Publication / The Washington Post
June 15, 2020
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ATLANTA — Relatives of Rayshard Brooks — the 27-year-old man fatally shot by an officer outside a Wendy’s here last week — called for law enforcement reform during an emotional news conference Monday, as hundreds of demonstrators marched in the streets to protest another black man’s death at the hands of police.

Crying and hugging one another, each took a turn at the microphone as they described how Brooks’s death had taken from them a loving husband and father.

“The trust that we have with the police force is broken, and the only way to heal some of these wounds is through a conviction and a drastic change with the police department,” said Tiara Brooks, Rayshard Brooks’s cousin.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D) on Monday announced she was signing a series of administrative orders calling for changes in police policies, including requiring officers to use de-escalation techniques before using deadly force and imposing a duty on police to intervene if they see their colleagues using unreasonable force.

“It is clear that we do not have another day, another minute, another hour to waste,” Bottoms said.

Similar actions are being considered around the country, with the New York Police Department on Monday announcing that its plainclothes anti-crime officers would be disbanded and the approximately 600 officers would transition to other roles, including as detectives and neighborhood police.

Atlanta has emerged as the new epicenter of nationwide protests against police brutality, with tensions already simmering after the February killing of black jogger Ahmaud Arbery after white men chased him down in a south Georgia town. The state was thrown further into turmoil last week with problems during the primary election, including mailed ballots that may not have been counted and long lines at polling places in heavily black precincts.

Atlanta police chief Erika Shields resigned Saturday after Brooks’s death set off a new round of unrest, with the Wendy’s where he was killed being set on fire. The demonstrations were more peaceful on Monday, as thousands marched through downtown Atlanta streets, culminating in a rally outside the state capitol.

Hundreds greeted state lawmakers, returning to their legislative session that had been paused by the coronavirus pandemic, with demands for hate crime legislation and repeal of the citizen’s arrest law, which the men who chased Arbery said they were attempting to effect.

Charlene Hines, a 63-year-old lifelong Georgian, said she joined demonstrations for the first time, incensed after her son was injured in a confrontation with police and the body camera footage was obscured. She alleged that was an attempt to cover up wrongdoing.

“It keeps happening over and over again, and it tells us something is corrupt about the system and it must be changed,” said Hines, who held a sign with details about her son’s case.

The protests here follow massive demonstrations worldwide in response to the killing of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white officer in Minneapolis held him down for nine minutes with his knee to his neck. That incident was caught on video, as was the one involving Brooks, fatally shot in a Wendy’s parking lot by an officer responding to a complaint about a man asleep in a car parked in the drive-through, according to a preliminary report by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Video of the incident shows a wrestling match between Brooks and the two officers, ending when Brooks takes one’s Taser and runs away. After Brooks turned to aim the Taser at the officer, the officer fired his handgun. The Fulton County Medical Examiner said he died of two gunshot wounds to the back.

The officer who fired the shots, Garrett Rolfe, has been fired; the other officer, Devin Brosnan, has been pulled from street patrols. Fulton County District Attorney Paul L. Howard Jr. has said he hopes to announce a decision on whether to charge the involved officers midweek.

A copy of Rolfe’s disciplinary record released Monday indicates he had previously received several citizen complaints and faced discipline in the past, including for a use of force incident.

That 2016 incident involved the “use of firearms,” according to the record, and a written reprimand was issued the following year.

Rolfe also was involved in some type of firearm discharge in 2015, according to the record, which does not indicate any discipline for that incident.

Rolfe received an “oral admonishment” for a 2014 vehicle crash, and a written reprimand for a 2018 crash. The record says he was “exonerated” in a number of other cases of unspecified complaints.

Both officers are listed as being involved in a June 2020 firearm discharge – an apparent reference to Brooks’s shooting, though the date is listed as coming after he was killed. A police spokesman said the dates do not reflect the precise day of an incident, but rather, when a file was opened.

Chassidy Evans, Brooks’s niece, said her family had backed the Atlanta Police Department weeks ago when demonstrations over Floyd’s death turned violent. Now, she said, “those same police took something away from my family that we’ll never get back.”

“Not only are we hurt, we are angry,” Evans said. “When does this stop? We’re not only pleading for justice. We’re pleading for change.”

L. Chris Stewart, an attorney who is representing Brooks’s family, said the shooting “cannot be justified,” and noted that the confrontation could have ended if the officers granted Brooks’s request to walk to his sister’s home nearby aftert they gave him a sobriety test.

“Where is the empathy in just letting him walk home?” Stewart said. “What we know right now is that a man’s life was taken when it should never have happened.”

Vince Champion, the Southeast regional director of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, which is providing legal services to the officers, said it was premature to comment on whether the police had acted appropriately before completion of an investigation. He said the district attorney’s office had not reached out to the union for the officers’ accounts.

Champion declined to make the officers available for an interview with The Washington Post. But he questioned what might have happened if police let Brooks go and he was later hit by a car as he walked to his sister’s home.

“Is that the police officer’s fault?” Champion asked. “Once you are in custody or we’re going to do something, you are our responsibility.”

An emergency call released Monday shows a woman calling to report that she believed Brooks was “intoxicated” and hadn’t responded to her request to move his vehicle from the drive-through. “He woke up, looked at me, and I was like, ‘You got to move out of this drive-through,’ ” the woman can be heard saying.

He said he is open to the findings of a fair investigation into the officers’ actions.

“The evidence will take us to the path that we need to go,” Champion said. “If that means that they need to be charged because of the evidence, then so be it.”

But for the diverse groups of protesters who marched through Atlanta’s streets on Monday, charging the officers in Brooks’s case was just a portion of their broader demands for systemic change in law enforcement. The calls for defunding police and other reforms, came from a wide range of people, with several longtime black protesters saying they were struck by the participation of white demonstrators.

CJ Bolton, a 40-year-old black man who came with his teenage son, said there were far more white people joining demonstrations this year than in 2014 when he protested the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson.

“They are beginning to see our humanity,” Bolton said. “When they saw George Floyd, when they looked and saw this is happening again, they realized how bad this is. It’s not cool to be racist in America anymore unless you are a Trump supporter.”

Among the white demonstrators were two Fulton County public school teachers who joined their first protests against police brutality and systemic racism.

“This is our problem and we are responsible for fixing it,” said Erin Schauder, 28, whose sign read “This teacher knows black lives matter.”

Some demonstrators moved to Atlanta City Hall in the afternoon to call for defunding police, while a group of about 100 marched down the iconic Peachtree Street that stretches through Atlanta’s core, shutting down several intersections.

John Wade, who organized that group, called the local NAACP’s approach to organizing protests at the Capitol “outdated,” insisting that change is not possible without disrupting business and life in the city.

“We are the new NAACP and the new black activists,” said Wade, who wore a white button down shirt with a black bow tie and slacks as he led demonstrators.

As they marched through the street, some black motorists honked in support and extended their fists outside their car windows. A few white men, including a construction worker and a man driving a pickup truck, raised their fists in solidarity, too.

Criticism of law enforcement’s handling of cases involving black Americans continued around the country Monday, including in California, where activists have demanded investigations into the hanging deaths of two black men in recent weeks. Authorities have walked back public suggestions that the deaths were suicides, pledging a more thorough examination of the cases.

Officials have said there are no indications of foul play in the cases of Robert Fuller, 24, who was found hanging from a tree last week near city hall in Palmdale, Calif., and Malcolm Harsch, 38, who was found hanging from a tree near a homeless encampment in Victorville, about an hour east of Palmdale, on May 31.

On Monday, officials said they would examine various aspects of Fuller’s life, including his medical history and places he lived previously, and would investigate forensic evidence from the rope that was used in his hanging. They said they are also canvassing the area for surveillance footage, analyzing Fuller’s cellphone and speaking with family members.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villaneuva said investigators also planned to reach out to authorities investigating Harsch’s death. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said he had dispatched investigators to assist the Los Angeles County sheriff and review the work that already had been done.

“Because of the social unrest and concerns about the actions of police in light of the tragic murder of George Floyd, it touches on everyone’s heart. Robert Fuller was a young man in the prime of his life, so his death is very painful,” Villaneuva said. “We’ll get full closure to what happened here. Our interest is to make sure we leave no rock unturned.”

Zapotosky reported from Washington and Green reported from Los Angeles. Brittany Shammas, Shayna Jacobs and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.