Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms faced criticism Wednesday after Atlanta’s Civil Service Board ordered the reinstatement of a police officer facing felony murder and other charges in the fatal June 2020 shooting of Rayshard Brooks.
The board ruled Garrett Rolfe was denied due process when he was fired less than 24 hours after Brooks’ death. The order reinstating Rolfe does not return him to active duty.
In a separate case earlier this year, two officers fired following the arrests of two college students during last summer’s protests were reinstated after the board determined the city violated its own procedures.
MORE: Read the Civil Service Board’s full ruling
In both cases, the deadline for officers to respond to allegations against them coincided with news conferences where the mayor announced their dismissals.
Rolfe testified before the board that he didn’t find out about his “employee response hearing” until 3:45 p.m. on June 13, 2020. He was more than an hour outside the city at the time and said he feared for his safety, as video of Brooks’ shooting had been widely circulated by then. At 5 p.m. that day, Bottoms announced his firing live before a global audience.
“She made a mistake in not providing due process,” said attorney and civil rights activist Gerald Griggs. “In the rush to terminate (Rolfe), they did not give him adequate notice.”
Bottoms defends her actions.
“Given the volatile state of our city and nation last summer, the decision to terminate this officer, after he fatally shot Mr. Brooks in the back, was the right thing to do,” she said in a statement Wednesday. “Had immediate action not been taken, I firmly believe that the public safety crisis we experienced during that time would have been significantly worse.”
The Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office determined Brooks suffered organ damage and blood loss from two gunshot wounds. The cause of death was gunshot wounds of the back, the medical examiner’s office said.
Attorney Chris Stewart, who represents Brooks’ family, discussed Bottoms’ swift decision to fire Rolfe during a news conference on Wednesday.
“Was that done to temporarily pacify the protesters and people around the world who were upset?” he asked.
Officers are typically given five days to respond to allegations against them, said attorney Lance LoRusso, who represents Rolfe and the other reinstated officers, Mark Gardner and Ivory Streeter. All three were fired one day after their alleged infractions.
“The city just trampled over their rights,” LoRusso said.
The APD administrator who dismissed Rolfe, assistant chief Todd Coyt, testified at the civil service board hearing that he believed Rolfe and the other officer on the scene that night, Devin Brosnan, “acted accordingly and … were trying to show compassion and did everything they could to calm the situation down.”
Coyt was acting in place of former Chief Erika Shields, who stepped down from the job that same day. LoRusso said the city blocked Shields, now the police chief in Louisville, Kentucky, from testifying at Rolfe’s hearing.
Rolfe, part of the DUI Task Force at the time, was called to the Wendy’s on University Avenue after Brosnan found Brooks asleep in car while waiting in the drive-through line.
Officers talked with Brooks for more than 40 minutes before administering a breathalyzer test, the results of which showed he was above the legal limit by 35%.
“I think you’ve had too much to drink to be driving,” said Rolfe; the encounter was captured on body camera footage. “Put your hands behind your back for me.”
After being told he was under arrest for suspected drunk driving, Brooks fought back as Rolfe attempted to handcuff him. In the ensuing struggle, Brooks forcibly struck Brosnan; doctors at Grady Memorial Hospital would later determine Brosnan suffered a concussion.
Brooks grabbed Brosnan’s Taser during the struggle and aimed it as Rolfe, who fired three shots, striking Brooks twice.
Five days after the shooting, then Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard charged Rolfe with 11 criminal counts, including felony murder. Brosnan, who was not fired, faces lesser charges including aggravated assault.
Howard’s successor, Fani Willis, has sought to recuse her office, citing a conflict due to her predecessor’s handling of the investigation.
Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr denied Willis’ request, and a judge has yet to rule who should handle the prosecution.
Rolfe’s reinstatement has led to “disappointment and confusion” for Brooks’ family, said their co-counsel, Justin Miller.
“Right now, Officer Rolfe has received more justice than the family of Rayshard Brooks,” Stewart said.
Bottoms held a news conference on Tuesday, announcing she would address the city’s surging homicide rate by forming a committee. Last year was a historically deadly one in Atlanta, as authorities investigated 157 homicides, the most since 1996. Homicides are up 60 percent over this time last year. Victims include 15-year-old Diamond Johnson, shot to death over the weekend across the street from Maynard Jackson High School.
“If there’s more we can do, I’m asking this working group to give us recommendations,” Bottoms said of the newly formed committee. Group members, who have not been named, are to provide feedback in the next 30 to 45 days.
“Creating another committee isn’t going to fix the problem,” Gov. Brian Kemp told reporters Wednesday.
He also disputed Bottoms’ claim that the spike in crime can be attributed to state’s lax gun laws, saying those same laws have been in place for years, including periods where crime in Atlanta declined.
“That’s ridiculous,” the governor said. “That has nothing to do with the problems we’re seeing in Atlanta. People are fed up with this. Literally every day people are telling me they’re scared to send their children or spouse to the gas station, to the mall. People are at wit’s end.”
Bottoms has repeatedly blamed coronavirus for the city’s surging crime rate, saying in her recent State of the City address that “Atlanta will get to the other side of this COVID crime wave.”
Her predecessor, Kasim Reed, said in a radio interview last week that the city’s “level of crime and violence is wholly unacceptable” and was “not COVID-driven.”
Protesters gathered outside City Hall late Wednesday.
“If you, or you, or you murdered someone there would be accountability,” said Hannah Joy of the group Promote Positivity. “But when it comes to police, the leaders who exist in this building are going a different direction.”
Though reinstated, Rolfe will not be back on the streets or anywhere near APD headquarters. Conditions of his bond prohibit him from possessing a firearm or having any contact with other officers. In a statement, Atlanta police said Rolfe will be placed on administrative leave.
“It is important to note that the CSB did not make a determination as to whether officer Rolfe violated Atlanta Police Department policies,” the statement read. “In light of the CSB’s rulings, APD will conduct an assessment to determine if additional investigative actions are needed.”
Rolfe will receive back pay for the last 11 months and his salary will be the same as it was before his dismissal, said LoRusso.
But it’s somewhat of a hollow victory. Rolfe, who has received multiple death threats and has essentially spent the last year in hiding, wonders if he’ll ever truly get to work as cop again, his attorney said.
“Obviously it would be dangerous for him to be on the streets,” LoRusso said. “He can’t even work in a traditional job, in a store or something like that, out of concern for his safety.”
Lo Russo said Rolfe is among those concerned his reinstatement may lead to the kind of unrest that followed Brooks’ death.
“He loves this city,” LoRusso said of his client.
Staff writers Henri Hollis and Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.
STORY SO FAR:
In June 2020, Atlanta Police Department Officer Garrett Rolfe fatally shot suspected drunk driver Rayshard Brooks after Brooks forcibly resisted arrest, striking an officer hard enough to cause a concussion and seizing an officer’s Taser and aiming it at Rolfe, who then fired. Rolfe was swiftly terminated from employment and charged with felony murder and other charges. In April, Rolfe appeared before the city’s Civil Service Board seeking reinstatement. The board announced Wednesday it ruled in Rolfe’s favor, saying the city had denied the officer due process. Rolfe has been placed on administrative leave by the city; the reinstatement order does not return him to active duty.