Hours after the Fulton County district attorney announced felony murder and other charges against the former Atlanta police officer who fatally shot Rayshard Brooks, a 27-year-old black man, in the back, a number of Atlanta police officers called in sick just before a shift change Wednesday evening.
It is unclear how many officers declined to show up for their shift Wednesday night. The police department declined to answer specific questions about the no-shows, and the mayor did not release specific numbers when she spoke to reporters late Wednesday.
“We do have enough officers to cover us through the night,” Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D) told CNN. “Our streets won’t be any less safe because of the number of officers who called out.”
The police department confirmed there was a larger-than-normal number of absent officers Wednesday evening but denied there was any mass strike in response to the criminal charges leveled against the two men involved in the fatal shooting of Brooks, whose death has sparked more protests against racism and police brutality.
Earlier suggestions that multiple officers from each zone had walked off the job were inaccurate. The department is experiencing a higher than usual number of call outs with the incoming shift. We have enough resources to maintain operations & remain able to respond to incidents.— Atlanta Police Department (@Atlanta_Police) June 18, 2020
Bottoms added that the city could rely on support from other law enforcement agencies in the area.
“We have other partners across the metropolitan area, including assistance from the state and from the county and from other jurisdictions,” she said. “So, we will be fine.”
Atlanta had already been rocked for weeks by Black Lives Matter protests and grief over the allegedly racially motivated slaying of Ahmaud Arbery in Glynn County, Ga. Tensions with the police flared again Friday after two officers responded to a call claiming Brooks had fallen asleep at the wheel while parked in a Wendy’s drive-through.
Brooks initially cooperated with a field sobriety test, but a scuffle broke out when two officers attempted to arrest him. Brooks grabbed one officer’s Taser and began running away. Prosecutors allege Officer Garrett Rolfe then shot Brooks in the back, said “I got him,” and then kicked Brooks as he lay on the asphalt. His partner, Officer Devin Brosnan, stood on Brooks’s arm after the shooting, prosecutors said.
Fulton County District Attorney Paul L. Howard Jr., announced murder and other charges against Rolfe on Wednesday. Brosnan faces charges of aggravated assault and other offenses.
Hours after the charges were announced, some Atlanta police officers began calling in sick just before their night shifts started. A police union spokesman confirmed the protest actions to NBC News but said the union had not organized a formal walkout. Throughout Wednesday night, more officers reportedly called in sick, refused to show up to any calls except those requesting backup or went radio-silent.
“This is not an organized thing. It’s not a blue flu. It’s not a strike. It’s nothing like that,” Vince Champion, a spokesman for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, told NBC News. “What it actually is is officers protesting that they’ve had enough and they don’t want to deal with it any longer.”
The “blue flu” is a type of de facto police strike in which a large number of officers simultaneously call in sick. Essential state employees, such as police and first responders, are legally prohibited from actually walking out on the job in many jurisdictions.
Champion added that many officers felt prosecutors had not publicly shared sufficient evidence to back up the charges leveled against Rolfe, in part because the district attorney released only a video still that appears to show the former officer kicking Brooks, rather than the full video itself.
As officers began canceling their shifts Wednesday night, President Trump joined the fray to criticize the district attorney’s decision. In an interview with Fox News on Wednesday night, Trump called the shooting “a very, very sad thing” but then suggested Brooks was at fault.
“I thought it was a terrible situation, but you can’t resist a police officer,” he said on Sean Hannity’s show. The president repeated a claim made by Rolfe’s defense attorney, saying the officer believed he had seen a flash and heard a gunshot before firing on Brooks.
“I hope he gets a fair shake because police have not been treated fairly in our country,” Trump said. “But again, you can’t resist a police officer like that. And they ended up in a very terrible disagreement and look at the way it ended. Very bad. Very bad.”
The wheels of justice have moved strikingly fast in Atlanta over the past week. Just two days after Brooks’s death, video of the fatal encounter was released to the public, and Atlanta’s mayor had already called for Rolfe to be fired. By Sunday night, Rolfe had been fired, Brosnan had been placed on administrative duty and Police Chief Erika Shields had resigned.
Less than a week after the incident, Rolfe and Brosnan were criminally charged.
Howard, the district attorney, said in an interview Thursday that it was “quite unfortunate” that officers called in sick.
“We’ve seen this throughout the country with the union influence. We’ve seen it happen. I’m not sure about the numbers here in Atlanta,” he said. “But if someone walked out of a job because a fellow officer was charged by the DA, that’s quite unfortunate. I think it addresses the problem that protests across the country have asked people to pay attention to if that’s the reason that police walked out.”
Howard said Wednesday that Brosnan had agreed to become a cooperating witness and testify against his colleague. Brosnan’s attorney, Don Samuel, said the officer is not a cooperating witness and has not agreed to be a witness. Howard said he stands by the comments he made Wednesday regarding Brosnan.
Howard said he does not believe the charges against the officers are unprecedented. He said his office has issued arrest warrants before indictments in four other cases involving police officers.
“I just believe this is something we have done historically,” Howard said of charging officers. “This case comes during a time that the public’s attention is really focused on these issues.”
The rapid pace comes as ongoing Black Lives Matter protests demand police-reform measures in the wake of George Floyd’s death, after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes. Although the quick action in Atlanta has been praised by civil rights advocates and hailed as a victory for activists, some in the police department have decried the quick process.
Bottoms said morale in Atlanta’s police department was at a low, perhaps even more so than in other jurisdictions facing intense scrutiny and criticism during the past three weeks of protests.
“The thing that I’m most concerned about is how we repair the morale in our police department,” Bottoms said on CNN, “and how do we ensure our communities are safe as they interact with our police officers.”
Haisten Willis in Atlanta contributed to this report.