Opinion: A tragic death in our midst

Alyssa Pointer / alyssa.pointer@ajc.com
Alyssa Pointer / alyssa.pointer@ajc.com

The killing of Rayshard Brooks is tragic, especially so for the capital of the Civil Rights Movement, a place that has instructed the world in how to achieve nonviolent social change. People are understandably upset and angered by what happened.

Brooks joins the list of black people killed by police, ex-police and others under circumstances that raise grave questions about use of deadly force, the legalities governing it and how this nation’s law enforcement officers are trained and go about their risky, difficult work each day.

Grainy video of the violent interaction between Brooks and two police officers is upsetting to watch on multiple levels. Yes, it seems apparent that he fought with police attempting to place him in custody on suspicion of DUI. He apparently seized a taser and fled, turning toward the pursuing officers moments later – actions that cost him his life.

As the GBI and Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard have each said, it is too early to draw legal conclusions about what happened in that Wendy’s parking lot on University Avenue.

But it’s not too early to raise ethical, moral and civic questions about this deadly encounter and how it might have been resolved without another loss of life.

A fleeing black suspect, clutching a less-than-lethal taser, fatally shot in the back. There’s risk in armchair judgments, we admit. Yet it seems right and reasonable to strongly suspect that deadly force was wrongly applied in this instance. Particularly when considering that white suspects have lived to face prosecution in similar incidents.

As even the most-willfully clueless corners of America are now learning, the specter of race is too-often found inside yellow police tape marking the scenes of these incidents – and crimes.

Who lives and who dies violently in encounters with police, self-proclaimed neighborhood watchmen and the like is perhaps the most-serious matter facing American society at this jittery juncture of our existence.

It is impossible, we believe, to honestly begin to answer that question without assessing the impact of race and the substantial weight it lends to these situations that all of us must deal with long after the dead are laid to rest.

Rayshard Brooks’ name joins a long list now. George Floyd, suffocated by a policeman’s knee in Minneapolis. First responder Breonna Taylor, shot dead by police in her Louisville, Ky., apartment bedroom. Ahmaud Arbery, killed with a shotgun after being chased by white men down a Glynn County road.

Here in Atlanta, fast and appropriate action by public officials last weekend may well have prevented damage and human harm from being worse than it was in the hours after Brooks was killed.

Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields stepped down from that job Saturday. Shields had earlier earned the respect of many for her prudent decisions that had initially brought a less-confrontational police response to the protests and violence that flared in the streets after Floyd’s death.

Despite her early efforts and expressed sympathy for protesters’ cause and societal inequities, APD’s reputation was quickly tarnished by the actions of officers who used tasers to roughly detain two black college students during protests on May 30. Four officers were fired and six criminally charged in that incident.

Brooks’ killing no doubt forced the decision that new leadership at APD was necessary. Shields is still employed by the city, and some are urging that she be fully separated from city employment. More decisions may lie ahead there. The crucial thing at this moment is that a leadership change has been made and Shields’ extensive experience is still available to city leaders.

As she called for the firing of the officer who killed Brooks, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms made clear over the weekend that she did “not believe this was a justified use of deadly force.” She wisely noted as well that “I firmly believe that there is a clear distinction between what you can do and what you should do.”

All America is pondering that now – at police headquarters’ around the country, in law enforcement training academies and on into each of our homes. Life-or-death decisions, often made in a sliver of a second.

Who lives?

Who dies?

Two questions deceptively simple in grammar yet confoundingly difficult to answer, given the heavy baggage of American history.

Finding the right and best answers to a problem now four centuries old is critical to the future of this nation – and metro Atlanta.

The Editorial Board.

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