Atlanta’s police chief resigned Saturday after police officers shot dead a 27-year-old black man trying to flee a traffic stop and protesters descended on the scene and demanded that heads roll.
The killing of Rayshard Brooks—who was rousted by cops after falling asleep in a car at a Wendy’s drive-through—was immediately condemned by Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who announced the resignation of Chief Erika Shields.
“I firmly believe that there is a clear distinction between what you can do and what you should do. I do not believe that this was a justified use of deadly force and have called for the immediate termination of the officer,” Bottoms told reporters.
Following days of nationwide unrest sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, Atlanta moved quickly to keep peace after cellphone video of Brooks’ confrontation with officers began circulating on social media.
Police said they found Brooks passed out in the car and, after administering a field sobriety test, attempted to arrest him for DUI, but he resisted and grabbed a Taser from one of the officers.
In video released by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Brooks is seen running away from officers in the Wendy’s parking lot before being fired upon. GBI Director Vic Reynolds said the officer fired at Brooks only after he aimed at him with the Taser. Many have questioned why that would warrant the use of lethal force, however.
Anti-police-brutality and anti-racism protesters have demonstrated for weeks in Atlanta following the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. Thousands had called for the police chief to resign even before the shooting at Wendy’s.
“Our first demand has been met,” one protester, Antonio Lewis, told The Daily Beast as the news of Shields’ resignation filtered through a crowd gathered outside the fast food restaurant on Saturday evening.
Bottoms named an interim police chief to succeed Shields. In a statement, Shields said she had offered to resign “out of a deep and abiding love for this city and this department.”
“ I have faith in the Mayor, and it is time for the city to move forward and build trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve,” she said.
The mayor said the city would begin a search for a new leader for its force and implement reforms within 45 days.
“To the family of Mr. Brooks, there are no words I can offer that can change your loss. I do hope you will find some comfort in the swift actions taken today and the reforms our city will implement,” Bottoms said.
Hundreds of demonstrators held vigil for more than 12 hours at the Wendy’s, and Atlanta City Council member Andre Dickens said there was no reason Brooks should have died.
“Police must de-escalate situations like these before they turn deadly,” he said in a statement. “Once the suspect fled unarmed and intoxicated through a parking lot of bystanders, this could have become an investigation rather than a shooting.”
Brooks’ cousin Kedaro Jackson, who also lives in Atlanta, described his younger relative as “another young black man who was trying to get himself together.” Brooks had moved back to the city from Ohio less than three months ago for a job in construction. He often came to Jackson for advice, and the two were close.
Brooks left behind a large family, including five siblings—two brothers and three sisters. He had a baby this year, his fourth with his wife, according to Jackson.
Jackson, who welcomed a new baby himself on Friday, was the first in the family to learn of Brooks’ death, though video of it had already begun circulating online.
“I’m confused. It’s a lot to process right now. Everything has a time,” he told The Daily Beast. “The last thing I told him was to stay focused and continue doing the right thing.”
Jackson saw the video of the scuffle between Brooks and the officers differently than GBI did.
“If you look at the video, he didn’t grab the Taser until the officer was already trying to tase him. He tried to grab it so the man could stop tasing him. He was pushing the officers off him and running and saying, ‘Don’t shoot me! Don’t shoot me!’ When the police shot the three shots, they said ‘I got him, I got him!’” he said.
He plans to attend growing demonstrations Saturday night. “It wouldn’t be right if I don’t go,” he said.
Though the crowd size has fluctuated, protesters maintained a vocal presence outside the fast food restaurant throughout the day, and organizers had called for more to show up.
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Seanny Georgie, a local musician who has been marching for law enforcement accountability since May 30, the day after Atlanta’s latest spate of Black Lives Matter protests kicked off, caught wind of the officer-involved shooting around midnight. He immediately began to round up fellow protesters to head to the Wendy’s.
“There were like 50 protesters and four cops behind us with their guns ready, just looking at us really weird, trying to scare us off,” Georgie said of the scene when he arrived. The early-morning situation intensified as demonstrators chanted that the police were “pigs” and “murderers.”
Atlanta rapper Clifford “T.I.” Harris made a brief appearance at the rally, urging protesters to vote with their wallets, as well as at the ballot box. “Corporations spend money on politicians campaigns, so when you find out that there’s a corporation that’s supporting a certain politician that doesn’t support your concerns, stop spending your money there,” he said.
Asked about rumors that protesters planned to destroy the Wendy’s where Brooks was shot, Harris said, “I honestly don’t think Wendy’s is ‘our community.’ But I don’t think that destroying personal property is an answer. Why burn this building down if the people who did it ain’t in the building?”
Atlanta City Council member Antonio Brown said he was nearly asleep when he found out about the incident. By 1:30 a.m., he was on the phone with Shields, assuring her he’d serve as a buffer between law enforcement and the growing crowd. “I told Chief Shields I would help try to deescalate the crowd and keep them in order and peaceful,” he said.
Brown said he planned to pitch legislation to the City Council on Monday that would bar the city’s police force from using rubber bullets and tear gas against protesters.
In response to the unrest Atlanta witnessed during the early days of the protests, Bottoms launched a task force to evaluate the government’s use-of-force policies. And though the deadline for officials to make recommendations for potential reform is set for June 18, Brown said, “We cannot wait.” By then, he said, “another person could lose their life.”
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