Fallout from shooting intensifies call for new approach to policing

The first 29 minutes don’t prepare you for the all-too-familiar tragedy that follows: a white police officer, a black male victim, lethal gunshots and questions about whether any of it was justified. It happened again in Atlanta Friday night, when Officer Garrett Rolfe fired three times at a fleeing Rayshard Brooks. Both men, 27 years old. The shooting would set off a stunning chain of events, culminating in the resignation early Saturday night by Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields. (Video edited by Ryon Horne, Christian Boone)

Two days after an Atlanta police officer shot and killed a fleeing suspect, the repercussions are still being assessed.

Already a life has been lost. Careers, destroyed. Criminal charges against the officer may follow. And the city’s approach to law enforcement could be dramatically altered.

The debate over police use of force now focuses on Officer Garrett Rolfe, who is seen on video firing three shots at 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks as Brooks ran away outside Wendy’s on University Drive downtown. Brooks suffered organ damage and blood loss caused by two “gunshot wounds of the back,” according to the Fulton County Medical Examiner.

The two officers on the scene are white; Brooks was African American. Rolfe fires his service revolver after Brooks apparently discharges a police-issued Taser in the direction of the officers.

Police body and dash cam footage, along with private and store video, capture the scene before, during and after the shooting.

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard, facing a primary runoff for the seat he’s held 24 years, told Channel 2 Action News he found the video “disturbing” and said he expects to decide by midweek whether to pursue criminal charges against Rolfe, a seven-year APD veteran who was fired late Saturday.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms made here feelings clear in a press conference Saturday afternoon.

“While there may be debate as to whether this was an appropriate use of deadly force, I firmly believe that there is a clear distinction between what you can do and what you should do,” Bottoms said. “I do not believe that this was a justified use of deadly force and have called for the immediate termination of the officer.”

Bottoms also accepted the resignation of Police Chief Erika Shields on Saturday.

Atlanta Police Union representative Ken Allen defended Rolfe, saying the seven-year APD veteran followed his training to the letter.

“You don’t let a suspect just run away once you’ve been engaged in a use of force,” said Allen, who Rolfe called minutes after the shooting.

The threshold is high, governed by a 1989 Supreme Court decision, Graham v. Connor, that established a framework for determining when lethal force is reasonable, said Bowling Green State University criminologist Philip Stinson in a 2018 interview.

Stinson maintains what is believed to be the nation’s most thorough database of police officers charged with on-duty killings, and said the vast majority of them are not charged criminally.

“The legal standard is very tough,” he said.

Factors include the severity of the alleged crime, whether the suspect poses an immediate threat to the safety of the officers or the public at large, and whether the suspect is activity resisting or evading arrest, he said.

The gray area that law enforcement often operates in, sometimes beyond their control, doesn’t lend itself to easy answers.

“It’s never clear when to shoot and when not to shoot,” said attorney Chris Stewart, hired to represent Brooks’ family. “There’s so many loopholes. It’s always in the mind of the officer. There aren’t definite rules like that. Lawyers have rules. Doctors have rules.

“That has got to change.”

Brooks, said Stewart, posed no threat: “This wasn’t a violent crime. They had his ID. They had his car.”

Stewart walked back some of the assertions he made to reporters Saturday night. His claims that Brooks did not fall asleep while waiting in the drive-through line and was not given a sobriety test were contradicted by the body and dash cam footage released later that night by Atlanta police.

Stewart said his comments were based on the information he had at the time, collected from witnesses on the scene.

“I think the majority of the video supported our position,” Stewart said. “It showed how cooperative (Brooks) was. He was polite, he was responsive. He followed orders. If we don’t have (Rolfe) on the scene I don’t believe there would’ve been a problem.”

A fateful call

At 10:42 p.m., APD officer Devin Brosnan, on the force for less than two years, arrived the Wendy’s on University Avenue downtown to check on Brooks, who who had dozed off while waiting in the drive-through line. The young officer woke him up and directed him to an empty parking spot. Brooks complied.

Officer Devin Brosnan.
Officer Devin Brosnan.

Seven minutes later, Brosnan made the decision to call for back up.

At 10:56 p.m., Rolfe pulled up in his cruiser. The 27-year-old officer is part of APD’s High Intensity Traffic Team. In 2019, he was honored by Mothers Against Drunk Driving for making more than 50 DUI arrests the previous year.

Rolfe proceeded to administer a series of field sobriety tests on Brooks, according to body camera video.

“It just goes on and on,” Stewart said. Twenty seven minutes, to be precise.

Brooks gave him reason to be suspicious. He was confused as to his whereabouts, telling the officers he was in Forest Park. He was wobbly on his feet. Finally, Brooks consented to a breath test and registered .108 — 35 percent above the legal limit of .08, video shows.

At 11:23 p.m., Rolfe informed Brooks that he was being placed under arrest, telling him he was too drunk to drive. As he began to handcuff him, Brooks pulled away. He tussled with both officers and managed to grab hold of Brosnan’s Taser as he escaped their grasp. Video shows he punched at Rolfe, who responded by firing his Taser. Brooks was hit but continued fleeing, according to the video.

Officer Garrett Rolfe, who was fired from Atlanta Police Department.
Officer Garrett Rolfe, who was fired from Atlanta Police Department.

As he ran, Brooks looked over his shoulder and directed the Taser at Rolfe. The shot appears to have missed the officer.

Rolfe then drew his handgun and fired three times. Brooks collapsed as outraged witnesses began yelling at the officers.

“That’s messed up, man!” said one unidentified man, overheard on body cam footage.

“Unarmed, nothing violent, and you pull a … gun, dude,” says a third. “Wow. Both of your careers are definitely done because you just shot a man for no reason.”

At 11:30 p.m., an ambulance arrived. Brooks was transported to Grady Memorial Hospital at 11:38 p.m. and rushed into surgery. He was pronounced dead soon after.

A transformed APD?

Shields made her decision to step aside after learning of the details of Brooks’ death. It has been a tumultuous two weeks for the well-regarded police chief.

She had already fired four of six officers involved in the forceful arrest of two college students May 30, the second night of downtown rallies held in response to George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis.

“She put Atlanta before her own career,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. “I think she felt it was an important thing to do.”

Wexler, who advises cities hiring new chiefs of police, said Shields is the kind of leader law enforcement needs as it faces unprecedented calls for reform.

“She has the ability to be thoughtful but isn’t afraid to speak her mind,” said Wexler, who spoke with Shields after she submitted her resignation. “Being police chief in Atlanta is difficult. You have to balance being and advocate for your own cops while being sensitive to the needs of the community. And I think she did that very well.”

Former state Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) said Brooks’ shooting opens up a conversation that, four days ago, was unlikely to happen.

“This mythology, that somehow Atlanta is different, that Atlanta is immune to all these problems, that’s gone,” said Fort, a longtime proponent of police reform who ran an unsuccessful mayoral campaign in 2017. “What happened Friday night changes the conversation dramatically.”