Prosecutors brought murder charges Wednesday against the white Atlanta police officer who shot Rayshard Brooks in the back, saying that Brooks was not a deadly threat and that the officer kicked the wounded black man and offered no medical treatment for over two minutes as he lay dying on the ground.
Brooks, 27, was holding a stun gun he had snatched from officers, and he fired it at them during the clash, but he was running away at the time and was 18 feet, 3 inches from Officer Garrett Rolfe when Rolfe started shooting, District Attorney Paul Howard said in announcing the charges. Stun guns have a range of around 15 feet.
“I got him!” the prosecutor quoted Rolfe as saying.
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 decision to prosecute came less than five days after the killing outside a Wendy’s restaurant rocked a city — and a nation — already roiled by the death of George Floyd under a police officer’s knee in Minneapolis late last month.
“We’ve concluded at the time that Mr. Brooks was shot that he did not pose an immediate threat of death,” Howard said.
A second officer, Devin Brosnan, 26, stood on Brooks’ shoulder as he struggled for his life, Howard said. Brosnan was charged with aggravated assault and violating his oath.
The district attorney said Brosnan is cooperating with prosecutors and will testify, saying it was the first time in 40 such cases in which an officer had come forward to do so. But an attorney for Brosnan emphatically denied he had agreed to be a prosecution witness and said he was not pleading guilty to anything.
A lawyer for Brooks’ widow cautioned that the charges were no reason to rejoice.
“We shouldn’t have to celebrate as African Americans when we get a piece of justice like today. We shouldn’t have to celebrate and parade when an officer is held accountable,” attorney L. Chris Stewart said.
Brooks’ widow, Tomika Miller, said it was painful to hear the new details of what happened to her husband in his final minutes.
“I felt everything that he felt, just by hearing what he went through, and it hurt. It hurt really bad,” she said.
The news came on a day of rapid developments involving race and equal justice. Republicans on Capitol Hill unveiled a package of police reform measures. And the movement to get rid of Confederate monuments and other racially offensive symbols reached America’s breakfast table, with the maker of Aunt Jemima syrup and pancake mix dropping the 131-year-old brand.
Brooks’ killing Friday night sparked new demonstrations in Georgia’s capital against police brutality after occasionally turbulent protests over Floyd’s death had largely died down. Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields resigned less than 24 hours after Brooks died, and the Wendy’s restaurant was burned.
Rolfe was fired after the shooting, while Brosnan was placed on desk duty.
Ahead of the district attorney’s announcement, Rolfe’s lawyers issued a statement saying the officer feared for his safety and that of others around him and was justified in shooting Brooks. Rolfe opened fire after hearing a sound “like a gunshot and saw a flash in front of him,” apparently from the stun gun.
“Mr. Brooks violently attacked two officers and disarmed one of them. When Mr. Brooks turned and pointed an object at Officer Rolfe, any officer would have reasonably believed that he intended to disarm, disable or seriously injure him,” the lawyers said.
But the district attorney said the stun gun that Brooks held had already been fired twice and was thus empty and no longer a threat.
Brosnan’s lawyer, Amanda Clark Palmer, said the charges against the officer were baseless. She said Brosnan stood on the wounded man’s hand, not his shoulder, for a short period of time — seconds — to make sure Brooks did not have a weapon.
Police had been called to the restaurant over complaints of a car blocking the drive-thru lane. An officer found Brooks asleep behind the wheel, and a breath test showed he was intoxicated.
Police body-camera video showed Brooks and officers having a relatively calm and respectful conversation — “almost jovial,” according to the district attorney — for more than 40 minutes before things rapidly turned violent when officers tried to handcuff him. Brooks wrestled with officers, grabbed one of their stun guns and fired it at one of them as he ran through the parking lot.
An autopsy found he was shot twice in the back. One shot pierced his heart, the district attorney said. At least one bullet went into a vehicle that was in line at the Wendy’s drive-thru.
After Brooks was shot, he was given no medical attention for over two minutes, despite Atlanta police policy that says officers must offer timely help, Howard said.
The district attorney said Rolfe and Brosnan had until 6 p.m. Thursday to surrender. He said he would request $50,000 bond for Brosnan and no bail for Rolfe.
The charges reflect a potential “sea change” in tolerance for violence by police, said Caren Morrison, a Georgia State University law professor who used to be a federal prosecutor.
Morrison said the view until now has generally been that officers are justified in using deadly force in a case in which the suspect had a stun gun or other weapon that could cause “grievous bodily harm.”
Later Wednesday there had been reports that Atlanta police officers were walking off the job or calling in sick in protest of the charges against Rolfe and Brosnan. The APD said in a Tweet that it is experiencing a higher than usual number of officers calling out for their shifts but that, “We have enough resources to maintain operations & remain able to respond to incidents.”
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said on CNN that many of the department’s partners had been notified just in case they needed to call others in but that “we are fine” (tonight) and that the true test would be on Thursday.
“If we have officers that don’t want bad officers weeded out the force then that’s another conversation we need to have,” Bottoms said.
In the Minneapolis case, Derek Chauvin, the officer who put his knee on Floyd’s neck for several minutes, has been charged with murder. Three other officers have been charged with aiding and abetting. All four were fired and could get up to 40 years in prison.
In Washington, meanwhile, Senate Republicans announced the most ambitious GOP police-reform package in years, including an enhanced use-of-force database, restrictions on chokeholds and new commissions to study law enforcement and race.
The bill is not as sweeping as a Democratic proposal set for a House vote next week, but it shows how swiftly the national debate has been transformed since Floyd’s death.
A new poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research says more Americans today than five years ago believe police brutality is a very serious problem that too often goes undisciplined and unequally targets black Americans.