March 11, 2015 Decatur: Protesters, including Brandan Marshall holding a photo of Anthony Hill, take to the streets of downtown Decatur on Wednesday evening March 12, 2015 to protest the shooting death of Hill. BEN GRAY / BGRAY@AJC.COM
Photo: Ben Gray
Photo: Ben Gray

Police use of force scrutinized after recent DeKalb shootings

Two recent fatal shootings by DeKalb County officers have raised new questions about rules of engagement that critics say foster a confrontational relationship between law enforcement and the public it serves.

Anthony Hill was naked — “as unarmed as you can be,” as local activist Jim Chambers put it — when he was shot twice in the chest earlier this month by Officer Robert Olsen. The seven-year DeKalb police veteran was dispatched to the Chamblee apartment complex where Hill lived after neighbors reported a man acting strangely, crawling around on all fours.

An attorney hired by Hill’s parents contends the 27-year-old musician threatened no one — including the officer. Olsen felt otherwise.

Hill, who suffers from bipolar disorder, ignored his commands to stop, and witnesses verify that he was aggressively approaching the officer when he was shot.

But was the lethal response warranted? Grand juries in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y., faced similar questions when determining whether the use of force that resulted in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner was justified.

Their rulings, favoring the police, should not have come as a surprise, based on current rules of engagement, say several legal and law enforcement experts.

“Police officers are not obligated to fight fair,” said retired FBI agent Fred G. Robinette III, who often testifies in court cases involving deadly force. “The courts have been very clear on this.”

Specifically, the Supreme Court’s 1989 decision in Graham v. Connor says, “the reasonableness of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, and its calculus must embody an allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second decisions about the amount of force necessary in a particular situation.”

DeKalb Public Safety Director Cedric Alexander enlisted the GBI to investigate Hill’s death and the Dec. 29 fatal shooting of Kevin Davis, who was armed at the time but was not, according to all accounts, aiming his gun at the officer who shot him. DeKalb District Attorney Robert James will ultimately determine whether prosecutions are warranted.

In both investigations, the officers’ narrative will dominate. Olsen, for example, need only prove that he feared serious bodily injury, not death, Robinette said. And even though Hill was unarmed, Olsen — the lone officer on the scene — could reasonably assert that the suspect was going to engage him in a scuffle that might have resulted to his gun changing hands.

“It’s really hard to second guess a police officer on the scene,” said Ken Vance, executive director of Georgia’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Council. “People want cut and dried answers and those do not exist.”

Current rules covering use of force only cloud an already gray area, said Yale law professor Daniel Markovits, who recently co-authored a series of proposals designed to create a less confrontational police force.

“Officers should sometimes be willing to accept defiance in situations where criminal activity is not that dangerous,” Markovits told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The current rules too often invite violence, he said, which put both the public and officers at risk.

The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, convened last year, also emphasized de-escalation in its interim report published March 1. Alexander is a member of the 11-person task force

Sometimes “the best tactic for dealing with a minor confrontation is to step back, call for assistance, de-escalate, and perhaps plan a different enforcement action that can be taken more safely later,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, in the report.

But reforms, particularly in the decentralized world of local policing, will be a heavy lift, Markovits said.

“Public opinion generally shows an acceptance of police authority,” he said. “That produces forces that resist structural change.”

Vance said he opposes any significant alteration of the current guidelines.

“I think they’re pretty good where they are,” he said. “Most departments have a very strict policy about when you draw your firearm.”

While not commenting on the specifics of the recent DeKalb shootings, Vance said officers are trained to exhibit patience when warranted.

“If you’re in a situation where someone’s holding a gun and not making offensive gestures, wait them out,” he said. “I’m not going to say that you should shoot someone just because they didn’t obey a command.

“But if the only options to you are lethal, and you feel that’s warranted, you have to take action.”

In Hill’s case, there were other options present, specifically a Taser. Whether Olsen should’ve deployed it is a question sure to be addressed by the GBI.

“The point of a Taser is to prevent the use of lethal force,” said attorney Christopher Chestnut, who represents Hill’s family. “This was in the daylight. There should’ve been no question that the officer was no in immediate danger.”

Judging whether the force used that day was reasonable will depend on the totality of the circumstances, Robinette said.

“Forensics will matter most,” he said. “Where are the shell casings, where’s the first trace of blood … if the officer is telling the truth, the forensics will bear him out.”

But science-based results can often prove unsatisfying to communities whose relationship with law enforcement is sometimes adversarial.

“Appropriate and reasonable is sometimes different than right and wrong,” Vance said.

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