Atlanta, a Wendy’s, and Things Go from Bad to Worse
A shooting in Atlanta shows a reckoning, let alone change, is a hard thing to acquire
Two weeks ago, among protests for George Floyd in Atlanta that some turned into violence and looting, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms held a press conference that included Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields, rappers Killer Mike and TI, and other city and community notables. Killer Mike’s speech was the one that garnered most of the attention, but the mayor’s strong words also got notice.
A protest has purpose. When Dr. King was assassinated, we didn’t do this to our city. So if you love this city — this city that has had a legacy of black mayors and black police chiefs and people who care about this city, where more than 50 percent of the business owners in metro Atlanta are minority business owners — if you care about this city, then go home. And pray that somebody like Reverend Beasley will come and talk to you and give you some instructions on what a protest should look like and how you effectuate change in America. This police chief [Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields] made a video on yesterday — pull it up on YouTube — where she said she was appalled to watch the murder of George Floyd. This woman did that.
You’re not honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement. You’re not protesting anything running out with brown liquor in your hands and breaking windows in this city.
Chief Shields had also earned praise for going out and amongst the protesters in Atlanta, engaging with them directly. After that first night of violence, it was Shields who admitted they had been caught “off-guard” by the looting, defended the city’s policy of tolerance — and not without sensitivity- civil rights protests before noting many of the arrests for violence were of folks coming in from other areas.
Then came the fatal police shooting of Rayshard Brooks outside a University Avenue Wendy’s. By the next evening Shields had offered, and Bottoms had accepted, her resignation.
On paper, Shields was everything many of those folks protesting would say they wanted in a police chief. By the afternoon, after footage of Atlanta police officers using force on protesters went viral, Shields had already taken administrative action on the officers involved. Before the Brooks shooting occurred, the week had seen APD fire four officers outright for conduct related to the unrest and several others in various stages of administrative discipline. Even with the Brooks shooting, the body camera footage from the officers involved was available to the press almost immediately, and the general public had it by the next day. Contrast that to the George Floyd killing where we still haven’t seen any of the footage. Or in Louisville, KY where Breonna Taylor was killed in her own bed followed b y a nearly blank official incident report, and the firing of the police chief when the subsequent killing of David McAtee by two officers who magically didn’t have their body cameras activated.
Shields had been everything in law enforcement from foot patrol, to various units like narcotics and plain clothes investigations, hitting nearly every rung on the ladder on the way up. She was progressive, the second woman to lead the APD and the first to be openly gay, and as recently as two weeks ago held up by both the mayor and police union reps as an example, a rare occurrence of agreement these days. One of her most controversial things was the announcement back in January of a “no chase policy” that reads twistedly prophetic after viewing the struggle, brief pursuit, and shooting of Brooks that had started with him being asleep and apparently inebriated in his vehicle.
“Please know that I realize this will not be a popular decision; and more disconcerting to me personally, is that this decision may drive crime up,” Shields said in a memo announcing the change. “I get it.”
While she noted that “an overwhelming number of crimes are committed where a vehicle is involved” and that significant arrests often follow zeroing in on a specific vehicle, other factors influenced the decision.
“Namely, the level of pursuit training received by officers who are engaging in the pursuits, the rate of occurrence of injury/death as a result of the pursuits and the likelihood of the judicial system according any level of accountability to the defendants as a result of the pursuit. At his point and time, the department is assuming an enormous risk to the safety of officers and the public for each pursuit, knowing that the judicial system is largely unresponsive to the actions of the defendants.”
The policy was written following a spate of vehicle accidents including a chase that resulted in the deaths of two men. But the concern for how fast things go wrong in the heat of the moment is glaring.
The Brooks killing is going to be a very messy thing. Unlike the Floyd killing, which was nearly universally and immediately condemned, what happened in that Wendy’s parking lot is multiple layers of all the discussion around policing laid bare: escalation of force, use of deadly force, pursuit, what does and doesn’t constitute a threat to the officers, and the three bullets that killed Brooks at the end of it. Brooks, it would appear right now, fought with the police after a protracted and mostly calm encounter when they went to handcuff them. The body cameras aren’t very helpful past that due to the tussle. The security camera catches what happened next, with Brooks appearing to turn around and try to fire what appears to be the officer’s own taser at them before continuing to flee, at which point he is shot in the back.
Anyone thinking this is going to be resolved neat and clean are fooling themselves. The officer that fired the shots was fired almost immediately, the other placed on administrative leave. A nation already with weeks worth of heightened notice to police actions will have a very large and flammable log added to the blazing pyre of debate. Police advocates and unions who are feeling under fire will feel even more so. Most everyone will feel, rightly so, that there are no good answers coming as the incidents keep piling up. Rayshard Brooks will still be dead. Who knows how many more will be also before justice comes to this case, if it all.
“It is time to hold mayoral offices accountable, chiefs and deputy chiefs. Atlanta is not perfect,” Killer Mike had commented with then-Chief Shields, Mayor Bottoms, and others arms length away and the whole world watching during that press conference. “We’re a lot better than we ever were, and we’re a lot better than cities are.”
A routine stop in a Wendy’s parking lot showed just how fragile “doing better” can be, and how little “better than others” means, and how even doing most things right for an entire career doesn’t matter when one moment goes wrong. Shields held herself accountable and fell on her sword, probably for various reasons. Now the City of Atlanta will face troubled days with a police department looking for new leadership, a citizenry rightfully on edge, and no easy answers coming. We should all hope and pray Atlanta rises above, again, as it has before.
Because if they can’t, the rest of us are probably not going to fare much better.
Originally published at https://ordinary-times.com on June 15, 2020.