A former Atlanta police officer was charged Wednesday with felony murder, aggravated assault and other offenses in the shooting death of Rayshard Brooks, less than a week after the 27-year-old black man’s killing set off a new wave of protests against racism and police brutality.
Howard revealed granular details of what investigators found in the case, including a still photo that he said showed Rolfe kicking Brooks, who was prone on the ground after being shot. Howard also asserted — though the officer’s lawyer would soon dispute it — that Brosnan had agreed to become a “state’s witness” and testify against his colleague.
Lawyers for Rolfe and Brosnan issued forceful statements defending the actions of their clients during the incident, signaling what is likely to be a hotly contested legal battle ahead. The men must still be indicted, Howard said, and that might not happen until early next year. Then they will be tried.
Brooks’s family and civil liberties advocates said they welcomed charges in the case — though they noted that they represented a mere starting point for what they want to see. In other cases in which police have been charged in connection with the death of suspects, such as that of Freddie Gray in Baltimore in 2015, bids to win convictions have failed, as prosecutors have run into laws that afford law enforcement officers a great deal of protection.
“Was this justice today? Not yet,” said attorney L. Chris Stewart, who represents Brooks’s family. “Maybe one day this country will get it right with policing and we’ll all come together.”
Vanita Gupta, the former head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division who is now president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said that as recently as several weeks ago, law enforcement might have “filed the incident away as awful but lawful.”
But after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked nationwide protests, Gupta said, state and local officials, including those in Atlanta, have shown more willingness to swiftly condemn police acts of violence and bring charges. On Wednesday, Floyd’s brother addressed the U.N. Human Rights Council about his brother’s killing — a remarkable step.
“The charges coming down this quickly, I think, signals a pretty significant sea change in what is acceptable by law enforcement at this time, and that has been really movement-driven,” Gupta said. “It’ll be really interesting to see whether juries start to behave differently in these cases, because they are part of the public, and they’re observing everything that is going on.”
Because of video and other materials released about Brooks’s shooting, much was already known about his case.
Rolfe and Brosnan were responding to a complaint Friday about a man parked and asleep in the drive-through of a Wendy’s on the south side of Atlanta. Brooks failed a sobriety test, and officers tried to take him into custody, according to a preliminary report by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. The three men scuffled in the parking lot before Brooks grabbed an officer’s Taser and started running.
In a video of the incident, Brooks appears to point the Taser at Rolfe as he runs away. The officer is seen drawing a weapon and shooting at Brooks, who collapses on the asphalt.
The state of Georgia was already on edge after video emerged of the killing of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, a black jogger who was chased down by two white men and fatally shot. Though the incident occurred in February, authorities took more than two months to bring charges against the men and did so only after video of Arbery’s death was publicized.
After weeks of rallies in Atlanta, Brooks’s death set off a new round of demonstrations. The Wendy’s where he was shot was set on fire and thousands marched through the streets on Monday, culminating with a rally at the state’s Capitol.
Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields resigned Saturday, and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on Monday announced a series of administrative orders targeting police policies, such as requiring officers to use de-escalation techniques before using deadly force and mandating police to intervene when their colleagues use unreasonable force.
Rolfe was fired from the department; Brosnan was pulled off street patrols. A copy of Rolfe’s disciplinary record released Monday indicates that he had previously received several citizen complaints and faced discipline in the past, including in a use-of-force incident. A spokesman for the FBI’s office in Atlanta said this week that the bureau, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia and the Justice Department’s civil rights division would “review all available evidence to determine what federal response is warranted.”
Howard said that his investigators focused in on a more than 41-minute discussion Brooks had with officers after they first encountered him. Brooks, he said, was “calm,” “cordial” and “almost jovial” as he complied with various requests from the officers, including telling officers that he didn’t have a weapon and consenting to a pat-down. He said Rolfe then grabbed Brooks from behind — without saying he was under arrest for driving under the influence, as he was required by policy to do — and the scuffle ensued.
“Mr. Brooks never presented himself as a threat,” Howard said.
Howard spent little time on the fracas, instead moving to the shooting and its immediate aftermath. He said his office concluded that “at the time Mr. Brooks was shot that he did not pose an immediate threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or officers.”
He noted that though Brooks fired a Taser in Rolfe’s direction, it was above the officer’s head.
Howard said that Rolfe’s gunfire struck a vehicle in the parking lot that was full of people visiting from Memphis and that some of the charges stem from that. After the shooting, Howard said, Rolfe uttered, “I got him,” and kicked Brooks as he lay on the ground. Brosnan, he said, stood on Brooks’s arm. Asked about the kick at a news conference, Tomika Miller, Brooks’s wife, began to break down.
“I don’t know what I would have done if I saw that for myself,” she said. “But I felt everything for myself just by hearing what he went through. And it hurt. It hurt really bad.”
Howard said the officers had been asked to turn themselves in by 6 p.m. Thursday. He said he would seek a $50,000 bond for Brosnan and no bond for Rolfe.
Howard asserted that Brosnan would become a “cooperating witness” for the state, and that Brosnan had told investigators he was “somewhat surprised” that the encounter escalated to an attempt to arrest Brooks. Howard stated that Brosnan said of standing on Brooks “something to the effect that he really didn’t know what was going on, and he was trying to ensure that Mr. Brooks did not have a weapon.” Stewart and Miller said they were grateful Brosnan had met with investigators.
Don Samuel, a lawyer for Brosnan, disputed the district attorney’s assertion that Brosnan had agreed to cooperate in the prosecution, though he confirmed that Brosnan had met with investigators and answered all of their questions.
“He is not a cooperating witness. He has not agreed to be a witness. He has not agreed to plead guilty,” Samuel said in an email.
Samuel called Brosnan’s actions on Friday night “exemplary” and said the decision to bring charges was “irrational and obviously based on factors which should have nothing to do with the proper administration of justice.” He said Brosnan never pulled out his gun and took out only a Taser — never activating it — when Brooks “resisted arrest and fought with both of the officers.” He said Brosnan was knocked to the ground, hit his head on the pavement and suffered a concussion and bruises to his arms and legs.
“Shame on the district attorney for this rush to misjudgment,” Samuel said.
Similarly, the LoRusso Law Firm, which represents Rolfe, issued a lengthy statement saying Rolfe’s actions were “justified” under the law. The firm asserted that Brooks “chose to violently attack two uniformed police officers” and questioned the notion that Brooks had simply sought to flee.
“Instead of merely trying to escape, Mr. Brooks reached back with his arm extended and pointed an object at Officer Rolfe. Officer Rolfe heard a sound like a gunshot and saw a flash in front of him,” the firm said, adding, “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 felony murder charge carries a possible death sentence or life in prison. Aggravated assault can come with a penalty of up to 20 years.
A crowd of about 40 people gathered outside the Wendy’s as the charges were announced. Eva Snow of the group Black Rebel Order said she would have preferred an even more serious charge, shouting into a megaphone, “Why we rejoicing?” Another person stressed that 11 counts had been filed, declaring, “Justice can be served today.”
In downtown Atlanta, a small group gathered in front of Centennial Olympic Park for the 18th day in a row, blasting music, holding signs and greeting friendly honks from passing cars.
Brittany Jones-Chukura, an organizer of the group, said she believes the charges filed against the officers are a measure of justice.
“That’s a message for Atlanta police officers — times are changing,” she said, but added that it was not a victory. “There’s still that feeling of: ‘It didn’t have to happen.’ ”
Haisten Willis in Atlanta contributed to this report.