A March shootout between SWAT members and a father-and-son duo has raised the temperature on simmering tensions between Atlanta police and Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard.
Last month, officers expressed outrage after Howard consented to a signature bond for a suspect who allegedly exchanged gunfire in March with officers from the Atlanta Police Department’s SWAT unit. Now, Howard’s decision to pay for billboards seeking witnesses to three recent officer-involved shootings has the rank and file wondering whether the DA is “out to get” them, said police Lt. Steve Zygaj.
“I’ve never seen him do this for any other case,” said Zygaj, who heads the APD’s chapter of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers.
Howard acknowledged it was an unprecedented move, one influenced by citizen input.
“On several occasions we’ve had jurors say to us, ‘Why don’t you provide us with citizen testimony?’” he said. “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.”
Howard said officers complaining about the billboards aren’t helping themselves.
“Using billboards to identify objective civilian witnesses who could benefit the very police officers you claim are complaining is a bad thing? Illogical. No further comment is necessary,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The GBI is investigating the Moreland Avenue shootings. Police say 29-year-old Kenneth Gilbert Jr., the passenger in a pickup truck driven by his father and namesake, was seen loading a handgun after gesturing toward the unmarked SWAT vehicle. An officer ordered Gilbert Jr. to put the gun down but instead he pointed the weapon at police, police say. The Gilberts were shot but returned fire, striking the officers’ vehicle, according to the official account.
“We’ve got different versions of what went on,” Howard said. “We really need civilians to come forward and just tell us the truth.”
Retired detective Ken Allen, past president of the police union, said officers find such comments undermining.
The DA “says he’s seeking the ‘rest of the story,’ ” Allen said. “What that says to me is he’s equating the credibility of a police officer to that of a convicted felon.”
Zygaj said believes Howard is trying to distract the public from focusing on the scourge of repeat offenders. The Atlanta police APEX unit, which specializes in identifying and targeting violent crime trends throughout the city, said they arrested 27 convicted felons in possession of a firearm as of March 14. Of those 27, 14 had been arrested 10 times or more.
Those numbers are consistent with annual trends going back years. Howard has blamed Fulton judges, saying they have created a revolving door for criminals. But he also pointed to a lack of accountability by police, saying APD officers failed to show up 2,340 times last year to testify before a grand jury.
The public broadsides have been minimal, but memorable. Earlier this year, Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields, appearing at a community forum over crime concerns in Buckhead, said the DA bore some responsibility for fixing what she believes is a broken system.
“I need the district attorney to show us who is getting prosecuted and who is getting let out,” she said. “When cases are adjudicated, that adjudication should be transparent to all of us, particularly law enforcement. What’s happening to our cases? We don’t know.”
Shields declined to be interviewed for this article.
“He’s been put on notice by the Police Department and he’s trying to get even,” Zygaj said of Howard.
J. Tom Morgan, a former DeKalb County district attorney, said he understands police anger over Howard’s decision to consent to a signature bond for Gilbert Jr.
“I’ve never heard of that happening in a police shooting before,” he said.
Yet police should not feel threatened by Howard’s efforts to locate witnesses to the officer-involved shootings, Morgan said.
“The buck stops with the DA,” he said. “The DA and only the DA can bring charges. They feel they have targets on their back because the DA is looking over their shoulder — well, that’s his job.”
Allen, the retired detective, said Howard’s “grandstanding” will lead police to behave less proactively with criminals for fear they might lose their badges.
“It’s a very anti-police climate that appears to have grassroots support,” Allen said. “This seems to be a political move on his part to get back at APD and Chief Shields.”
Despite a recent pay increase, the APD remains 300 officers short of a full force. Allen attributed that to Howard’s posture toward police.
“How are you going to lure or retain officers when measures like this occur,” he said.
Meanwhile, Howard said he is nearing a much-anticipated decision on a controversial police shooting from January 2017. DeAundre Phillips, 24, was shot once in the head after an altercation with APD Officer Yasin Abdulahad, who had confronted him after smelling “an odor of marijuana.”
Phillips attempted to drive away but Abdulahad was seen on surveillance video climbing into the vehicle, where the fatal bullet was fired. The security footage exposed contradictions in the account Abdualahd, an 11-year veteran of the force, shared with investigators.
Controversy aside, Morgan said it is imperative that the DA’s office and APD maintain a strong working relationship.
“You don’t have to like ‘em, but you damn sure have to work with them,” he said.
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