NAACP leaders call for federal investigation of Atlanta police

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Alongside a family grieving the death of a Black man killed in a police shooting three months ago, local NAACP leaders on Friday demanded a federal investigation into the patterns and practices of the Atlanta Police Department.

Atlanta NAACP President Richard Rose and Georgia NAACP state conference President Gerald Griggs called for an FBI probe similar to what was conducted in Louisville, Kentucky, in the case of Breonna Taylor’s killing. Griggs said NAACP representatives have drafted a formal letter to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia requesting such an investigation from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Friday’s news conference opened with emotional pleas from the family of 22-year-old Nygil Cullins, who was killed during a confrontation with police at a Buckhead steakhouse. Cullins’ family said he was diagnosed with bipolar schizophrenia and had a mental breakdown the day of the shooting.

Officers responded to Fogo de Chao on Piedmont Road on May 18 when restaurant workers called for help with an unruly customer, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution previously reported. Police said Cullins was uncooperative and the confrontation escalated to the point that he was tackled by a security guard employed by the restaurant. Cullins then pulled a gun and shot the security guard, who survived. The responding officers fired back, killing Cullins, police said.

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Cullins’ parents, Dr. Mya Speller Cullins and Quinten Cullins, said they have received no communication or updates from the GBI as it investigates the incident. Griggs and Rose both called for more transparency from the state agency in Cullins’ case and in general.

“We are calling on new GBI Director Mike Register to meet with this family to go over what happened in this case, to provide them with answers,” Griggs said.

Register was sworn in as the GBI’s new director Thursday.

Griggs, an attorney, also suggested legislative changes to Georgia’s open records laws to allow for information to be released about investigations in certain circumstances. Current state law does not permit law enforcement agencies to share information as long as an investigation is open, Griggs said.

“No one is above the law, and we have to make sure that means something,” Griggs said.

When a police shooting happens, Griggs continued, “There is a media statement that’s put out there and it’s allowed to just linger like it’s the gospel truth. We need accurate information to be released to the media so the family can understand what happened and stop villainizing the suspect because he was a suspect. He was not convicted of anything.”

According to the GBI, communication with family members is part of the agency’s investigative protocol.

“The GBI met with the Cullins family to communicate our initial findings and explain the investigative process, including our agency’s independent role,” a GBI spokeswoman told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We made the family aware of the timeline for most officer-involved shooting investigations, which typically take about 90 days to complete. An agent will be giving this case to the Fulton County DA’s Office very soon.”

Investigations into police shootings can take years. The federal probe of the circumstances around Taylor’s death was announced in May 2020, about two months after she was killed by Louisville police officers serving a “no-knock warrant.” More than two years later, the DOJ indicted four officers on charges that they violated Taylor’s civil rights, among other counts. One of those officers pleaded guilty earlier this week.

Friday’s announcement comes on the heels of another protracted investigation into the death of Rayshard Brooks in June 2020. Pete Skandalakis, the special prosecutor running the investigation, announced the decision to drop all charges against the two Atlanta police officers involved. Griggs and Rose joined the attorneys for Brooks’ family this week to demand the decision be put to a grand jury instead of being administratively dismissed by the state-appointed special prosecutor.

Rose criticized Skandalakis’ appointment, saying the veteran prosecutor would automatically side with law enforcement.

“Pete Skandalakis is guaranteed to clear any police officer of any kind of misconduct. He’s done it over and over,” Rose said.

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For more than 25 years, Skandalakis served as the district attorney for the Coweta Judicial Circuit, which encompasses Carroll, Coweta, Heard, Meriwether and Troup counties.

His position in the Brooks case was widely acknowledged as a difficult one after former Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard charged the officers only days after the incident.

“In my opinion, it’s unfair to everyone involved,” current Fulton DA Fani Willis told the AJC in a 2021 interview. “And it has made things difficult for whoever ends up ultimately with that case.”

In his remarks Friday, Rose outlined several police reforms the NAACP would request.

“Policing must change,” he said. “Black men are consistently being executed while fleeing the police.”

The NAACP is calling for all officers to undergo a complete psychological evaluation and be reevaluated each year, and to be regularly drug-tested, Rose said. He also requested that police responses to emergency calls be supplemented with mental healthcare workers, a practice some metro Atlanta agencies have already adopted. Rose also called for trained sociologists and mental health professionals to be added to every police force.

“Let’s get real about restructuring policing and public policy in America as it relates to public safety,” Rose said.

After Friday morning’s hastily arranged news conference, Atlanta police did not have an immediate response prepared.

“We are aware of the concerns that the NAACP raised in their press conference,” an APD spokeswoman said. “We are reviewing the feedback and will be following up appropriately.”

— Please return to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for updates.