Georgia Today: The Killing Of Rayshard Brooks
The police shooting death of Rayshard Brooks in a Wendy's parking lot in Atlanta reignited the city, which was just starting to cool down following weeks of protests for social justice and police reform. In recent days after Brooks' death, Atlanta has seen a new round of demonstrations, the resignation of the city's police chief, and two Atlanta officers charged in Brooks' death. In this episode of Georgia Today, Atlanta Magazine writer and editor Thomas Wheatley walks through the police shooting death of Rayshard Brooks, what happened in the nights that followed, and what it could mean going forward for policing in Atlanta.
Steve Fennessy: Thomas, when did you first hear the name Rayshard Brooks?
Thomas Wheatley: I didn't hear it. I read it on Instagram. I started seeing all these posts about a man named Rayshard Brooks. And it was a hashtag and a name. And more and more details started coming out. This was the night that he was - the night he was shot. I first read the name.
Fennessy: Word was getting out that this wasn't just a tussle between two officers and a black man. This was something that ended in a black man being shot dead.
Wheatley: During a time when the entire country is talking about police shootings and racism and policing and white supremacy, and after Atlanta was the scene of protests almost night after night, there was the open question of: what city will be next. And it turned out to be Atlanta.
Fennessy: I'm Steve Fennessy. This is Georgia Today. The shooting of Rayshard Brooks at an Atlanta Wendy's restaurant parking lot on June 12 reignited the city, which was just starting to cool down after the George Floyd protests of the days and weeks before. Today, Thomas Wheatley, an editor and writer at Atlanta Magazine, talks about what happened that night and the nights that followed and what it could mean for policing in Atlanta going forward.
Thomas, why were the police called initially on Rayshard Brooks?
Wheatley: There was a report that, that someone was sleeping in his car in the drive thru.
Fennessy: And this is at Wendy's?
Wheatley: Yes, on University Avenue.
Dispatcher: Atlanta 9-1-1, operator 7729 which location (unintelligible).
Caller: 125 University.
Dispatcher: OK, 125 University Southwest. Is that the Wendy's?
Caller: Yes, ma'am.
Fennessy: And who made the call?
Wheatley: It was the Wendy's.
Fennessy: So an employee at the Wendy's made the call?
Caller: Yeah, I have a car. I think he's intoxicated. He's in the middle of my drive thru. I tried to wake him up. But he's - he's parked dead in the middle of the drive thru, so I don't know what's wrong.
Dispatcher: Is he breathing, Ma'm? Do you know?
Fennessy: And within ten minutes, and this is now we're talking about like 10:45 at night on Friday, officer Devin Brosnan arrives. And what happens then?
Wheatley: Brosnan arrives and talks to, talks to Brooks.
Officer Brosnan: Hey, my man. Hey, you good man? You seem like you're passed out before. I want to make sure you are OK?
Rayshard Brooks: (Unintelligible).
Brosnan: Why do you fall asleep, in the -
Brosnan: What's up?
Brosnan: OK, how much did you drink tonight? Not much. How much is not much?
Wheatley: Advises him to pull into a parking spot and to, you know, to kind of like take a moment. He begins the preliminary steps of a fairly routine traffic stop.
Brosnan: Alright, man, stay in the car for me. All right. Keep looking for your license. I'll be right back with you, alright. Appreciate it.
Wheatley: Calls for another officer to assist him for backup.
Brosnan: 304 to (unintelligible) if I can get a DUI certified officer to my location.
Wheatley: And that's when Rolfe arrives.
Fennessy: Garrett Rolfe.
Wheatley: Garrett Rolfe.
Officer Rolfe: Hey, Mr. Brooks. Mr. Brooks. Hey, I am Officer Rolfe, with the Atlanta police. How are you doing?
Brooks: I'm doing just fine.
Fennessy: He's been on the police force longer than officer Brosnan.
Wheatley: Correct, I believe almost eight years or about that.
Fennessy: He asked Rayshard Brooks, do you have any weapons.
Rolfe: Come on back here? Do you have any weapons on you or anything like that?
Brooks: I don't have anything on me.
Rolfe: Is okay if I pat you down, just to make sure?
Brooks: If you - I just have this money, gas, that was it.
Rolfe: Is it okay if I pat you down to make sure you don't have any weapons?
Rolfe: Face away from me, real quick.
Fennessy: And that's significant. Why is that significant?
Wheatley: Because he's unarmed.
Fennessy: So they're giving him a sobriety test. And I see him walking. They're holding up their fingers and doing the field sobriety test.
Officer: Put your feet together, hands down by your side? Don't start anything until I tell you to. You're going to pick whichever foot you're most comfortable with, raise that foot approximately six inches above the ground, keeping both legs straight and your foot parallel to the ground. Look at your toe.
Fennessy: Then they bring out a breathalyzer. What happens then?
Wheatley: He initially declines to take any more tests. And but then he admits that he's been drinking and he complies.
Brooks: If, if you know, if that's less possible for me to park here, lock the car up and do everything that I need to do within the presence of you guys, I can just go home. I have my daughters there right now. My three - my daughter's birthday was yesterday.
Rolfe: Hold on, Mr. Brooks. Will you take a (unintelligible) breath test for me. It's a yes or no?
Brooks: I don't want to refuse anything.
Rolfe: It's yes or no. It's completely up to you.
Brooks: Yes, I will.
Rolfe: OK, just wait here while I grab it.
Wheatley: At that point, they conduct the breathalyzer and they, they inform him, you know, we think you've been drinking too much and they start to place him under arrest.
Officer: Put your hands behind your back.
Wheatley: But they go to handcuff him and Brooks begins to resist.
Officers: Stop, stop, stop fighting. Stop fighting. Hey, you're going to get tased. You're going to get tased.
Wheatley: During the scuffle, Brooks is able to gain control of Brosnan's taser.
Fennessy: We see from the security video, Brooks, sort of points back over his shoulder with his taser. And you can see an illumination from the taser, right? Being, being fired.
Wheatley: And then gunshots.
Fennessy: It's within, not even seconds that Officer Rolfe fires at the back of Rayshard Brooks.
Wheatley: Right. That's also when I knew that this was going to be a story that was going to have - that was going to really grab the nation's attention. It was when I saw the details about him being shot in the back. That's when I, I closed my eyes and shook my head.
I first went to Wendy's the evening after Rayshard Brooks was shot. I live in southwest Atlanta. This took place in southwest Atlanta, on the border of southeast Atlanta. I'm going to go see what this is all about. And I went down there with two my colleagues. We had to park blocks away in the Pittsburgh neighborhood and creep through some fences and some yards because the interstate was shut down.
Activists, by that point, had walked up the embankment onto 75, 85, and you had a line of 20 protesters blocking traffic on 75, 85 going southbound. And then you had another line of protesters facing off against police who, who were stationed probably 200, 300 feet away. And to be on the downtown connector on a Saturday night, when it's not moving, is a powerful experience. It's not a place where people are supposed to be.
Newscaster: We have watched live, on air the Wendys where this all went down last night, where Rayshard Brooks was shot and killed by Atlanta police. It is now engulfed in flames. We watched this...
Fennessy: There's several hundred people gathering around the Wendy's.
Wheatley: And the Wendy's is smoking.
Newscaster: But it's shooting through the roof, really taking over that entire building. Protesters were around that building for much of the night. It looks like now they are just spilling out into the street.
Wheatley: You walk up to the Wendy's, and every fast food restaurant has the kind of the street side landscaping with the tiny bush in the pine straw.
Wheatley: That was on fire. That Wendy's became a symbol and it became a vigil.
Fennessy: When you talk to activists and - what was their reaction to the fact that it had - that, that place had been set afire?
Wheatley: There were different opinions that I heard. There were, there were some people who were angry that it was burning, that they said you shouldn't do this. I did not hear anything about who owned it or really the role that it served in the community that night because people were just so focused on the fact that here is this building in flames. And there were other activists that I spoke to. And especially in the days after, when there were concerns that one of the people who started the fire was a white woman. That it doesn't matter, don't help the cops, with - with finding out who did it. The Wendys needed to burn. We needed to see this.
The world needed to see this. The world needed to be jolted.
Activist: Black Lives Matter!
Wheatley: When I went on Sunday - the day after the Wendys burned down - it was an almost an activist controlled space.
Fennessy: Tell us, who were some of the people that you spoke with when you were out at the Wendys after the Rayshard Brooks shooting?
Wheatley: Well, the first person I spoke with was Malik Muhammad.
Wheatley, on scene: Hey Malik, can I take a photo of you? Is that cool?
Wheatley: He regularly provides security at, at a lot of events related civil - to civil rights, to protest. He does a lot of work with many of the leading civil rights lawyers here in the city. And I walked up and first thing he asked me was, "what's your narrative?" And "can you tell the right narrative?" And I said:.
Wheatley, on scene: Well, what is the narrative? And -
Muhammad: The narrative is that we're tired of seeing black men getting killed. We're tired of poor policing practices and principles being enforced. We're tired of, nothing else. State representatives and councilmen coming out here, making promises and getting up in their offices and not doing anything.
Wheatley: Malik also told me that he's had tough conversations with his children about being black in America.
Muhammad: I got two 16 year old twins and a 15 year old and 14 year old. My 14 year old is 6'1, 250 pounds. He looks like a grown man.
Wheatley, on scene: Yeah.
Muhammad: So he could easily be mistaken as that he could be treated like that.
Wheatley, on scene: Yeah.
Muhammad: You understand?
Wheatley, on scene: Yeah, I understand.
Muhammad: I have had to have that talk with my kids about police brutality before we even have the talk about the birds and the bees.
Wheatley: After I spoke with Malik, I took a walk around the building. I took photographs of the Wendys. In the back, someone spray painted "heal us." And I noticed a man talking to a cameraman. And I walked over because I could hear his voice growing louder and he was fighting back tears.
Bryant: It could be me. It could be me, next. It could be me next. And my children would go be without their father.
Wheatley: His name was Raymond Bryant, pastor from Stone Mountain.
Bryant: I don't know if I can be peaceful if I see a police officer handling my sister, or my mama, or my cousin, or grandmama something - that kind of way, nah, stuff is gonna be something serious. So it is time to really get - and I was glad that representatives were out here so that they can hear from us. Because we are voting. We are voting. We are voting. I stood in line. I made my children vote for the first time.
Fennessy: Thomas, what's your M.O. when you go out to these protests? What do you, what are you looking to do as a reporter?
Wheatley: Protest, in terms of viewing them like a, like a journalist, are oftentimes very visual events. It's rare to see so many people united, feeling such strong emotions and to be so angry about something that they leave the house during a pandemic to protest. I'm also looking to see how, to how the police behave, how the protesters behave.
I'm going out there to really try to get a sense of, what are you feeling now and what do you want to happen? Because I've noticed with protest that that's kind of the, the chain of events, is that first you have people going out into the streets who feel very strongly about something, but they don't necessarily know what needs to happen next. But they need to express themselves. They need to have that kind of release and they need to feel seen and they need to be seen.
And after that comes the point of, "OK, well, how do we, how do we make change?"
Fennessy: Less than 24 hours after Rayshard Brooks was shot and killed, Police Chief Erika Shields submitted her resignation.
Keisha Lance Bottoms: Chief Shields has offered to immediately step aside as police chief so that the city may move forward with urgency in rebuilding the trust so desperately needed throughout our communities.
Fennessy: What her departure means when we come back. This is Georgia Today.
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Fennessy: I'm Steve Fennessy. This is Georgia Today. Within 24 hours of Rayshard Brooks being shot and killed by Atlanta police, Erika Shields, who'd been a chief for three and a half years, resigned.
Erika Shields: I don't just want to build a cop. I want people who go out and are leaders.
Fennessy: Here's a TEDx talk she gave in 2018 about changing the culture of the department.
Shields: And it can not just be the black people driving the conversation. It has to be the white people that give a damn. It's also critical that our, our officers understand the role of police in the civil rights movement. It's an ugly, ugly history of ours, in law enforcement. But we have to understand it because otherwise we're not going to understand the reaction when we go to answer a call in the black community.
Fennessy: Thomas, what was her agenda? What was she trying to accomplish and how far did she get?
Wheatley: She was basically going into office and thinking about changing the police department in a way that would make the public, police reform advocates and police officers happier. And she, she wanted police to stop responding to the marijuana busts, the shoplifting, the crossing a street, you know, jaywalking, public intoxication. Less of those and focus more on violent crime.
And in the process, you could build ties between the community and police - and also really start addressing the things that cause loss of life, can really, truly send a life off the rails. Domestic issues, things like that. That was her focus coming in. But it doesn't end with just policing. It's like, she can't do - she can't do this job herself. It's going to require the city. It's going to require the mayor, the city council, the school system, the county.
Fennessy: I think that gets to the point of like there's only so much you can do as a police chief.
Wheatley: Everything's connected. And in my - what I didn't know at the time would be my final interview with Chief Shields, when she came out and addressed some of the protesters after George Floyd's death, I asked her:
Wheatley, on scene: If you had a magic wand and you could wave it. Well, what would you do?
Shields: If I had a magic wand and could wave it, I would have the economics of Atlanta more better distributed, because the reality of is it still is...
Wheatley: And she said, we have to look at income inequality. We have to look at education. We have to look at lack of access - how some kids don't have laptops.
Shields: They have no laptops, they're not learning. Or they have laptops or they have the (unintelligible) structure to keep learning.
Fennessy: So it would be disingenuous or at least naive to talk about just policing in a city that has the highest income inequality in America.
Fennessy: Right. It takes so much more. And people, people understand this. But, but how do you address it? How do you change society? When do you change it? When, when do you intervene in, in a person's life? And these are, these are all big questions and they're - I don't know if they really have answers, but they have potential approaches, you know, that we could try.
Keisha Lance Bottoms: On Friday evening, we saw the murder of Rayshard Brooks. And, as I've said before, I am often reminded of the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior: "There is a fierce urgency of now in our communities and that fierce urgency..."
Fennessy: Mayor Bottoms issued an administrative order concerning policing. What did it say?
Wheatley: Well, it's, it's, it's directing the interim chief, Rodney Bryant, to adopt and implement changes related to use of force. And that includes requiring officers if they see another officer using force that is, quote, "beyond what is reasonable under the circumstance" that they have to intervene. It's also requiring them to look at what are the policies around shooting at moving vehicles? What are the policies around reporting deadly use of force.
So these are, these are some more things that are, you know, that are, that are coming out of the mayor's office, showing that they're, that they're taking action. Question is, are they doing the right things or are they merely kind of nipping at the edges? Does there need to be more substantive change? And are activists going to feel that this is enough?
Fennessy: Our thanks to Thomas Wheatley, an editor and writer with Atlanta Magazine. On Wednesday, June 17, the Fulton County D.A. Paul Howard announced that Garrett Rolfe, the now former APD officer who fired the shots that killed Rayshard Brooks, would face 11 charges in connection with the fatal shooting, including felony murder. His fellow officer, Devin Brosnan, faces three charges, including aggravated assault.
Speaker: Once Mr. Brooks was shot, there is an Atlanta policy that requires that the officers have to provide timely medical attention to Mr. Brooks or to anyone who is injured. But after Mr. Brooks was shot, for some period of two minutes and twelve seconds, there was no medical attention applied to Mr. Brooks.
Fennessy: According to Howard, Brosnan has agreed to testify against Rolfe as a state witness. But Brosnan's attorney, Don Samuel, said his client had agreed to no such thing.
For more of our coverage, visit GPBNews.org. I'm Steve Fennessy. This is Georgia Today. Our producer is Sean Powers. We'll be back next week.
Transcript by Eva Rothenberg