On the June night that an Atlanta police officer shot and killed Rayshard Brooks in a Wendy’s parking lot, Deravis Thomas was at home 20 miles away in Henry County when he heard what had happened. He found out not from watching the news but from a friend who lives three blocks away from the Wendy’s. Thomas wasn’t surprised—not by the shooting, sadly, and not that his friend reached out. Whenever there’s a police shooting, no matter where in Atlanta, “I usually get a call,” he says. “I hate that I have become somebody that is known through my tragedy.”
On another warm June night, four years earlier, Thomas was at his mother’s house in East Atlanta when he got the call about his son. Deravis Caine Rogers was 22 and had just landed a new job at a Procter & Gamble warehouse. “He was so proud,” Thomas says. Later, at the morgue, Thomas would notice that his son’s face was clean-shaven and his hair was freshly cut for his orientation. His father says “he was so particular” about looking his best for important events.
Hours before the call, an off-duty APD officer working security at a Piedmont Heights apartment complex caught sight of a man “jumping fences” and took off after him on foot, calling for backup. Within minutes, Officer James Burns, who was working traffic duty nearby, responded.
The Atlanta Police Department's system for flagging problematic officers has missed as many as seven of them since 2014.
Just as Burns arrived near the complex, Rogers pulled his silver Ford Fusion out of its parking spot down the road. As he drove toward Burns’s vehicle, Burns turned on his blue lights and chirped his siren. Two women walked along the sidewalk by Burns’s patrol car. In the space of four seconds, as recorded on Burns’s dash cam, the Ford Fusion turned to drive around the patrol car and Burns got out of his car, yelled at the driver to stop, and fired a single shot at Rogers, striking him in the head. The women screamed.
Burns would tell APD investigators that Rogers “gunned the engine” toward him and that he was afraid Rogers was trying to run him over.
APD fired Burns nine days later, finding that Rogers “posed no immediate threat” to Burns, that there was no evidence linking Rogers to any criminal activity that night, and that shooting Rogers was “unnecessary and unreasonable.” Four years later, Burns is awaiting trial on criminal charges of felony murder, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and violating his oath of office; the City of Atlanta faces a civil suit from Rogers’s parents.
In one case, APD's warning system appears to have failed to flag an officer at least twice before he was ultimately fired and later sent to prison for assaulting a 15-year-old.
APD took swift action against the officer who killed his son, but Thomas has come to believe that Burns is an outlier. Over the past four years, Thomas has kept up with the nearly 40 shootings of civilians—some found to be justified, some not—at the hands of APD officers. He wants to know why they keep happening. He’s seen the defenses police often give—I felt like my life was threatened. I thought he had a weapon.—but considers many of them inadequate. “We need law and order for everybody,” he says. “You can’t police the communities and not be held accountable for the very same thing.”
These days, Thomas feels like his questions are less likely to go quietly unanswered than they are to be drowned out by the sheer volume of people voicing the same concerns. During a spring and summer of heightened tensions between police and civilians, Atlanta loudly joined a national chorus calling for more drastic reform than ever.
Of the nearly 1,000 civilian investigations opened and closed since 2015, more than 200 (or 22%) took longer than 180 days to resolve.
Violent clashes initially erupted in May between police and protesters and soon intensified after Atlanta police officer Garrett Rolfe killed Brooks. For more than three weeks, activists occupied the Wendy’s where Brooks was shot—an occupation that ended only after multiple armed civilians in the crowd fired at a car, killing the eight-year-old girl in the back seat. By that time, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms had called for the terminations of multiple officers, including Rolfe, who has since been indicted on murder charges by Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard; popular APD Chief Erika Shields, who’d gone viral for denouncing the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, stepped down after demands for her resignation; and 171 Atlanta officers called in sick, most in protest, in the three days after Rolfe’s indictment. Howard, who held his post for more than two decades, was voted out of office shortly thereafter. Atlantans have clogged up City Council meetings with calls about defunding the Atlanta Police Department to such an extent that the Council had to pass an ordinance limiting public comment in order to get anything done.
The Atlanta Citizen Review Board has limited power to oversee APD: In 2019, APD agreed with less than half of ACRB’s sustained findings—up from an average of less than a quarter during the preceding five years.
In the wake of Brooks’s death, city leaders are weighing reforms to strengthen Atlanta’s police accountability system—including both APD’s internal affairs department and its citizen oversight board. But the reforms launched on the heels of other high-profile APD missteps show that similar efforts have often fallen short. An analysis by Atlanta and Type Investigations of thousands of pages of internal-affairs case files and court documents alleging abuses by police found that civilians’ complaints against officers often take too long for the department to resolve (in violation of a court order) and that the nature of APD’s record keeping makes it difficult for the public (and even for a court-appointed monitor) to track the department’s progress when it comes to how it polices itself.
What’s more, the analysis also indicates that the department’s system for flagging potentially problematic officers has missed as many as seven of them since 2014. In one case, it appears to have failed to flag an officer at least twice before he was ultimately fired and later sent to prison for assaulting a 15-year-old.
Efforts to address issues plaguing the department have proven exasperating both for critics of the department and for the police themselves. Jason Segura, an APD sergeant and the president of the local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, says some APD officers see the indictments in the Brooks shooting as a warning. “Officers are afraid that, even if they do their job the way that they were trained, following the rules of engagement, following all use-of-force policies that are based on established case law, they’re still getting fired and arrested.”
Moving forward may require a shift in how the city defines the very mission of policing—a shift that might only be possible now that the public is paying as close attention to police shootings as bereaved parents like Thomas. “The City of Atlanta and the Atlanta Police Department have gotten a pass to date because they have stood under the mantle of being the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement, being a place that has had African American mayors and minority police chiefs,” says attorney Shean Williams, who represents Rogers’s parents among other litigants in APD cases and was part of a city-formed Use of Force Advisory Council over the summer.
Xochitl Bervera, director of the Racial Justice Action Center, says that Atlanta should instead use its civil rights legacy to equip itself to make necessary change. “There’s a particularly redemptive potential that Atlanta has [to address previous harms],” Bervera says. In the City Too Busy to Hate, revolutionary solutions might be the only ones that can heal certain wounds—and the only ones that can prevent fathers like Thomas from losing their sons.
To understand the current fissures in Atlanta’s relationship with its police department, you’ll need to understand what happened at a Ponce de Leon Avenue gay bar in September 2009. Late one Thursday night, two dozen Atlanta police officers, some part of the infamous SWAT-style Red Dog unit, raided the Atlanta Eagle, following up on an anonymous complaint about stripping without a permit and acts of public sex. The party atmosphere inside the club quickly shifted to one of fear: Officers handcuffed the bar’s patrons, telling them to “lay down on the fucking floor” or shoving them there. Some customers didn’t know the assailants were police. The music cut off; the lights turned on. When one patron cried as police forced others to the ground, an officer told him to be quiet and threatened him with a baton. Some witnesses later told investigators that APD officers made anti-gay comments, such as threatening to tell patrons’ wives about them hanging out at a gay bar.
Two years later, in 2011, a federal judge found that the officers carried out illegal searches and seizures. A judicial order required that the city pay more than $1 million in settlements (and another $1 million for an external investigation by a private firm) and that APD provide new training for officers and better document and resolve misconduct complaints. As a result of the raid, APD disbanded the Red Dog unit. The department has since created community-centered units, including an LGBTQ+ liaison team.
But some of those court-required reforms stalled in the years that followed. In 2015, a federal judge found APD noncompliant with several conditions of the court order, including implementing search-and-seizure training and resolving civilian misconduct complaints within 180 days. A year later, Dan Grossman, one of the attorneys for the Eagle raid plaintiffs, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that APD was not providing a full accounting of citizen complaints to him and his clients, as court orders mandated, and continued to take more than 180 days to resolve all citizen complaints.
The internal-affairs process still takes longer than it should: Our analysis revealed that, of the nearly 1,000 civilian investigations opened and closed since 2015, more than 200 (or 22 percent) took longer than 180 days to resolve. Major Charles Hampton, head of APD’s internal affairs department, the Office of Professional Standards (OPS), acknowledges the delays. “There’s a number of things that could happen. Sometimes, they sit on desks, and there’s not movement in a timely manner,” he says, adding that APD still operates under a paper file system. “We’re sometimes faced with the limitations and budget constraints that may not always be in APD’s control.” Other times, officers might be out on military or sick leave, or turnover might slow the process down. (Hampton, who has led OPS since February, is the third OPS head in the last six years.)
OPS investigates complaints on anything from officers filling out reports incorrectly to using excessive force. Its investigators take statements and review body and dash camera footage, among other evidence. If there’s enough evidence to sustain the complaint, OPS recommends how the officer should be punished, such as a written reprimand for less egregious violations, or suspension for serious ones.
OPS also has an Early Warning system, a form of which has been in place for decades. If an officer receives multiple complaints in a certain amount of time—usually one year—or shows a pattern of misconduct, OPS will alert the officer’s supervisors, and the officer will receive counseling, additional training, reassignment, or other corrective actions. Supervisors themselves can also initiate Early Warning if they witness officers behaving problematically.
Could there be a situation in which OPS—or IAPro, its internal system that catalogs complaints—failed to alert the department of an officer who should enter the Early Warning system? “I have not experienced one situation where we were not alerted,” says Sergeant William Dean, who works with OPS and APD’s employee assistance program.
But a review of APD’s Early Warning system records indicates the department has failed to flag a handful of officers. APD provided us with a list of 108 officers who entered the program between 2014 and 2020—with the officers’ names redacted. We then looked at a larger list of all officers who were investigated for unnecessary force and determined which should have been flagged by the Early Warning system (due to multiple unsustained excessive force complaints in a single year or a single sustained one)—and crosschecked those officers’ birth years, hire years, and race with the Early Warning list APD provided. We found that seven officers who should have been flagged by the Early Warning system appear to be missing
When asked why those officers seem not to have been placed into the Early Warning system, Sergeant John Chafee, with APD’s Public Affairs Unit, wrote in an email that the department would not discuss specific officers to protect their privacy. He also stated that “there is no law requiring us to have our Early Warning Review (EWR) system. We understand how important initiatives like these are and we implemented this as part of our proactive efforts in seeking out and maintaining the best practices. . . . The system is not perfect and we will continue looking at ways we can improve, but EWR has been a tremendous asset.”
We also asked APD which of the seven officers we identified were still employed by APD, but the department did not provide that information by press time.
Former APD officer Matthew Johns was one of the officers who should have been flagged. By the end of 2014, Johns had faced multiple allegations of excessive force—none sustained by OPS. (Among the allegations: In May 2014, APD officers stopped a Black man for yelling “fuck the police” and “throwing” gang signs, the man ran, Johns and fellow officers tried to arrest him, and Johns gave him three “compliant strikes” to the face, according to the APD file.) Per APD’s Early Warning system policy at the time, Johns should have been placed into the program for having multiple unsustained use-of-force complaints in a year. But both a deposition by an OPS officer and our analysis indicate he wasn’t.
Two years later, in 2016, Johns kicked 15-year-old Antraveious Payne in the head and kneeled on his neck after police chased him and other suspects in a stolen car. That resulted in Johns’s fifth excessive force complaint—and first sustained one by OPS—in three years. Johns was fired by APD for that incident in 2017 and later criminally charged and sentenced to five years in prison. (Payne’s family is suing Johns and the City of Atlanta.) In a 2019 deposition, Sergeant Dean was asked by a lawyer in the Payne case why Johns wasn’t listed in the Early Warning system. “I don’t know if the system provided an alert or failed to provide an alert,” he responded.
APD shared in an email that, between 2014 and 2016, an average 28 APD employees were referred annually to the Early Warning system, usually for domestic violence, driving under the influence, or “unusual behavior,” according to reports they provided. Between 2017 and 2019, the number of employees referred to the Early Warning program dropped to an average nine per year. Sergeant Chafee wrote in an email that, since implementing additional support programs, including a more informal Early Intervention program in 2016, “we have seen a significant decrease in the number of officers entering EWR. We are pleased with the success of these programs but understand our efforts must be ongoing.”
Other officers have avoided the Early Warning thresholds. In August 2015, OPS opened an investigation into Rolfe for firing his gun at the driver of a stolen truck. (Five years later, the APD investigation into the shooting still remained open, according to Rolfe’s disciplinary history.) In September 2016, OPS opened another investigation into Rolfe for his role, along with Johns, in the arrest of Payne. According to OPS documents, Rolfe improperly pointed (but did not fire) his gun at suspects in a stolen car—including Payne—though he had no indication whether they were armed or posed a threat to him. For Rolfe to have been automatically flagged by the Early Warning system, he would have had to discharge his firearm twice within a year, according to APD standard operating procedure in 2016.
The next time OPS would investigate Rolfe for firing his gun on the job was when he shot Rayshard Brooks in the Wendy’s parking lot.
In February 2017, Noel Hall, a natural gas inspector, drove with his family the four hours from his home in western North Carolina down to the Georgia Dome for the annual Supercross dirt-bike race, as he had for each of the prior 20 years. That year, his son was racing for the first time. When Hall wanted to turn left into a restricted pit parking area, APD Sergeant Mathieu Cadeau, who was working off-duty directing traffic, wouldn’t let him, refusing to look at his pass. Hall turned into the lot anyway, in Cadeau’s direction—and Cadeau fired his gun into Hall’s driver-side window, striking Hall in the back of his left shoulder with a bullet that twice entered and exited his body, missing his heart—and his wife, in the passenger seat—by inches.
Cadeau’s history showed plenty of red flags before he shot Hall. He had been with APD for a decade and, in 2014, had four excessive force investigations opened against him, though OPS only found enough evidence to sustain one of them, in which Cadeau pepper-sprayed a handcuffed suspect. (The recommended discipline for that complaint was four days’ suspension—but a supervisor modified it to two days since Cadeau “accepted responsibility,” the file said.) OPS did not sustain a 2013 complaint of excessive force in which Cadeau shoved a Castleberry Hill festival-goer and arrested her and her husband, but nearly four years later, the City of Atlanta would pay $150,000 to settle a resulting court case.
In July 2014, after an incident in which Cadeau used pepper spray to break up a bar fight, APD placed him in its Early Warning system. In 2015, OPS recommended Cadeau be dismissed for that incident. (OPS found the force he used to be reasonable, but Cadeau gave conflicting accounts of what happened—and lying during an OPS investigation is automatic grounds for dismissal.) That recommendation was overturned, however, by then Chief George Turner, after Cadeau appealed. While APD has disciplinary guidelines for different violations, the police chief has final authority. Turner’s decision was called into question after Cadeau shot Hall in 2017. When asked to explain the actions of her predecessor, then Chief Shields told the AJC: “I don’t have the benefit of knowing what information Sergeant Cadeau provided to Chief Turner that allowed him to keep his job. I feel confident in saying Chief Turner did not take any disciplinary hearing lightly.”
OPS Major Hampton says that APD leadership has overruled an OPS designation in an excessive force case four times since 2014, and that sometimes officers might tell the chief more candidly what might be going on in their personal lives that affected the incident: “It’s helpful to remember that, as officers, we’re still human beings.”
APD fired Cadeau in May 2017 after an internal investigation found he had used excessive force by shooting Hall. The Fulton DA’s office later indicted Cadeau, who was sentenced earlier this year to 30 years on probation for Hall’s shooting. Hall and his wife have filed a lawsuit against the City of Atlanta, former APD police chief George Turner, and Cadeau, which is still pending.
Hall says incidents like his show that police are given too much discretion—and that complaints against them are not treated with enough transparency. “You can’t let a cop build up a rap sheet without doing something,” he says. “If they get in trouble, that needs to be public information.”
Closed OPS records are in fact public information, but APD’s current software limits the extent to which the department can share OPS data with the public. Under the court-ordered reforms in the wake of the Eagle raid, APD is required to maintain data about the resolution of misconduct complaints. But when Atlanta and Type Investigations requested that data, and after we compared 86 excessive force case files against that data, we found that nearly a quarter of them had incorrect or missing dispositions. In a demonstration, APD was able to prove that its internal data is accurate; the inaccuracies in the data they handed over were caused by a flaw in the exporting process. After Atlanta pointed out the exporting discrepancies, Major Hampton says OPS is looking into different software. Sergeant Dean says transparency is the goal. “We are very open to the public,” he says.
When asked whether the plaintiffs in the Eagle raid, who are entitled to data about closed civilian complaints about APD officers per a 2018 court order, have also received data with inaccuracies, their lawyer Grossman said in a statement: “We have concerns about the accuracy of some of the information the City has provided and about the completeness of the City’s compliance with the 2018 Court Order.”
In 2006, two days before Thanksgiving, 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston was sitting in her yellow Bankhead home around dinner time when APD officers illegally rammed into her house, acting on a “no knock” warrant obtained on false information. Johnston fired a single shot with her .38 revolver. Officers returned fire with a barrage of bullets, five of which hit and killed her. To cover up their actions, officers planted drugs in her home. Four officers would receive prison time; the city ultimately paid a nearly $5 million settlement; and federal prosecutors would investigate the “culture of misconduct” plaguing APD. As a result, City Council created the Atlanta Citizen Review Board, an independent citizen-led police oversight authority meant to be a beacon of police accountability.
The ACRB receives around 150 civilian complaints per year against Atlanta police and ends up investigating around 60. But it only makes recommendations for how officers should be disciplined and has no authority to force APD to abide by its guidance. In January, at the ACRB offices tucked away on the ninth floor of City Hall, ACRB director Lee Reid explained the board’s biggest flaw by taking out two blank pieces of paper on his desk: one, theoretically, an APD internal investigation, and the other, the parallel ACRB investigation. He plays the part of the APD chief. “Let’s say I like Case A better. It also happens to be my investigation. So, I’m going to go with Case A, regardless of what the other one says.”
In 2019, APD at least partially agreed with 41 percent of ACRB’s sustained findings—up from an average of less than a quarter over the preceding five years. But at the end of 2019, ACRB was still waiting for an APD response on 61 percent of its 2019 recommendations—even though city law requires a response from APD within 30 days. (OPS Major Hampton says slow responses by APD were a result of personnel transitions—during which “sometimes, you discover things that were not being done”—and that APD is now caught up with all response letters.)
The ACRB tried to warn APD about Johns, the officer who later went to prison for assaulting 15-year-old Payne. In 2014, Johns struck a man who had fled after Johns and another officer tried to pull him over on his scooter. ACRB sustained the allegations and recommended Johns be suspended for five days; APD’s internal investigation, however, did not find enough evidence of excessive force. While Reid says ACRB has a good working relationship with APD, over time, the lack of consistency between its investigations and the APD’s “creates the appearance that you’re just going through the motions [with the ACRB cases], as opposed to really giving them the due examination that they need.”
Major Hampton says APD does take ACRB’s recommendations seriously, and that the disconnect in findings comes from the fact that citizens often “don’t understand our policy and, a lot of times, do not understand the laws that we’re able to operate under.” For example, ACRB might call an arrest false or improper, he says, “but when we get the file, we understand that the arrest was proper, based on the facts of the circumstance.”
In June, in response to protests over police violence, ACRB received a $427,000 increase in funding, which Reid hopes to use to conduct more proactive analyses of APD practices and hire community engagement personnel. (ACRB’s existence isn’t well-known throughout the city: Over the summer, City Councilmember Antonio Brown said that he had to tell protesters calling for a civilian oversight board that one already existed.) And since the protests over the killings of George Floyd and Brooks, Mayor Bottoms issued orders mandating that all future deadly use of force cases go before ACRB (instead of just ones in which a civilian filed a complaint to the board), encouraging APD and ACRB to share investigative information (which hasn’t always happened), and exploring whether to require a third party to review disagreements between the two agencies. But the board still won’t have the power to discipline and terminate officers—perhaps “the most important power ACRB can have,” says Tiffany Roberts, a community organizer and lawyer for the Southern Center for Human Rights.
Fulton County DA Paul Howard, a 20-year incumbent, campaigned for reelection this summer by touting the aggressive charges his office filed against Rolfe—for felony murder and 10 other charges in the Brooks killing—and against six other APD officers for the Tasing and battery of two college students, Messiah Young and Taniyah Pilgrim, during a protest. APD’s then Chief Shields fired four officers for the Tasing incident, saying APD needed to hold itself accountable for the escalation of a “low-level encounter”—but then criticized the DA’s charges as political.
Two of those six officers, as well as Rolfe, have filed suit against the city for firing them prior to an investigation, notice, or disciplinary hearing. And Howard’s critics have pointed out that the DA’s office has not yet made a decision to prosecute in several other police shooting cases that drew considerably less attention than Brooks’s. In the August run-off election, one of the most vocal of those critics, Fulton DA chief deputy Fani Willis, trounced Howard, winning nearly three-quarters of votes.
The decisions by APD leadership to take action against officers before investigations were complete have left the rank-and-file concerned that their jobs are at the risk of political impulses, two officers told us. They also said the terminations have harmed the chance for real progress at APD. “We don’t know how to operate in an environment where our rules and policies change on a whim,” says Sergeant Segura, the police union president. Segura points out that Rolfe’s and the other officers’ use of force may have been justified under APD procedures and preexisting case law, which consider whether such force was reasonable and necessary for an officer to make an arrest or defend himself. At the very least, he says, the officers deserved an investigation that adhered to APD’s own protocol. “We just want to know where we stand, and right now, we stand on sand.”
APD says at least 45 officers have resigned since the protests started in May, though Segura says the number is likely higher. “[Officers] have been actively engaged in ending riots, making arrests in very difficult situations,” APD Deputy Chief Darin Schierbaum says. “They’ve seen officers indicted with no investigation completed. And that’s a difficult space.”
Tom Gissler, a four-year APD patrol officer and community liaison officer for Little Five Points, resigned in June because of the DA’s indictments and APD’s firing of Rolfe and others. In his resignation letter, which was shared on social media, he wrote: “I came into APD to be a help. A change agent for good. . . . I had peace with taking a bullet, but I wasn’t good with catching a case for doing my job or for being so obviously abandoned by ALL of those in a position to stand up for truth.” He said in an interview: “The police exist mainly to be the whipping dog from every side.”
Officers point to the debate over Tasers as an example of the bind they’re in. When police used a Taser against Young and Pilgrim, the Fulton County DA’s office considered its use a deadly weapon to justify felony charges against the officers involved. But in the case of Rayshard Brooks, the fact that Brooks had wrested a Taser from police just before he was shot didn’t seem to help the officers’ case that a response of deadly force was warranted. (District Attorney Howard has said that, when Brooks was shot, the Taser was inoperative and out of charges, posing no threat to Rolfe.)
Segura says that if APD officers don’t feel secure in making the call as to when to protect themselves, they’ll be hesitant to put themselves in potentially dangerous situations—“because the only thing that leads to is you getting fired”—and therefore won’t be able to effectively do their jobs. “And the citizens are the ones who ultimately suffer.”
We ask police to do many jobs: Enforce a curfew and clear protesters from the road. Be a grief counselor and a crosswalk guard. Remove the man sleeping in his car, and stop cars from racing on city streets—but don’t chase them. True reform, critics say, requires a shift in what police are tasked with—and what infractions are worth risking a life to enforce.
In cities like San Francisco and Eugene, Oregon, unarmed medics and mental health workers—not police—respond to calls for welfare checks or overdoses. (Of the 24,000 calls in 2019 where the Eugene program responded, medics called for police backup less than 1 percent of the time.) “Anything that starts to reduce the amount of contact between officers and civilians, that’s what we’re trying to do,” says Bervera, the director of the Racial Justice Action Center. “That is how you decrease the potential for harm. That is how you start investing in other ways of safety that are much more effective.”
At a virtual City Council meeting in July, Atlantans left more than 13 hours of public comment messages on the city’s voicemail line—most of the callers arguing for or against defunding the police—forcing the meeting to last until 4 a.m. While most constituents were urging cuts, a push by some City Council members to withhold $73 million from the APD budget was narrowly defeated; instead, APD received a $12 million budget increase in June for 2021 raises. Councilmember Marci Collier Overstreet, who represents southwest Atlanta neighborhoods, says every constituent she’s spoken with has told her not to take officers off the street.
This is Atlanta’s dilemma with policing, says Bervera. On the one hand, some residents want less police presence and more cautious use of force. But they also want to continue to rely on police to maintain their quality of life. Of course, when laws criminalize nonviolent offenses like panhandling and the public calls on officers to enforce those laws, the resulting interaction can become violent. (Several cases of APD excessive force in recent years began with a stop for a low-level crime: jaywalking, sleeping in a car, shoplifting.) “When the police do something or overstep the bounds, they get thrown under the bus and seen as the villain, [when instead] it’s our elected officials who are passing the laws and defining what a police department does,” Bervera says.
Overstreet disagrees that society asks too much of police officers and believes the city needs to invest more in the department for deescalation and other training: “I expect them to be a community partner,” she says.
One promising solution embraced by the city is the Atlanta/Fulton County Pre-Arrest Diversion (PAD) initiative, which since 2017 has provided links to services like housing, substance use support, or employment to Atlantans accused of low-level crimes. PAD has been a pilot partner with APD for the past three years; it only has been available to certain neighborhoods during limited hours and only when police refer the people they intend to arrest to PAD. (During the last quarter of 2019, 432 arrests could have been diverted to PAD, but APD officers only diverted 24, or 5 percent, of those.) In June, City Council more than quadrupled PAD’s annual budget to nearly $2 million, which it will use to expand across the city in the next year. Deputy Chief Schierbaum, who has championed the program, says police should bear less of the burden created by “a lack of proper mental health structure in the state of Georgia, lack of proper programs to assist citizens who have drug dependencies, alcohol dependencies. . . . We cannot arrest ourselves out of our societal challenges.”
Grossman, the attorney in the Eagle case, argues that civilian leaders need to set police objectives and police policy—not the other way around. “These are our public servants,” he says. “We have a right to know and to have a say in how they’re trained and what we expect them to do.” When that training fails, or when those expectations are too great, “we pay the price—whether there’s greater risk to officers, greater risk to the future Rayshard Brooks, or greater risk to the public in general.”
After the death of his son, Thomas says he joined a tragic club made up of the family members of those killed by Atlanta police. When APD and federal officers on a police task force shot Jamarion Robinson in August 2016, two months after officer Burns killed Thomas’s son, Thomas says Robinson’s uncle called him, looking for advice. “I told him to fight,” Thomas says, “to make sure it didn’t get swept under the rug.”
Thomas and Robinson’s family talk often, about their cases or to share resources, and attend protests organized to draw attention to the deaths of their loved ones. Thomas is grateful to have found others who understand his experiences, but he’s saddened that the club keeps growing: “You never finish mourning, because it always happens to someone else.”
When Thomas heard about Rayshard Brooks’s killing, he thought, Here we go again. He watched hours of footage from the incident—“every video, every angle, every bodycam”—trying to answer a question: Did they do the same thing they did to my son? “I’m looking for patterns, and I do it unconsciously,” he says. “You need to try to understand why. Why does this keep happening?”
Improved police training and mental health checks and early warning systems might not have done enough to save Brooks. APD officers get trained at nearly twice the state average, but that isn’t a fail-safe for the variety of split-second decisions officers make: Mere months before shooting Brooks, Rolfe spent hours in deescalation and deadly force trainings.
“That’s impossible to calculate,” Thomas says of the rate at which training and early warnings could prevent police shootings. But he’s hopeful that the momentum around Brooks’s case will bring the kind of lasting change that failed to materialize after other high-profile cases. As Thomas watched the 40-minute video during which Brooks and APD officers initially had a calm, respectful, professional encounter, he thought of the multiple possibilities for how the night could have ended. The knowledge that so many others have been watching it too—and drawing the same conclusions—is what makes the current climate in Atlanta so extraordinary. “This is a moment that’s going to [require us to] say, Something is wrong. This could have gone a different way.”
This story was reported in partnership with Atlanta magazine. Additional reporting by Camille Pendley.
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