ATLANTA (AP) — Atlanta police officers called out sick to protest the filing of murder charges against an officer who shot a man in the back, while the interim chief acknowledged members of the force feel abandoned amid protests demanding massive changes to policing.
Interim Chief Rodney Bryant told The Associated Press in an interview that the sick calls began Wednesday night and continued Thursday, but said the department had sufficient staff to protect the city. It’s not clear how many officers called out.
“Some are angry. Some are fearful. Some are confused on what we do in this space. Some may feel abandoned,” Bryant said of the officers. “But we are there to assure them that we will continue to move forward and get through this.”
Bryant confirmed Thursday that the Atlanta Police Foundation was funding a bonus of $500 for each officer to help boost morale.
Prosecutors brought felony murder and other charges against Garrett Rolfe, a white officer who shot Rayshard Brooks after the 27-year-old black man grabbed a Taser during a struggle and ran, firing it at the officer, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said.
Four months before Brooks was killed, he was interviewed about the year he spent in jail by Reconnect, a company that focuses on fighting incarceration and addiction. Brooks said the criminal justice system treats incarcerated people unfairly and sets them back for years thereafter.
“If you do some things that’s wrong, you pay your debts to society — and that’s the bottom line,” Brooks acknowledged, but he said the consequences can be severe.
Brooks said he wished that the system “could look at us as individuals.”
“We do have lives, you know — it’s just a mistake we made — and not just do us as if we are animals.”
Howard said Brooks was not a deadly threat when he was shot and that Rolfe kicked the wounded man and offered no medical treatment for over two minutes as Brooks lay dying. Another officer, Devin Brosnan, who the district attorney said stood on Brooks’ shoulder as he struggled for his life, was charged with aggravated assault and violation of his oath.
Rolfe and Brosnan both contend their actions were justified and turned themselves in Thursday. Jail records show Brosnan was released on a signature bond, meaning he only has to pay if he fails to show up for court, while Rolfe was being held without bond. Rolfe was fired and Brosnan placed on desk duty.
Rolfe was scheduled to have an initial appearance in magistrate court at noon Friday, but the judge noted that Rolfe’s lawyers had waived his appearance. Fulton County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Tracy Flanagan said Rolfe’s attorneys have requested a hearing in Fulton County Superior Court, where they can request that a bond be set.
The decision to prosecute the officers came less than five days after the killing rocked a city — and a nation — still reeling after George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis last month. Floyd’s death set off nationwide protests that have urged an extensive rethink of policing and an examination of racism in the United States.
L. Chris Stewart, a lawyer for Tomika Miller, Brooks’ widow, told reporters the charging of the officers brought the family no joy.
“Some people thought that we’d be happy and be celebrating and have a fist in the air, but it’s more a disappointment that this is the state of policing and this is where we’re at,” he said.
In his video interview with Reconnect, Brooks, a father, promised to “keep going until I make it to where I want to be.”
In the roughly three weeks since protests first broke out in Georgia’s capital, officers have worked shifts of 12 or more hours and have been yelled at, spit on and had things thrown at them, Bryant said.
“At some point, people get tired, I recognize that, and physically exhausted,” he said. “We will definitely get beyond it, and I’m certain that we will see our sickouts drop back to normal, average.”
The weeks since Floyd’s killing have seen lawmakers pass police reforms, Americans reconsider statues commemorating controversial figures, and ideas like defunding police become part of the national conversation. But the drive for change has also met with pushback, and divisions over the role police should play are becoming a major political flashpoint.
While some have hailed the prosecutor’s office for moving quickly in the Brooks killing, Bryant said he was surprised at the speed, noting that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation hadn’t yet finished its probe.
Bryant would not say how many officers called out. But just one officer showed up for work Thursday morning in one zone, which several dozen are assigned to patrol, according to Vince Champion, southeast regional director for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers.
Atlanta officers are walking off their shifts or not responding to calls because they feel “abandoned, betrayed, used in a political game,” Champion told the AP.
Champion said he’s heard from several officers that they fear using force to protect themselves will get them fired or arrested.
Atlanta police did not immediately respond to an email Friday asking whether there was still an unusually high number of call-outs. Champion said he had gotten calls saying zones were still short and calls were being made to ask officers to come in, but he didn’t have any concrete numbers.
Police in Atlanta were called to a Wendy’s last week over complaints of a car blocking the drive-thru lane and found Brooks asleep behind the wheel. A breath test showed he was intoxicated. Officers had a relatively calm conversation with Brooks before things rapidly turned violent when they tried to handcuff him.
Rolfe shot Brooks after he grabbed a Taser, fired it and ran, Howard, the prosecutor, said. But when the officer fired, Brooks was too far from him for the Taser to be a danger, and it had already been fired twice, so it was empty, Howard said.
Rolfe’s lawyers said he feared for his and others’ safety. Rolfe opened fire after hearing a sound “like a gunshot and saw a flash in front of him,” apparently from the Taser.
The felony murder charge against Rolfe, 27, carries life in prison or the death penalty, if prosecutors decide to seek it. He was also charged with 10 other offenses punishable by decades behind bars.
The district attorney said the other officer, Brosnan, 26, is cooperating with prosecutors and will testify. But his attorneys said he hasn’t agreed to be a witness for prosecutors.
One of his lawyers, Don Samuel, said Thursday that Brosnan suffered a concussion during the struggle with Brooks and put his foot on Brooks only briefly when he heard gunshots because he didn’t know where they were coming from and was worried Brooks may have had access to a weapon.
Associated Press reporter Jeff Martin contributed to this report.