Atlanta police chief says charges against officers are political

Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields said in an email to employees late Tuesday that multiple law enforcement agencies have stopped assisting the department during the ongoing protests. She said that's because Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard announced criminal charges against six officers involved in an arrest Saturday.

Police Chief Erika Shields told Atlanta police officers Monday that her firing of two cops involved in an excessive force arrest during Saturday night's protests was justified, but said criminal charges filed against them by Fulton District Attorney Paul Howard was "a tsunami of political jockeying during an election year."

Shields also said in the memo to all APD employees that the charges have caused multiple agencies to end their support for the department in the ongoing protests against police violence that entered a sixth consecutive night on Wednesday.

Shields said the officers were fired because they turned what should have been a routine interaction into a violent encounter. But the chief said she never discussed charging the officers, with either Howard or Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

“We created chaos and we escalated a low-level encounter into a space where we introduced violence,” Shields wrote in her memo. “Once this occurs, we need to own it.

Attorney Mawuli Mel Davis (left) speaks on behalf of Taniyah Pilgrim (second from left) and Messiah Young (second from right)during a press conference by the Fulton County District Attorney's Office in Atlanta, Monday, June 2, 2020. District Attorney Paul Howard and members of the Fulton County District Attorney's Office are pressing charges against 6 Atlanta Police Officers for their involvement in the assault and property damage to Taniyah Pilgrim and Messiah Young.  Attorney Mawuli Mel Davis is representing Messiah Young. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Attorney Mawuli Mel Davis (left) speaks on behalf of Taniyah Pilgrim (second from left) and Messiah Young (second from right)during a press conference by the Fulton County District Attorney's Office in Atlanta, Monday, June 2, 2020. District Attorney Paul Howard and members of the Fulton County District Attorney's Office are pressing charges against 6 Atlanta Police Officers for their involvement in the assault and property damage to Taniyah Pilgrim and Messiah Young. Attorney Mawuli Mel Davis is representing Messiah Young. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

“Now that the charges have been announced, I’m very concerned with the space we find ourselves in, both tactically and emotionally. Multiple agencies that were assisting us in managing this incredibly volatile time have pulled out, effective immediately. They are not comfortable with their employees being leveraged politically by the potential of also facing criminal charges.”

In a prepared statement Wednesday, Howard said he discussed the charges with Shields the day before they were filed. He also said he was “perplexed” by Shields accusation that the charges were politically motivated.

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Atlanta protests

“The Chief, after assessing the excessiveness of the officers’ conduct, decided to fire two of the officers involved. After reviewing the police officers’ bodycam videos, she literally fired these officers on the spot,” Howard said in the statement.

“I am perplexed that when the Atlanta Chief of Police makes a decision within her authority her actions are legitimate, but when I, as the Fulton County District Attorney, make a decision to act under the law to ensure justice based on clear evidence available, these actions are deemed to be ‘political’ all of a sudden.

Howard's decision to charge the officers comes a week before Democratic primary, when he will face a tough reelection bid against two challengers, Fani Willis and Christian Wise Smith. And the election is happening at a time when two state investigations of Howard — one of which is criminal — have fueled speculation about the district attorney's vulnerability as he seeks a seventh term.

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard faces two challengers in the June 9 primary. TYSON HORNE / TYSON.HORNE@AJC.COM
Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard faces two challengers in the June 9 primary. TYSON HORNE / TYSON.HORNE@AJC.COM

The two fired officers, Ivory Streeter and Mark Gardner, both face a charge of aggravated battery for tasing the students. Streeter also faces a charge of pointing a gun or pistol at another without intentionally and without justification. Four other officers also face charges ranging from aggravated assault to criminal damage.

An APD spokesman named five agencies that have ended their assistance to Atlanta over the incident. But spokesmen for two of the agencies, the Gwinnett and Clayton county police departments, said they diverted officers to deal with issues in their own jurisdiction and are willing to continue assistance if they have enough resources.

Clayton County Police said they made the decision to pull out of Atlanta before Howard announced the charges.

“It was decided on Monday that our department needed to ensure that we didn’t exhaust and/or deplete our resources,” according to an email from Major Tina Daniel. “We had no knowledge of (Shields) email.”

Other agencies named by the APD spokesman didn’t return messages left Wednesday.

An APD spokesman declined on Wednesday to say how many officers from other agencies have been pulled out of downtown.

» RELATED: Mayor establishes commission to examine police use-of-force policies

Lance LoRusso, the attorney for the two fired officers, said their swift terminations violated city policy, the law and well-established protocol of taking proposed charges against police officers to a grand jury. LoRusso also pointed out that the students were arrested after the city’s 9 p.m. curfew, when events had turned chaotic.

“Both were fired before they could be interviewed by the Office of Professional Standards in direct violation of the policies and procedures of the Atlanta Police Department as well as the law,” LoRusso said. “Any charges brought by a District Attorney without a full investigation should raise concerns.”

Gerald Griggs, second vice president of the Atlanta Chapter of the NAACP, called Howard’s swift action “a bold decision and it showed courage.”

But Griggs also wondered why Howard hadn’t acted as quickly in past, and rattled off the names of a half-dozen others killed by police since 2015 when the district attorney didn’t bring charges.

Griggs said that while he respects Shields, the memo sent her employees was the wrong message. Officers should know that if they don’t follow the law, they will face the full brunt of it, he said.

‘Nobody has patience with waiting’ 

Bottoms and Shields apologized to the community on Sunday for what Bottoms described as "clearly excessive force" used by officers during the encounter. Bottoms said they made the disciplinary decisions after reviewing hours of video from seven officers' body cameras.

Shields said in the memo that she was sure the officers’ actions would be justifiable, but the video changed her mind.

“The more I watched and the more I listened it was apparent we were in the wrong,” Shields’ wrote in the memo.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields (left) announced the firing of two police officers at a press conferenc at the Atlanta Police Headquarters  on Sunday, May 31, 2020. (Photo: STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields (left) announced the firing of two police officers at a press conferenc at the Atlanta Police Headquarters  on Sunday, May 31, 2020. (Photo: STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Speaking on the Pod Save America program, Bottoms said the situation required immediate action.

“So my police officers just got a very real lesson in what our expectations and what our level of tolerance will be in the city of Atlanta,” she said. “If the force was excessive, they’ve got to be fired. Period. And I think those are the type changes and expectations that we’ve got to give to our police officers and the expectation we’ve got to give to our community because nobody has patience with waiting.”

A spokesman for Bottoms said the mayor has met with some Atlanta University Center Consortium students and her office is lining up meetings with other protesters.

According to video footage from seven officers’ body cameras, which was reviewed by the AJC on Monday, Morehouse College senior Messiah Young was in his car and stuck in traffic when he started filming the arrest of his friend, whom officers had taken to the ground.

When the cops told him to move along, Young briefly hesitated and pleaded for officers to release his friend, the video shows. When officers threatened to take him to jail, Young continued driving but officers chased down the Mazda and one smashed its driver side window with a truncheon, according to the video.

Officer Ivory Streeter tased Young who had refused an order to open the door. Young’s girlfriend, Spelman College psychology major Taniyah Pilgrim, was in the passenger seat and footage shows that she was attempting to comply with commands to exit the car when Officer Mark Gardner tased her.

Portions of the video have been seen on newscasts by people all over the world.

“The officers were fired because I felt that is what had to occur,” Shield wrote in the memo to staff. “This does not mean for a moment that I will sit quietly by and watch our employees get swept up in the tsunami of political jockeying during an election year.”


TEXT OF CHIEF ERIKA SHIELDS’ EMAIL

Good Evening,

Typically, I would begin with a broad “thank you” for all the amazing work we have accomplished over the last, largely miserable, five days. But I am aware that those comments may very likely be received with skepticism at this point, so let’s hit it head on:

I spent approximately four hours on Sunday watching all of the available video of our officers’ incident involving the college students in downtown Atlanta. I went in believing our actions justified and understandable given the environment we find ourselves in; one that is highly dangerous and unpredictable. The more I watched and the more I listened it was apparent we were in the wrong. We gave conflicting instructions; we didn’t allow the driver or passenger a chance to respond – we created chaos and we escalated a low-level encounter into a space where we introduced violence. Once this occurs, we need to own it.

I personally know the terminated officers and they are good people and good cops. In a heated moment they made multiple mistakes and are being held accountable. Yes, it sucks, and I am beyond discouraged- I’ve been there, and I know just how hard this job is. But if we are ever going to change the narrative around policing, we must be committed to being accountable always, regardless of the situation or the additional stress it may bring.

Our intention was to carry out an administrative investigation into the actions of the other officers on scene; criminal charges were never part of any discussion that I had with the Mayor or her administration. The criminal piece was brought to my attention yesterday through a fellow employee. Upon receiving the information, I called the DA and strongly expressed my concern, both to the appropriateness and the timing of any charges. Now that the charges have been announced, I'm very concerned with the space we find ourselves in, both tactically and emotionally. Multiple agencies that were assisting us in managing this incredibly volatile time have pulled out, effective immediately. They are not comfortable with their employees being leveraged politically by the potential of also facing criminal charges.

I am providing you with this level of detail because you need to know what is going on if there is any chance of us navigating our current state safely. The officers were fired because I felt that is what had to occur. This does not mean for a moment that I will sit quietly by and watch our employees get swept up in the tsunami of political jockeying during an election year. Stay strong and know that we will find better days ahead, Chief Shields

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