“We’re afraid of losing good police officers, our city losing good police officers,” the foundation’s president and CEO Dave Wilkinson told the news station. “All this is in support of just showing that we appreciate the sacrifice these officers have made during this time.”
Local leaders, including Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms (D) and interim police chief Rodney Bryant, have spoken publicly about waning morale among police officers in recent days, in part due to the protests over racism and police brutality that have sparked intense anti-police sentiment in the city and nationwide.
The discontent within the police department appeared to reach a boiling point this week after Fulton County District Attorney Paul L. Howard Jr. brought felony murder and other charges against Garrett Rolfe, the former officer who fatally shot Rayshard Brooks, a black man, in the back. Following Howard’s announcement of the charges Wednesday, an undisclosed number of Atlanta police officers called in sick just before a shift change that evening.
While the police department swiftly refuted claims that the sick calls were part of a large-scale strike, they did confirm “a higher than usual number of call-outs,” referring to officers who did not show up for their shifts Wednesday night. Both the department and Bottoms, who appeared on CNN to address the call-outs, said the absences would not impact response times.
A spokesman for the city’s police union also denied reports of a “blue flu,” a de facto police strike when many cops call in sick at the same time, but confirmed that the actions were in protest of the charges against Rolfe and a second Atlanta police officer, Devin Brosnan.
“This is not an organized thing,” 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.”
On Thursday, Bryant, the interim chief, told the Associated Press that officers were still calling in sick.
“Some are angry. Some are fearful. Some are confused on what we do in this space. Some may feel abandoned,” Bryant said. “But we are there to assure them that we will continue to move forward and get through this.”
Bryant attributed the sick calls to the protests, noting that officers have been working long shifts during which they are often met with open hostility from citizens who have verbally and physically accosted them.
“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 sick-outs drop back to normal, average.”
Champion said just one officer came to work Thursday morning in one zone where normally several dozen are assigned, the AP reported.
Meanwhile, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) released a video message Thursday expressing support for law enforcement statewide, calling them “local heroes” and thanking them for their service.
“We stand with you,” Kemp said. “I don’t know what comes next, but know that you are not alone. Georgia’s a state that proudly backs the blue.”
But protests continued Thursday in Atlanta, where activists say the fatal police shooting of Brooks marks the latest incident of deadly force used against a black man. In the weeks before Brooks was shot, Atlanta was rocked by outcry over the allegedly racially motivated shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, who was killed while jogging in Glynn County, Ga., in February.
Though Bottoms also said Thursday that she supports the Atlanta police, she defended how rapidly officials took action in response to Brooks’s killing.
“There’s a shift happening across this country, and we can’t be tone-deaf to that. And what that shift is is that we have to respond very quickly when there are problems,” she told WSB. “This is not about the mayor’s office against our police officers. It’s not about our communities against our police officers. It’s about us being thoughtful about how we continue to work together as a whole.”