In as little as two weeks, Atlanta police could be prohibited from using rubber bullets, stun grenades, military-style vehicles and possibly even tear gas against protesters on city streets.
A proposed ordinance from City Councilman Antonio Brown would outlaw so-called “riot agents,” which police argue serve as essential tools that allow them to deal with unruly crowds as safely as possible.
Brown’s legislation comes after weeks of demonstrations against police brutality in cities across the country, sparked by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
This past weekend in Atlanta, the fury surged and calls for police reform grew louder when a white Atlanta officer shot Rayshard Brooks Friday night, after a struggle in which Brooks wrestled away an officer's Taser and apparently fired the stun gun at officers as he fled.
An autopsy found Brooks, who was African American, died from two gunshot wounds “of the back.”
At a press conference Monday, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms called Brooks killing “a murder,” and lamented that it occurred only days after she had convened an advisory council to make recommendations for how to reform the police department.
Bottoms immediately terminated officer Garrett Rolfe, who fired the fatal shots, after reviewing video of the incident. Bottoms also accepted the resignation of Police Chief Erika Shields over the weekend.
On Monday, Bottoms issued an administrative order to amend the police departments use of force procedures. It does not address the police department’s use of rubber bullets or tear gas, but requires that all deadly use of force incidents be reported to the city’s Civilian Review Board.
Council members Andre Dickens and Michael Julian Bond have agreed to co-sponsor Brown’s legislation. A Bottoms’ spokesman didn’t immediately respond to a question about whether she supports it.
The proposed ordinance says during recent protest officers “were perceived to have responded to protesting against police brutality with brutality, by descending on the crowds in military style vehicles and using tear gas, rubber bullets and stun grenades.”
Other cities across the U.S. share that sentiment. San Jose, Calif. officials have voluntarily banned rubber bullets to disperse crowds. Federal judges in Denver, Dallas and Seattle have issued orders prohibiting their use along with tear gas and pepper spray.
The American Academy of Ophthalmology — the world’s largest association of eye physicians and surgeons — condemned the use of rubber bullets in a statement two weeks ago.
“While classified as non-lethal, they are not non-blinding,” the statement said. “These life-altering eye injuries are a common result of urban warfare, rioting and crowd dispersion.
“You shouldn’t have to choose between your vision and your voice.”
Vince Champion, the southeast regional director of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, said it was inappropriate for Bottoms to call a shooting still under investigation a “murder.” Champion acknowledged rubber bullets can injury bystanders but said the risk was outweighed by their ability to protect both police and protesters from rioters committed to property destruction and violence.
“They hurt,” Champion said. “I get it. But they don’t hurt anymore than a paintball gun.”
Brown’s ordinance currently calls for tear gas to be used only after all other means of dispersing crowds have been exhausted.
“It’s important community has an opportunity to have a say in how this legislation is formed,” Brown said. “I want actual protesters to speak to how tear gas has impacted them.”
Shean Williams, a local civil rights lawyer and member of the advisory council Bottoms convened to examine the police use of force policy, said he supports the proposed ban.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued warnings about the potentially irreversible harm posed by “riot control agents,” including tear gas.