‘A different incident’: Prosecutors say deadly force justified in Rayshard Brooks shooting

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

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

Charges dropped against two Atlanta police officers in 2020 shooting that ignited protests

The decision to drop charges against two Atlanta police officers in the 2020 killing of Rayshard Brooks ultimately hinged on time.

On the 40 minutes and 23 seconds that Brooks engaged with the officers in a Wendy’s parking lot. On the 39 minutes of mostly cordial, respectful conversation before the officers decided to charge Brooks with driving under the influence. On the minute that Brooks wrestled the officers to the ground and took control of one’s Taser. On the 1.1 seconds after Brooks fired the Taser over his shoulder as he tried to run away from one of the officers.

And, most important, on the next .56 seconds, as that officer pulled the trigger on his handgun three times, mortally wounding Brooks and sparking violent protests that roiled Atlanta for days afterward.

All of those moments – the mundane and the highly fraught – combined to make Officer Garrett Rolfe think Brooks posed an immediate threat to him, Officer Devin Brosnan and the public at large, a pair of special prosecutors said Tuesday.

“Was it objectively reasonable for him to use deadly force?” prosecutor Pete Skandalakis said during a news conference. “We conclude that it was.”

Skandalakis was appointed last year to handle the case after Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis recused her office. Willis’ predecessor, Paul Howard, had charged Rolfe with murder and Brosnan with aggravated assault and other offenses just five days after Brooks’ death. Howard was in the midst of a heated re-election campaign, which he would later lose to Willis.

Tuesday’s announcement brought an end to legal proceedings that began during a period of unrest over the killing of Black Americans by white police officers. Brooks died less than two weeks after a white police officer murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis and three months after officers shot Breonna Taylor to death in Louisville.

Skandalakis said he hired forensic experts to conduct a frame-by-frame analysis of several videos that showed parts of the incident at the Wendy’s: body-camera footage from the officers, cellphone video shot by other customers, and security footage recorded by the restaurant’s cameras. Skandalakis and his co-prosecutor, Danny Porter, said the analysis showed a much more complex scene than any of the individual videos captured.

“A different incident happened” than what prosecutors described when they filed charges two years ago, Porter said.

That incident began late on June 12, 2020. Brooks, 27, fell asleep in his white Toyota Corolla in the drive-through lane of a Wendy’s on University Avenue south of downtown Atlanta. A manager tried to rouse Brooks, but when that failed, she called the police.

Brosnan was the first officer to arrive.

“Hey, your car’s in the middle of the drive-through lane here,” he told Brooks in an exchange captured by his body camera. “You just having a bad day or something? What’s up?”

When Brooks finally moved his car, he drove over a curb into a grassy area. Brosnan then asked to see his driver’s license and detected the odor of alcohol in the car. Rolfe, trained in assessing drunken driving cases, soon joined Brosnan at the Wendy’s. He administered a field-sobriety test and a Breathalyzer, which showed Brooks was intoxicated.

The encounter remained calm until Rolfe attempted to place Brooks into handcuffs. Brooks knocked both officers to the ground, and Brosnan suffered a concussion when his head hit the pavement, Porter said. Brooks took Brosnan’s Taser and fired it twice as he scuffled with the officers.

“I don’t think there’s any other way to put it: Brooks proceeds to beat the crap out of the two officers,” Porter said.

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

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

As Brooks tried to run away, Rolfe chased him. Brooks was about 10 feet ahead of the officer, still facing forward, when he pointed the Taser and fired. By then, Rolfe had drawn his handgun, and he quickly fired three shots. One struck Brooks in the buttocks, the other in the middle of his back.

Porter and Skandalakis determined this use of force was justified because Rolfe had “a reasonable belief” that Brooks had a deadly weapon — the Taser — and could use it to injure or kill the officers or others. The Taser’s manufacturer says a jolt from the weapon can be lethal.

Court rulings have directed prosecutors to “see the situation through the eyes of officers on the scene,” Skandalakis said, and he based the decision to drop the charges based on the information Rolfe had “in a dynamic situation that is quickly evolving.”

“What did that officer know at that split-second?” Skandalakis said.

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

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

Skandalakis stopped short of suggesting Howard filed charges too quickly. But, he said, “I’m always of the opinion you get as much information as you can before you make a decision.”

Skandalakis conceded his decision would likely draw criticism, and he said he had alerted the Atlanta police and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation before making the public announcement.

Some legal observers criticized Skandalakis and Danny Porter for not presenting the evidence they gathered in court.

“Looking at the evidence, personally I don’t think they are guilty,” Atlanta criminal defense attorney Page Pate said of Rolfe and Brosnan. “But that’s not a decision anyone should make before the case is presented to a jury. I do think there was sufficient probable cause to prosecute.”

Still, Skandalakis said, “the result is the right one, based upon law and facts.”

Staff writer Bill Rankin contributed to this article.