Opinion: Taking time to tell a fuller story

Rayshard Brooks

Rayshard Brooks

One of the rules of thumb for journalists has been to print what you know once you find out something, especially as you work to unravel a complicated story. And for the most part that works out in our pursuit of the first draft of history.

But last week, we broke that rule. I believe it was the right thing to do. We had an impassioned newsroom discussion about it. We’ve faced criticism for the decision, and I thought you’d want to know what we did and why.

The aftermath of the shooting of Rayshard Brooks by an Atlanta Police officer convulsed the city. The incident at a south Atlanta Wendy’s restaurant resulted in the police chief stepping down. Already boiling racial tensions grew. Protests erupted. The two officers have been charged, the shooter with felony murder.

District Attorney Paul Howard faces criticism for his quick decision about the charges while he’s in a battle to be re-elected. Morale in the police department suffers.

Atlanta finds itself an epicenter in the call to reform police departments across the country.

READ: Rayshard Brooks’ final 41 minutes

As metro Atlantans we can’t agree on how we should feel about all of this, let alone what we should do about it.

An e-mail I received last week: “Yesterday I was provided the following links to publicly available records that provide a sketch of Mr. Brooks’ criminal history dating back to 2010. Most seriously, previous charges include obstruction of an officer, battery, false imprisonment, and cruelty to children, and indicated that Mr. Brooks was on parole for some of these offenses at the time of his death.”

“Thus far, I have read nothing in the AJC about Mr. Brooks’ background, and how it may have shaped the encounter … . Having a prior record and being on probation would probably go a long way towards explaining why Mr. Brooks reacted the way he did when the officers attempted to arrest and handcuff him.”

Others felt the same way.

Another note I received: “The AJC is failing to report the truth about this violent convicted felon who brutally attacked two police officers.”

We must all decide how to see Brooks.

As a murder victim, as prosecutors seek to prove?

Or does his history explain why he fought to avoid arrest and a return to jail?

Or is he “a criminal whose actions caused his death,” as another e-mailer wrote?

We wrestled with these questions, and as some media outlets began to report some easily available information about Brooks’ criminal record, we didn’t. I believe we were right to do more reporting, despite the inevitable criticism and the decision to forgo our usual practice of publishing what we have as soon as we can.

We hoped to avoid contributing to an incomplete narrative.

We’ve long held that anyone who becomes a news story, willingly or unwillingly, gives us license to examine and publish the details of their life. The death of Brooks caused us to question the ethical limits of that license. We decided to dig deeper.

The initial information about his criminal record allowed some to latch on to simple explanations to dismiss Brooks’ humanity. It also overlooked this fact: Officers didn’t know his background on that fateful Friday night in the Wendy’s parking lot.

As one of our reporters said to me: “The question we seem to forget when a black man is killed by a white police officer – is whether Brooks is our victim? Maybe not. But does he deserve the treatment that befalls a hardened criminal when we’re writing about nothing related to his record?”

It’s also important to remember that basic criminal records are easy to find. You could find them yourself within minutes online. Yet knowing the charges alone without the digging that provides further context misses the bigger picture of a person’s life — and many on social media have done just that.

And that’s a fair criticism of the media. One of the easiest things to find out about someone is that part of their life.

We weren’t doing much of a service by simply providing the same information easily available online; we wanted to know more than that.

We didn’t publish initial information about Brooks’ criminal past, even though we had it. Some in our newsroom disagreed; so did some readers.

We sent reporters to local county courthouses, including Clayton County, where much of Brooks’ detailed criminal history resides. The courthouse there is closed because of the pandemic. Our reporter had to make an appointment and navigate obtaining records.

Here are some of the details we uncovered. I attempt a fair summary here within the realities of space:

Brooks had a long and difficult history with police. He was interacting with police and the juvenile courts from the age of 10, and every interaction seemed to result in multiple felony charges.

At 14, Fulton County prosecutors suspected him in two armed robberies, including one where a man was shot several times in a carjacking. There were problems with witness identification, as well as investigative and legal procedure problems, and the case never came to trial.

In 2014, a domestic dispute between Brooks and his wife, Tomika Miller, led to charges of battery, false imprisonment and child cruelty, but the charges do not tell the whole story. Brooks was accused of grabbing Miller’s wrist (battery), pulling her into another room (false imprisonment) and doing so in front of her 7-year-old son (child cruelty).

The argument may have been ugly, and Brooks’ behavior may have been bad, but he wasn’t accused of actually hitting anyone or holding them captive. The charges carried the threat of years in prison nonetheless.

After spending about seven months in the county jail awaiting trial, Brooks was offered a deal: Take a year in prison, with credit for time already served, and six years of probation. He pleaded guilty and was released five months later, but he was in the probation system for the rest of his life.

Again, we must all decide if that information changes our mind or reinforces our opinion.

Much of what we learned about Brooks shows a black man caught up in the justice system, including Georgia’s notoriously flawed probation system.

“Going through that process, it hardened me to a point,” he said in a video. “I have to have … my guard up because the world is cruel.” His father and others close to him say that Brooks was working hard to create new, positive chapters in his life.

Questions remain from the details of Brooks' death, including why he resisted arrest, punched the arresting officer, and ran. And why the arresting officer shot him. We will never know why Brooks acted as he did.

Brooks was a black man who had dealings with police and the criminal justice system, and might have believed his life was in danger at the hands of a white officer.

Brooks was also drunk. Perhaps he just wasn’t thinking clearly.

Limited information about Brooks’ criminal record lets some imply that Brooks somehow deserved to be shot. But does anyone really want to argue that what started out as an incident of public drunkenness should’ve ended in Brooks’ death?

Focusing on Brooks’ record distracts from the real issue: appropriate use of deadly force by police, even when Brooks was running away. It adds to the tragic stories of black men and their interactions with police.

The public interest in these questions is pressing because the answers will point us toward solutions to prevent similar outcomes.

Complete coverage provides the context for Brooks’ criminal record – but that kind of reporting takes more time than our country’s minute-by-minute news cycle has the patience for. Brooks’ experiences with the law should be placed alongside his experiences with family, with work, with the people he helped and the things he did.

Given how his life ended, that seems only fair. We're trying to do that in our coverage, on Sunday's front page and in upcoming stories, and we'll continue to try to consider these hard questions in these kinds of cases in the future.

READ: Rayshard Brooks news coverage

MORE: Full coverage of Atlanta protests

But back to the essential question about how you see Brooks.

As a murder victim?

As a panicked man desperate to avoid going back to jail?

As a “criminal whose actions caused his death”?

We’re all obligated to answer those questions, and consider why we feel that way.

Kevin Riley is editor of the AJC.