Atlanta’s police chief resigned Saturday, hours after police fatally shot a 27-year-old black man following a scuffle when they responded to a complaint that he had fallen asleep in the drive-through line at a Wendy’s fast-food restaurant.
Late Saturday night, hundreds of protesters blocked a downtown Atlanta connector road and faced off with police in riot gear. Scores were arrested.
At about 10 p.m., the Wendy’s caught fire, with flames pouring out of the drive-through window.
Earlier in the day, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said Erika Shields, who had served as chief since December 2016, had decided to step down but would remain with the department in some other capacity.
Bottoms also called for the immediate termination of the officer who shot Rayshard Brooks of Atlanta late Friday. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation said Brooks had resisted arrest and grabbed a Taser from an officer who had deployed it when officers attempted to take him into custody after he failed a sobriety test.
“While there may be debate as to whether this was an appropriate use of deadly force, I firmly believe that there is a clear distinction between what you can do and what you should do,” Bottoms said at a news conference. “I do not believe that this was a justified use of deadly force.”
A cellphone video posted on social media appears to show Brooks running from two police officers before being shot. Additional video, the GBI said, showed the man grabbing the Taser, fleeing and then turning and pointing it at an officer.
The death in a city roiled by complaints of excessive police force comes amid global street demonstrations demanding justice for George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was killed in police custody last month in Minneapolis.
Atlanta police were dispatched to the Wendy’s a few miles south of downtown at 10:33 p.m. Saturday to investigate a complaint that a man had fallen asleep in a parked car blocking the drive-through, according to a GBI statement.
When Brooks resisted being taken into custody after failing the sobriety test, the GBI said, an altercation ensued in which an officer deployed a Taser.
Shaky cellphone video shows two officers struggling with a man on the ground. The man appears to grab a Taser, break free and run away across the parking lot and out of the frame of the camera. An officer gives chase, and then another officer follows. Then the sound of three shots can be heard.
A few seconds later, a figure can be seen in the distance running to another figure on the ground.
On Saturday afternoon, the GBI said that the officer’s body camera was knocked off during the physical struggle, preventing the recording of the entire incident. However, the bureau obtained additional surveillance video from the scene, which it released to the public Saturday night.
According to the GBI, Brooks was transported to a local hospital, where he died after surgery.
One officer was treated for an injury and discharged from the hospital. Neither officer was immediately identified.
L. Chris Stewart, an attorney for Brooks’ family, said his team had spoken with multiple witnesses who said the officers put on plastic gloves and picked up their shell casings after shooting Brooks and before rendering aid. “We counted two (minutes) and 16 seconds before they even check his pulse,” he said. “And people wonder why everyone’s mad.”
Stewart said lethal force should not have been used against someone with a Taser since it’s not considered a deadly weapon by the state of Georgia.
“That’s the law … . I’ve had cases where officers had used Tasers on victims and they argue with us in court that Tasers aren’t deadly,” he said. “You cannot have it both ways in law enforcement. You can’t say he ran off with a weapon that could have killed somebody, when you say it’s not deadly.”
On Saturday night, some at the scene of the shooting roared and pumped fits in the air as the flames billowed higher. “No justice, no peace!” several shouted.
Over the last two weeks, the Atlanta Police Department has seemed to struggle in reacting to protests, veering from stepping back to heavy-handed shows of force.
While the department had had success in recent years in working to develop a less antagonizing presence — policing marches and demonstrations remotely, via CCTV cameras, and having officers wear regular beat uniforms rather than militaristic garb — some have accused police of being too hands-off and passive, while others have accused officers of excessive force.
In recent weeks as police chief, Shields had earned praise for hitting the streets and listening to demonstrators who gathered downtown to protest the police killing of Floyd in Minnesota.
“You’re pissed off, you’re afraid and nothing changes,” Shields said to protesters two weeks ago. “I’m with you. I’m with you.”
A few hours later, the city’s downtown and upscale Buckhead district devolved into chaos as rocks were hurled at police cruisers and windows were smashed with little repercussion. The next day, Shields said police would not stand by if there were further destruction.
“Yes, you caught us off-balance once,” she said at a news conference. “It’s not going to happen twice.”
Within hours, Atlanta police officers were captured on video shattering the windows of a sedan and Tasing two Black college students inside.
Bottoms swiftly fired two of the officers in the incident, and this week she fired an additional two officers. Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard has charged six officers with using excessive force.
“This is why people are outraged in this city,” said Antonio Brown, an Atlanta City Council member, who joined dozens of protesters outside the Wendy’s early Saturday after getting a call after 1 a.m. “It’s incredibly important that our police, especially now, don’t resort to firing a gun — not unless someone is firing a gun right at you.”
The city needed to move quickly to enact legislation forbidding the use of excessive force, Brown said.
“There is no time for a task force at this point,” he said. “We need to act immediately to address excessive force by police in this city.”
Whatever happened in the altercation, Brown said, he saw no reason officers would feel that their life was in jeopardy enough to justify firing their weapon.
“He was fleeing; he did not pose danger to the people,” he said. “If the man was drunk, there should be some de-escalating procedures in place.… Given the environment we’re in right now, using your weapons should be the ultimate last resort.”
Shields, who is white, had long been viewed as a reformer who advocates a so-called 21st century policing approach aimed at building public trust.
“Chief Erika Shields has been a solid member of APD for over two decades, and has a deep and abiding love for the people of Atlanta,” Bottoms said Saturday. “And because of her desire that Atlanta be a model of what meaningful reform should look like across this country, Chief Shields has offered to immediately step aside as police chief so that the city may move forward with urgency and rebuilding the trust so desperately needed throughout our communities.”
Former Assistant Police Chief Rodney Bryant, who is black, will serve as interim police chief as the city launches a national search for a new leader of the force.
On Saturday morning, dozens of protesters had gathered outside the Wendy’s holding signs that read “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice, No Peace.”
Auri, 27, a flight attendant who lives in Atlanta’s Mechanicsville neighborhood and declined to give her last name, stood on the sidewalk waving a handmade sign that said: “SERIOUSLY? Another cop killing.”
“This has been happening for years,” she said. “The moment it happened in my neighborhood I felt on fire. It could have been my boyfriend, my brother, my father.”
As the crowd swelled, protesters stepped out onto the four-lane road and blocked cars from passing.
Mystified, a woman got out of her vehicle and walked toward the protesters.
“I just want to get a burger,” she cried, throwing her hands in the air.
“We are taking over the streets,” a man bellowed into a bullhorn.
“Wendy’s is closed. APD needs to be closed. We need to bring back the Black Panthers. We need to police our own communities.”
Before long, a man in a green Kia Soul drove up to the protesters and tried to inch his vehicle through the crowd.
A tense standoff ensued as protesters holding placards blocked his path, knocking on the hood of his car and posting protest fliers on his windshield and driver’s side window.
“Turn around!” they cried. “Turn around!”
Eventually, after 10 minutes, the man shifted his car into reverse and turned around.
The crowd punched their fists in the air and cheered.
Standing in the middle of the street amid the protesters, Atlanta City Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd said she shared their anger and was committed to taking immediate action to address police use of force.
“What happened here last night was unjust,” she said. “We’ve got to reform our Police Department. Period.”
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