Brosnan, whose charges include aggravated assault. Both have been released on bond.

“Even on Saturday night, this very volatile night, we didn’t have mass sick-outs,” Bottoms said. “But still this happened. To the extent we’re having challenges we’ve had to move resources around the city.”

Bottoms said she hasn’t decided whether she’ll make an endorsement in bitterly contested district attorney race between six-term incumbent Howard and one of his former chief deputy prosecutors, Fani Willis.

In the Sweet Auburn district early Sunday morning, 14 people were shot at a street party, two fatally. Street parties have become a weekly occurrence, frustrated merchants and residents say.

“That area in particular is a problem area,” Bottoms said. “We’ve committed resources there and will continue to commit resources there.”