Special prosecutor says ‘deadly force was objectively reasonable’

More than two years after Rayshard Brooks was fatally shot by Atlanta police, the case against the two officers involved has been dropped.

The special prosecutor announced Tuesday afternoon that he would not pursue charges against the officers. Pete Skandalakis, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, shared the decision during an afternoon news conference.

Brooks, 27, was shot and killed June 12, 2020, after Officers Garrett Rolfe and Devin Brosnan tried to arrest him in the parking lot of a south Atlanta Wendy’s. The shooting set off protests at the restaurant, which was burned to the ground the following day.

“Based on the facts and circumstances confronting Officer Rolfe and Officer Brosnan in this case, it is my conclusion the use of deadly force was objectively reasonable and that they did not act with criminal intent,” Skandalakis said.

Chris Stewart and Justin Miller, the lawyers for Brooks’ family, responded to the special prosecutor’s announcement by saying the officers did not need to use deadly force to stop Brooks. In a news conference of their own later Tuesday afternoon, they vowed to pursue the case in civil court.

“We already knew what the decision was going to be today,” Stewart said. “We’re heartbroken, confused, but not angry.”

Both Stewart and Miller said Brooks should not have gotten involved in a physical fight with the two officers but that he didn’t deserve to die for that transgression.

In a statement released during the prosecution team’s news conference, the Atlanta Police Department said both Rolfe and Brosnan were still employed by the agency and are both on administrative duty.

“We have faith in the criminal justice system, and we respect the special prosecutor’s decision in this case,” APD said. “Both officers will undergo Georgia POST (Peace Officer Standards and Training Council) recertification and training.”

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens released a statement saying his “heart continues to ache for the family of Rayshard Brooks. He was a father whose absence will forever be felt by our community.”

Dickens’ statement supported the special prosecutor’s decision to drop the charges and highlighted the city’s efforts to enact police reform.

“Over the last two years, our country has been engaged in important discussions about policing in America. We must maintain our commitment to the work of creating safe communities through collaboration between police and the people they serve,” Dickens said.

Brosnan’s attorneys — Amanda Clark Palmer, Don Samuel and Lance LoRusso — released a statement calling Skandalakis’ announcement “the right decision.”

“Officer Brosnan’s arrest was never supported by any evidence,” the statement said, noting that Brosnan suffered a concussion during the incident. “Despite his own injuries, he called for and personally rendered aid to Mr. Brooks after the shooting. At no point did he assault or abuse Mr. Brooks.”

Rolfe’s lawyer, Noah Pines, said, “We’re relieved and I know that Garrett is relieved. He’s lived under this case for more than two years. It’s interesting that everything we’ve been saying the last two years was validated today by Director Skandalakis.”

Pines added, “We heard the facts — and I’m not talking about opinions — about what happened. You can’t change the evidence. You can’t change the video. You can’t change the law.”

Atlanta police Lt. Kevin Knapp, president of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers Local 623 union, which represents more than 1,000 Atlanta officers, said the announcement was “obviously great news.”

“At the news conference, they laid out the facts and the evidence. We think justice was served,” Knapp said. “We feel that our officers acted accordingly and in accordance with the law, and that was divulged today.”

Knapp added that police were ready for protests or demonstrations that could follow Tuesday’s announcement.

“The city is on high alert and we are prepared for anything that arises from this,” he said.

Atlanta City Councilman Antonio Lewis issued a statement saying he disagreed with the decision. Lewis represents the district where the shooting took place.

“Seeing the charges dismissed truly pains me. Rayshard Brooks was asleep at the wheel in a drive-thru line. That’s all,” Lewis said. “I understand the need for accountability, but he didn’t have to lose his life. This shooting happened in my district and the community still feels the hurt and the devastation from it. We must continue to work toward keeping our neighborhoods safe, but we also must hold police accountable.”

Gerald Griggs, president of the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP, also issued a dissenting statement.

“We have two different prosecutors with two different charging opinions, therefore the case needs to be presented to a grand jury for the citizens of Fulton County to make a decision,” Griggs said. “As the Georgia NAACP, we take civil rights very seriously and 2020 changed the conversation on social justice, therefore the citizens should determine what police accountability looks like.”

Skandalakis took time to emphasize the context around Brooks’ shooting, pointing out that the case against the officers was different than both the George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery cases.

“This case of Devin Brosnan and Garrett Rolfe is not like the George Floyd case,” Skandalakis said. “This is not a case in which an officer was kneeling on a prone suspect for nine minutes. It’s nothing like that. Nor is it like the Ahmaud Arbery case, where armed citizens were chasing a person down through a neighborhood. This case, its facts, are different. Its facts are distinct. But you can’t ignore the fact that all of this was happening about the same time.”

Danny Porter, the former longtime district attorney for Gwinnett County, also appeared at the news conference after reviewing the case at Skandalakis’ request.

“I have a rule: video never lies, but sometimes it doesn’t tell the truth,” Porter said. “Initially with the video, it looked one way. But it became very clear ... that a different incident happened than has been released both by former prosecutors and by other sources.”

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

The day after Brooks’ shooting was a tumultuous one in Atlanta. The city’s top cop at the time, police Chief Erika Shields, announced she was stepping down. Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said Rolfe had been fired.

Five days after Brooks’ high-profile shooting, former Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard announced criminal charges against both officers. Rolfe was charged with 11 counts, including felony murder. Brosnan was charged with aggravated assault and violating his oath of office.

Then, more details were released about what happened.

Brooks, who had been asleep at the wheel in the drive-thru line, resisted when the officers tried to arrest him on a DUI charge, according to investigators. As Brooks struggled with the officers, they fell to the ground and Brosnan hit his head hard enough to cause a concussion.

Brooks then took Brosnan’s Taser and was seen aiming it at Rolfe while running, firing once and missing. At that point, Rolfe fired three bullets at Brooks, hitting him twice in the back.

According to Skandalakis, the facts of the case were supported by his office’s investigation and analysis of the incident. He pointed out that, because of the city’s curfew at the time, the Wendy’s dining room was closed so customers could only order from the drive-thru window. Prior to the employees calling 911, Brooks had been asleep in his car for about 40 minutes, Skandalakis said.

The restaurant manager went to Brooks’ car and knocked on the window, Skandalakis said. According to the investigation, Brooks rolled down his window and stared blankly at the manager when they asked him to move his car. He then rolled up his window and fell back asleep, leading to the 911 call.

“Police didn’t come into this encounter ‘hot,’” Porter said, supporting a point Skandalakis made earlier in the news conference when he described the encounter as “mostly cordial.”

During the officers’ conversation with Brooks, they suspected he was driving under the influence. Brooks consented to a portable field alcohol test and it returned a result of .108, well above the legal limit of .08 blood alcohol content. When the officers attempted to take Brooks into custody, the encounter lost its cordial tone.

“I don’t think there’s any other way to describe it, but Brooks proceeds to beat the crap out of the two officers,” Porter said in his analysis of the video.

At that point, Porter says officers had probable cause to arrest Brooks for DUI, escape and resisting arrest.

Porter said they broke down the videos frame by frame and determined when officers first made physical contact with Brooks. He said as Brosnan tried to put Brooks in handcuffs, Brooks lunged forward. In the struggle, Brooks gained control of Brosnan’s Taser.

Brooks attempted to use the Taser against Brosnan first, Porter explained. When Brooks tried to run away, he turned and aimed the Taser at Rolfe and attempted to fire it multiple times. Rolfe then fired the fatal shots, Porter said.

Porter said it’s his finding that Rolfe and Brosnan acted in accordance with Georgia law and policies of the Atlanta police department. He said he believes the use of deadly force was objectively reasonable.

At the time of the shooting, Brooks was on probation until 2026. The father of three daughters and one stepson had already served one year behind bars for a 2014 incident in which he yanked his wife against her will into another room. Brooks pleaded guilty to false imprisonment and child cruelty because his stepson witnessed the fight.

His killing came after weeks of intense demonstrations in Atlanta and across the country over Floyd’s murder. The police shooting, captured on video, kicked off another wave of protests across the city that at times turned destructive.

Skandalakis said his team was in close contact with Brooks’ widow, Tomika Miller, throughout the investigation. He said they planned to meet with Miller after the news conference, but she canceled the meeting earlier in the day.

“We understand that Ms. Miller is in all likelihood upset with the result, but the result is the right one based on law and facts,” Skandalakis said. “And I know that more than Ms. Miller will be upset with the decision in this case. But as prosecutors, we are guided by the law and by the facts, and that is what we did.”

As the special prosecutor answered questions at the end of the news conference, Skandalakis addressed the political climate around Brooks’ shooting.

“Black lives do matter,” he said. “I’ve spent my entire career representing black victims of crime. I understand that the encounters between police and the African-American community at times are very volatile. But I would ask them to look at the facts of this case, and this isn’t one of those cases... This is a case in which the officers were willing to give Mr. Brooks every benefit of the doubt, and unfortunately, by his actions, this is what happened.”

Brooks’ family announced it will hold a news conference at the offices of their attorneys later Tuesday evening.

“Let’s just say if this was two black officers chasing a white suspect and the same facts happened, I would have the same findings,” Skandalakis continued. “The facts are the facts. I don’t change the facts based upon the color of a person’s skin, and I won’t change the facts based upon the color of a person’s skin. I do not think this shooting was racially motivated.”

Dickens’ statement detailed the city’s process of enacting police reform.

“In Atlanta, we hold ourselves to the highest standards. Through engagement with community advocates, the Atlanta City Council, the Atlanta Police Department and others, we have listened and moved forward proactively with significant reforms. The Department has reviewed its standard operating procedures and enhanced training on how to deescalate confrontations. We are continually investing in training to ensure our officers make up the most qualified and proficient force in the country,” Dickens said.

“As Mayor, I remain committed to building the bonds of trust between our residents and the public safety personnel who serve us.”

Rolfe was reinstated by the city’s Civil Service Board in May 2021.

Rolfe and Brosnan filed a federal lawsuit in June saying they were attacked by Brooks and had the right to use force to prevent him from “imminent use of unlawful force against them.”

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