ATLANTA — Atlanta police officers called out sick or refused to answer calls Thursday to protest the filing of murder charges against an officer who shot a man in the back, while the interim chief said 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 has sufficient staff to protect the city. It’s not clear how many officers have 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.”
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 and ran, firing it at the officer, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said.
Howard said that Brooks was not a deadly threat at the time and that the officer kicked the wounded black man and offered no medical treatment for over two minutes as he 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 turned themselves in Thursday. Jail records show Brosnan was released a $30,000 signature bond, meaning he only has to pay if he fails to show up for court, while Rolfe was being held without bond.
Less than 24 hours after Friday’s shooting, police chief Erika Shields resigned, and Bryant took over on an interim basis.
Bryant wore a navy blue shirt Thursday, rather than the white shirt typically worn by command staff, to show solidarity with the officers.
“This is the uniform that the men and women of the police department wear, and I felt that it was important that they have an understanding that we are one organization, and we will dress as one organization,” he said.
In the roughly three weeks since protests first broke out in Georgia’s capital after George Floyd was killed by police in Minnesota, 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. “But we’ll get beyond that. We will definitely get beyond it and I’m certain that we will see our sick-outs drop back to normal, average.”
The decision to prosecute the officers came less than five days after the killing rocked a city — and a nation — still reeling after Floyd’s killing set off nationwide protests that have urged an extensive rethink of policing and an examination of racism in the United States. On Wednesday night, the largest labor group in the Seattle area voted to expel the city’s police union, saying the guild representing officers failed to address racism within its ranks.
Bryant said he was surprised at how quickly Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard reached the decision to charge the officers, noting that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation hadn’t yet had time to finish looking into the shooting.
He would not say how many officers called out, but just one officer showed up for work Thursday morning in Zone 6, which covers much of Atlanta’s east side and which several dozen are assigned to patrol, said 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.
“What they realized is that the city, meaning the mayor and the police department, does not support them,” Champion said.
Champion said he’s heard from several officers that they fear using force to protect themselves will get them fired or arrested.
Brooks’ funeral is set for Tuesday at Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, which was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s congregation, the Rev. Raphael Warnock announced. Tyler Perry, the actor and filmmaker, has offered financial help for the services, officials said.
Police 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 long, relatively calm conversation before things rapidly turned violent when officers tried to handcuff him.
Rolfe shot Brooks after he grabbed a Taser and ran, Howard, the district attorney said. But when the officer fired, Brooks was too far ahead of him for the Taser to be a danger, and it had already been fired twice, so it was empty and no longer a threat, 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.
“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 in a statement.
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 one of his attorneys, Amanda Clark Palmer, denied that. Clark Palmer said that Brosnan stood on Brooks’ hand, not his shoulder, for just seconds to make sure he did not have a weapon.
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,” she said.
Associated Press writers Sudhin Thanawala and Jeff Martin in Atlanta contributed to this report.