OPINION: 2 cops, 80 years of policing, and a 411 on what must be done

There was a heavy police presence around the CNN Center and Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta as protests against racist police brutality continued for a second day on May 30, 2020. (BEN GRAY for The Atlanta Journal Constitution)

On Friday, I wrote a column after interviewing two thoughtful lawmen with 80 years of experience between them. We talked about policing in the aftermath of the slow-motion killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop.

That column was scheduled to appear Monday. But I had written it before the chaotic police killing in south Atlanta of Rayshard Brooks, a 27-year-old black man shot as he ran away, trying to escape a DUI arrest.

Floyd’s death is shown in an excruciating 8-minute-46-second video of a cop kneeling on his neck, whereas video of Brooks’ death reveals it resulted from a millisecond decision by Atlanta officer Garrett Rolfe.

Rolfe was chasing Brooks, who had fought with two cops and had stolen a Taser. Brooks aimed the Taser at the cop as he ran and may have tried to pull the trigger.

He immediately ended up shot in the back and buttocks, according to Rolfe's statement on bodycam videotape. Bullets in the back are hard to reconcile. They had patted him down earlier, so they knew he didn't have a gun.

» Complete Coverage: Atlanta Protests

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said he'll conduct an "intense" investigation. This month, he charged Atlanta cops with aggravated assault for using a "deadly weapon" — a Taser — against two black college students. Rolfe's attorneys will no doubt argue Brooks wielded the same deadly weapon.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms immediately called for Rolfe to be fired.

“While there may be debate whether this was an appropriate use of deadly force, I firmly believe there is a clear distinction between what you can do and what you should do,” Bottoms said.

Police Chief Erika Shields offered her resignation, although the 25-year-veteran will stay with the force. Why she resigned is unclear, although there is widespread belief among officers that the chief wanted discipline to occur after an investigation.

» PHOTOS: Protests continue in Atlanta over recent fatal police shooting

Atlanta will seek a new chief with empathy for the community, a strict sense of abiding by the rules, and someone who supports officers. In short, someone like Shields.

Perhaps it’s time for an outsider/reformer type. The optics call for change. But the last time an outsider ran the department, there was a semi-official arrest quota system that led to the death of 93-year-old Kathryn Johnston.

Last week, I called Cedric Alexander, former public safety director of DeKalb County, who also headed the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and was a member of President Barack Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

Cedric Alexander, former DeKalb County director of public safety. (Ben Gray / AJC file photo)

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I also called LaGrange Police Chief Lou Dekmar, former head of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Dekmar, who famously apologized for his department's role in a 1940 lynching, is a Republican who has been outspoken on police issues.

Alexander said the most tangible outcome of the 21st Century effort was the wide expansion of body cameras, which were called for by civilians, politicians and even many police leaders.

» PHOTOS: Aftermath of Atlanta protest, fire at Wendy's police shooting site

“There really is no downside” to body cameras, Alexander said. They document cops who are brutal and when they screw up. They also document when suspects or professed witnesses are lying. They capture what really occurred.

Dekmar was one of the first chiefs in America to mandate bodycams. That was 11 years ago, when the new technology caused cops to grumble.

LaGrange Police Chief Lou Dekmar. (HYOSUB SHIN / hshin@ajc.com)

Credit: Hyosub Shin

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Credit: Hyosub Shin

“All contacts (with the public) are to be recorded and you’re suspended if they are not,” Dekmar said, adding that cameras usually help acquit officers who are facing complaints.

The cameras on the Atlanta cops showed a calm investigation that determined that Brooks, who was passed out in his car, was almost certainly drunk and started fighting when cops tried to arrest him. The shooting was not captured on the officers' bodycams, as both were knocked off the cops' vests in the struggle.

Both Alexander and Dekmar said officers must have de-escalation training and use-of-force training. Rolfe, a 7-year veteran who is the same age as the man he killed, had de-escalation training in April and use-of-force training in January.


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It is also crucial, Alexander said, "to get away from this militarization of police." For years there has been a growing mindset in law enforcement about the cop who wages war on criminality. But Alexander said departments must build relationships with communities.

That’s a challenge, as cops are often stuck in their squad cars chasing call after call, and are frequently shifted to other beats. “But you have to try to build your legitimacy,” Alexander said.

Dekmar said cops have become de facto social workers, and officers must embrace that job description.

“If you get the person who wants to be a warrior, then you get cases like George Floyd,” he said. “When I get new officers, I tell them what’s expected. It’s not driving fast and shooting people.”

» PHOTOS: Atlanta Protests — The Police

Another key to changing things, Alexander and Dekmar said, is making it mandatory for police to stop another officer who’s applying improper force, and then immediately report it.

I asked Dekmar about the “thin blue line,” the tradition of cops having each other’s backs and keeping silent.

“That thin blue line is a line that every profession or organization has, whether it be lawyers or doctors or even news reporters,” Dekmar said. “The nature of human relations makes it difficult to report on each other.”

So how do you overcome it?

“You make it more painful not to (report) it,” said Dekmar. “I don’t expect them to know police stuff, I expect them to know right and wrong,” he said he tells recruits.

Orlando Caicedo (center) carries a cross while hundreds of Catholics march from the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta on Thursday, June 11, 2020, demanding justice and an end to police brutality. (credit: Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com)

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Both Alexander and Dekmar deferred on voicing an opinion about the recent Atlanta shooting, saying it must be investigated first.

When I called Alexander on Saturday night, he told me to turn on CNN — a squad of police were backing away from an angry crowd near the Wendy’s where the shooting took place. The eatery was later burned.

“What we are looking at is not a good sign. These officers are not being respected,” he said. “They are getting pushed out of the area.”

But he said police and politicians must listen to the outcry. "People are very angry and fearful," Alexander said. "And whether we agree or not, that cannot be minimized. Let's not minimize their reality. But we cannot marginalize our officers. They still have a job to do."

Alexander admitted the recent events have been unsettling, even to a veteran cop like himself.

“I’m fed up,” he said. “Why shouldn’t I be fed up? I’m still a black man in America.”

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