Opinion: Questions before us in Brooks’ death

Children take in the burned out Atlanta Wendy’s where Rayshard Brooks, a 27-year-old black man, was shot and killed by Atlanta police Friday evening during a struggle in the drive-thru line on Monday, June 15, 2020, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
Children take in the burned out Atlanta Wendy’s where Rayshard Brooks, a 27-year-old black man, was shot and killed by Atlanta police Friday evening during a struggle in the drive-thru line on Monday, June 15, 2020, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

It was sobering to hear a prosecutor announce this week the most-serious of murder charges against a former police officer.

An event of that gravity demands that the process of arriving at that point be as above-board and legally and procedurally flawless as is humanly possible. To borrow a thought from the law, the investigation’s appropriateness should be beyond reasonable doubt.

We have doubts as to whether that standard has been satisfactorily met so far in the work that’s resulted in the rapid filing of charges against a now-former Atlanta police officer and another officer in the killing of Rayshard Brooks last Friday. And given what’s at stake for Atlanta, this nation and the defendants, we believe that the journey of this case through the legal system must be beyond reasonable reproach.

Consider that Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard on Wednesday threw the heaviest legal book he could find at the officers involved in Brooks' shooting. Howard said during a press conference that he was pursuing felony murder and other charges against former Atlanta police officer Garrett Rolfe.

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The other APD officer on the scene, Devin Brosnan, now faces felony charges of aggravated assault and violation of oath by a public officer.

It is appropriate, we believe, to raise questions about the process in this case so far.

For starters, it doesn’t seem unreasonable or unduly cynical to question how much of Howard’s decision was politically motivated. In a tough election year, Howard moved very rapidly to bring charges against Rolfe and Brosnan, with only five days’ elapsing between Brooks’ death and Howard’s dramatic press conference. That speed should be considered against other allegations of excessive police use of force in Fulton County that have sometimes languished for years without resolution. Why the need for such speed in this latest case that the entire world is now watching?

Howard's haste in acting this week comes as the GBI continues its own investigation into the killing of Brooks. They were rightly called in by APD immediately after the shooting. The well-respected GBI has shown itself to be a thorough investigative body that has not seemed prone to undue, politically motivated foot-dragging. As an example, after the agency was belatedly called onto the Ahmaud Arbery shooting death case, arrests came less than 48 hours later.

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Based on reported accounts of Wednesday’s events, the GBI was unaware of Howard’s planned press conference where the charges were announced. Why? In this divisive, dangerous time for Atlanta, and Georgia, it would seem prudent for the GBI and the Fulton County District Attorney’s office and the officials who lead them to be seen by a nervous public as proceeding in productive lockstep toward a thoroughly investigated conclusion of facts and appropriate actions around Brooks’ death.

That level of collaboration does not seem to be occurring. Why is a question that should be answered.

One factor that must be considered in all this as well is the GBI's ongoing investigation into Howard for his use of a nonprofit to funnel at least $140,000 in city funds to supplement his salary. It's a fair question to raise too as to whether that matter is hindering the two agencies' investigations of the Brooks case.

There are other questions as well. There was disagreement Wednesday over whether officer Brosnan would cooperate with prosecutors in the case against Rolfe. Howard said that was the case. Brosnan’s attorney flatly denied it.

Again, a methodical process is a useful tool in achieving a just and proper result. There’s reason to suggest that isn’t always happening at an appropriate and acceptable level here so far. Our troubled city and nation deserve better than that.

Given protests, and scattered instances of violence and looting that have occurred in Atlanta and elsewhere in recent weeks, it's no exaggeration to say that civil order is riding to some degree on how well the Brooks case is handled at each step along the way.

Atlanta can’t afford major missteps in this regard. Society is at a perilous moment now, and extraordinary caution and diligence is required as cases of possible police use of excessive force are evaluated by our legal system.

And long after this case is resolved, the challenges facing American policing and public safety will remain. That should be the driving factor in the convulsive national conversation that is beginning over police reform. Because of Brooks' killing and the violent arrests of two college students during May 30 protests here, our City Too Busy To Hate is now fully drawn into this emotional debate.

It doesn't help matters here either that an episode of what's called "blue flu" seemed to spread through APD's uniformed ranks after the charges were filed, as an unusually high number of officers skipped work after Howard's announcement. Such actions can only hurt sincere efforts to repair and rebuild police-community relations.

Police have a hard, dangerous and often-thankless job that involves regularly being front-and-center in unpleasant life circumstances where emotions can run high. Criminals often don’t go along meekly to jail, and force at times has to be applied in the interest of public safety.

But it is wisely used only as a last resort, and only after efforts at de-escalating conflict fail. As we wrote earlier this week, it seems reasonable to wonder whether the conflict that led to Brooks’ death could have been avoided.

That question is still before us all.

The Editorial Board.

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