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Atlanta Police Chief Resigns After Officer Shoots and Kills a Black Man

Rayshard Brooks had fallen asleep in his vehicle at a Wendy’s drive-through. He was shot after a struggle during which he grabbed a Taser from an officer, the authorities said.

Protesters in Atlanta on Saturday, following the shooting of Rayshard Brooks by a police officer on Friday night.
Protesters in Atlanta on Saturday, following the shooting of Rayshard Brooks by a police officer on Friday night.Credit…Joshua Rashaad McFadden for The New York Times

ATLANTA — Less than 24 hours after a white police officer shot and killed an African-American man outside a fast-food restaurant, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta announced on Saturday that the city’s police chief had resigned, and called for the “immediate termination” of the officer who shot the man.

The shooting left many in the city once again incensed by the death of another black man at the hands of the police — and nervous about the potential for more destructive flare-ups. By Saturday night, protesters had blocked roads and an interstate near the restaurant, a Wendy’s, and apparently set it on fire, according to news reports, with police firing tear gas and flash grenades to try to disperse the crowd.

The authorities said the man, Rayshard Brooks, 27, had run from the police on Friday night after failing a sobriety test and grabbing a Taser from an officer during a struggle with him. Ms. Bottoms said that security footage appeared to show that Mr. Brooks had fired the Taser toward the officer, who was chasing him before he was killed, but that she did not consider that a justification for the shooting.

“While there may be debate as to whether this was an appropriate use of deadly force, I firmly believe that there is a clear distinction between what you can do and what you should do,” Ms. Bottoms said. “I do not believe that this was a justified use of deadly force.”

Ms. Bottoms’s rapid response to the fatal shooting signaled the heightened scrutiny facing law enforcement as a wave of protest against police violence continues in many cities around the country — a movement that has already prompted a number of changes to local police policies, as well as a broader conversation about the ongoing racism that people of color experience in the justice system and nearly every other facet of American life.

In the past, police shootings have rarely prompted such swift and dramatic responses. It is more common for city leaders to stand with the police and urge patience as prosecutors and the police departments themselves conduct reviews. The moves by Atlanta officials on Saturday may have been taken with an eye to the streets, in the hope of dampening a potentially explosive reaction like those that have engulfed many cities over the last several weeks.Video00:001:001:00Atlanta Police Shoot Man Outside a Wendy’sSurveillance video footage shows the police chasing and shooting Rayshard Brooks, 27, after an altercation that the authorities said began on Friday night after Mr. Brooks fell asleep in his car. Mr. Brooks was taken to a hospital, where he died after surgery.CreditCredit…Georgia Bureau of Investigations

The resignation of Atlanta’s police chief, Erika Shields, who is white, was the latest in a series of shake-ups at several large police departments amid the protests after the killing of Mr. Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. In Portland, Ore., Chief Jami Resch, who is white, stepped down this week, saying she wanted a top black lieutenant to replace her. And earlier this month, the mayor of Louisville terminated the city’s police chief after his officers were among those who fired at the owner of a barbecue restaurant, who was black.

In Atlanta, a few nights of looting, destruction and tense stand offs with the police followed Mr. Floyd’s death, including an incident in which two college students were pulled by police officers from their car and tased, an encounter that was captured on video. But more recently, the protests in the southern city, as in much of the country, have been mostly peaceful, if no less spirited.

Antonio Brown, an African-American city councilman, has spent days organizing and leading peaceful protests through the city. “It’s like, all the work we’ve done — and then this happens,” Mr. Brown said.

The encounter at the Wendy’s began around 10:30 p.m. on Friday when police officers were called to the restaurant because Mr. Brooks had fallen asleep in his vehicle, which was parked in the drive-through, causing other customers to drive around him, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said in a statement.

Mr. Brooks failed a sobriety test, the authorities said, and then struggled with officers as he was being arrested. A video posted on social media showed him grappling with the two officers who were trying to arrest him. One officer appeared to try to stun him with a Taser after Mr. Brooks threw a punch at him.

Rayshard Brooks
Rayshard BrooksCredit…via Stewart Trial Attorneys

As Mr. Brooks ran away, appearing to hold the Taser, one officer chased after him, holding another stun gun. Then, in one video, several gunshots were heard.

The bureau initially said in a statement that witnesses described Mr. Brooks being shot “in the struggle over the Taser.” But on Saturday afternoon, after obtaining surveillance video from the restaurant and reviewing videos on social media, the bureau revised that account, saying it “was based on the officer’s body cam which was knocked off during the physical struggle, preventing the capture of the entire shooting incident.”

“During the chase, Mr. Brooks turned and pointed the Taser at the officer,” the bureau said, adding that “the officer fired his weapon, striking Brooks.”

Mr. Brooks was taken to a hospital, where he died after surgery, the authorities said. One officer was treated at a hospital for an injury and was later released.

L. Chris Stewart, a lawyer who was hired by the Brooks family, said repeatedly at a news conference Saturday night that a Taser was not considered a deadly weapon, and that there was no justification for the police to shoot Mr. Brooks just because he had one in his hands.

He also said that the police could have instead cornered Mr. Brooks and arrested him, instead of chasing him and shooting him. “His life was not in immediate harm when he fired that shot,” Mr. Stewart said of the officer.

He said the officers put on plastic gloves and picked up shell casings before rendering first aid to Mr. Brooks, and also did not check his pulse for more than two minutes after he was shot.

Mr. Brooks’ half-sister, Kiara Owens, 26, said Mr. Brooks had been working a construction job and had five daughters, including two who were stepchildren, and a sixth daughter on the way. “All he wanted to do is work and come home to his kids,” she said. “The kids have been asking like, ‘Is Daddy coming home?’ And I can’t tell the kids nothing. I can’t tell them.”

Erika Shields, who resigned as chief of the Atlanta Police Department on Saturday, at her office in 2019.
Erika Shields, who resigned as chief of the Atlanta Police Department on Saturday, at her office in 2019.Credit…Audra Melton for The New York Times

The killing was particularly painful for a city sometimes called America’s Black Mecca for its cultural and economic importance to the lives of African-Americans, and its stature as one of the great spiritual and organizing centers of the civil rights movement.

Atlanta remains a majority-black city with significant African-American political representation and a large number of black police officers. That has created a complex interplay between protesters and city authorities as recent protests have unfolded.

Mayor Bottoms, who is African-American, earned widespread praise for her response to the unrest early on, speaking passionately about her role as a black mother and her fears for her black son. Her eloquence elevated her national stature, and put her on a list of potential vice-presidential picks for former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.

Ms. Shields had also earned praise for her response to the street protests after Mr. Floyd’s death. Early on, she went out into the streets to speak — and listen — to demonstrators.

Protesters in Atlanta on Saturday.
Protesters in Atlanta on Saturday.Credit…Joshua Rashaad McFadden for The New York Times

But the city’s response has also been marked by controversy and embarrassment, including an incident in which a young black man and black woman were tased and violently dragged from their cars by Atlanta police officers as protests raged downtown. The episode, on May 30, was captured by television reporters and transmitted live as it unfolded.

Two of the officers involved in that incident were fired, and four others were placed on administrative leave. Soon after, the local district attorney, Paul Howard, brought criminal charges against all six officers — a move that Chief Shields criticized in a departmental email that referred to Mr. Howard’s re-election bid, according to The Associated Press.

Ms. Shields, who was sworn in as chief in 2017, will be replaced by Rodney Bryant, a black man who has served as a top police deputy and recently took over as the interim head of the city’s jails, Ms. Bottoms said, adding that the city will launch a national search for a permanent replacement.

Ms. Bottoms said that Ms. Shields had decided to resign but would continue to work for the city in a role that was not yet determined. In a statement, Ms. Shields said she was stepping aside “out of a deep and abiding love for this city and this department,” so that they could “build trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”

On Saturday, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation released footage from a Wendy’s security camera that showed the last moments of the encounter between the police officers and Mr. Brooks. In the video, Mr. Brooks runs into the frame between two parked police S.U.V.s and a line of cars waiting in the drive-through lane. He appears to have something in his right hand, and he is followed by an officer who also has something in his hand.

While being chased, and in full stride, Mr. Brooks points the object he is holding at the officer. The officer then fires his handgun, and Mr. Brooks falls to the pavement.

Shortly before Ms. Bottoms’s announcement that Ms. Shields would step down, the N.A.A.C.P. called for the chief’s resignation. Rev. James Woodall, the president of its state chapter, said of Mr. Brooks, “there was nothing that he did that was deserving of death.”

“Our overall message is that we are done dying,” the reverend said. “We are done waking up at one or two in the morning to another murder or yet another case of police brutality.”