Outside agency to review Atlanta Police Department training and policies

Rayshard Brooks talks with Atlanta Police Officer Garrett Rolfe in Wendy’s parking lot before Rolfe shoots him in the back, killing him. (Contributed)

Rayshard Brooks talks with Atlanta Police Officer Garrett Rolfe in Wendy’s parking lot before Rolfe shoots him in the back, killing him. (Contributed)

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced Wednesday that a Washington, D.C. consulting firm will review Atlanta Police Department training and policies.

“(The Police Executive Research Forum) came highly recommended,” Bottoms said.

After the fatal police shooting of Rayshard Brooks in June, she vowed to reform the police department’s use-of-force policy while bolstering training that emphasizes de-escalation. She said she’s spent the last five months talking with policing experts across the country about criminal justice reform.

The Police Executive Research Forum was founded in 1976 to provide police departments with alternative approaches to limit violent encounters with civilians.

“Through technical assistance, training, and collaboration we will focus on strategies to minimize use of force and reduce crime,” executive director Chuck Wexler said in a statement.

The consultants will likely face resistance from the rank-and-file, said Atlanta Police Union president Jason Segura. Officers have felt under siege since former Officer Garrett Rolfe was fired after fatally shooting Brooks at a downtown Wendy’s, Segura said. A DUI suspect, Brooks fought arrest and grabbed another officer’s Taser before the shooting.

In the days that followed, popular Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields resigned and Rolfe was charged with felony murder and other charges. Many officers staged a “blue flu” in solidarity. The police department has lost twice as many officers to retirement or relocation this year than in 2019 and recruitment remains a challenge, internal documents show.

Meanwhile, the city’s murder rate now rivals Chicago, increasing more than 40 percent since this time one year ago. Atlanta has seen nearly 130 homicides this year, the deadliest in more than a decade. There were 99 homicides in 2019.

Attorney Dan Grossman, who has successfully advocated for training reforms after APD’s botched raid of The Eagle gay bar in 2009, said the mayor needs to be more specific about her vision for the department.

“She wants them to review our policies to do what exactly?” Grossman said. “I’m afraid this is all about giving off the appearance of doing something.”

A review of past reports by PERF and comments by Wexler, dubbed “the police-reform advocate the police listen to” by Politico, reveal a progressive philosophy that has been embraced by a growing number of municipal leaders.

In 2015 PERF issued a report that concluded police training in many agencies was “woefully outdated and insufficient.” Wexler wrote that officers involved in some of the most controversial shootings “were simply following their training.”

“As we look back at the most controversial police shooting incidents, we sometimes find that while the shooting may be legally justified, there were missed opportunities to ratchet down the encounter, to slow things down, to call in additional resources, in the minutes before the shooting occurred,” wrote Wexler, who was not made available for an interview Wednesday.

Segura said Rolfe followed his training when he shot Brooks.

“They keep wanting to change the laws to give advantage to the lawbreakers,” he said. “I think it’s ridiculous, really. APD is one of the most progressive departments in the country. Ultimately, it’s making the city a lot more dangerous.”

Grossman said the mayor is fostering unrealistic expectations.

“The city needs to decide what it wants its police department to do,” he said. “Is your goal to have fewer civilians killed by police? Then you have to accept the cost, which is a greater risk to police and the public at large.”

“These people are living in fantasy land,” Grossman continued. “You can’t have it all.”

PERF’s fee is being paid by Atlanta Committee for Progress, a coalition of CEOs and other civic leaders who regularly consult with the mayor. A local firm, Urban Planning and Management, has been enlisted to collaborate with PERF “to ensure that all Atlantans have a voice in the development and review of reform policies,” according to a press release from the Mayor’s Office.

Bottoms said change will come quickly.

“We’re not going to wait until the end of the 18 months to implement the recommendations,” she said. “We’re going to do it as we roll along.”