Cobb County Police respond to the police-involved shooting of a 16-year-old on Nov. 6, 2016. (Channel 2 Action News)

Ex-Cobb cop must stand trial for shooting unarmed teen

A civil rights lawsuit can go forward against a former Cobb County police officer who shot an unarmed teenager as he was running away, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Court Judge Mark Cohen said James Caleb Elliott must face allegations he used excessive force when he fired eight shots at the teen on Nov. 6, 2016. Much of the incident was captured on video by Elliott’s body camera, which Cohen said he relied upon in reaching his decision.

The footage also led Cobb County Police to alter their use of force and firearms training.

Atlanta lawyer Tanya Miller, who represents Neghasi Middleton, the person shot by Elliott, applauded the ruling. Middleton was struck by one bullet in the back of his upper thigh.

“We believe Judge Cohen made the right decision that the civil rights lawsuit against Officer Elliott should proceed forward,” Miller said. “I think it’s clear from a review of the video that the officer’s actions were excessive. He shot eight times at an unarmed kid who was running away.”

Atlanta lawyer Tanya Miller. (Handout)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Middleton was 16 at the time of the shooting.

Elliott resigned from the force after an internal investigation determined he violated the department’s use-of-force policy. The case was later taken to a Cobb County grand jury, but it determined the shooting was justified and Elliott was not charged.

Middleton, who is now an adult, was sitting in the driver’s seat of a PT Cruiser in Mableton when Elliott was dispatched there after someone reported a suspicious vehicle. Three other juveniles were also in the car.

When Elliott pulled in front of the Cruiser he asked the teens to give them their names and dates of birth. They wrote that information out on a notepad and handed it over to Elliott, who walked back to his patrol car.

After entering the car’s license plate number, Elliott learned the Cruiser had been in a carjacking. He then returned to the Cruiser, pulled out his gun and aimed it at the juveniles. He ordered them to exit the car and get on the ground.

According to the lawsuit, Middleton, “in fear for his life because of reports of killing of black boys by police,” got out of the car and ran. Elliott then ran after the teen and twice yelled, “Stop, or I’ll shoot,” the ruling said.

Cobb County Police Chief Mike Register is pictured here on Thursday, August 31, 2017. Following the 2016 shooting of an unarmed teen Register said the department changed its use of force and firearms training. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

The officer then fired eight shots, the last of which struck Middleton in the back of his leg.

The lawsuit notes that there were three other complaints filed against Elliott. One alleged he was “too aggressive” with a woman who sought assistance for her husband. Another said he demonstrated a racial bias during an accident investigation. Another alleged he used excessive force by pointed his gun at a woman’s chest without justification after he mistakenly went to the wrong address on a call.

Cobb Police’s internal affairs division concluded all the complaints were unfounded and exonerated Elliott, the suit said.

For this reason, the lawsuit also sought damages against from Cobb County and one of Elliott’s supervisors, saying their actions caused police officers to believe their use of excessive and unreasonable force would not be aggressively and properly investigated.

But Cohen, in his ruling issued Wednesday, threw out claims against the supervisor and the county.

Miller, Middleton’s attorney, said her client was charged with obstruction for fleeing Elliott, but he was never charged with carjacking the PT Cruiser.

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