Georgia Today: Is Mayor Bottoms Paying The Political Cost For A COVID Crime Wave?
Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms shocked many people in Atlanta and the nation by announcing last week she will not be running for reelection. She said that this is coming from a place of strength and not weakness. But her critics have said that what she calls a “COVID Crime Wave” and her handling of the firing of Atlanta police officer Garrett Rolfe, who shot Rayshard Brooks last summer, made her vulnerable if she had chosen to run. Police officers in the city of Atlanta feel like Bottoms no longer have their backs.
This week on Georgia Today, we look at some issues Bottoms faced during her tenure as mayor of the city of Atlanta with CNN national correspondent Ryan Young.
Virginia Prescott: This is Georgia Today; I'm Virginia Prescott. Even political insiders were stunned last week when Keisha Lance Bottoms announced via tweet that she would not seek a second term as mayor of Atlanta. In a press conference the following day, a visibly moved mayor said she was not bowing out from a position of weakness, but of strength.
[TAPE] Keisha Lance Bottoms: If the race for mayor were held today, I would win this race without a runoff. That's not me making it up: I've seen the poll numbers.
Virginia Prescott: But the mayor's handling of what she has called a COVID crime wave has given challengers steady ammunition. Crime is spiking in Atlanta, as in many American cities. Homicides, rapes and auto thefts are up and so are vacancies in the Atlanta Police Department, which reports 400 unfilled positions in its ranks. Critics assailed Mayor Bottoms’ decision last week to replace popular APD chief Erica Shields with insider Howard Bryant and for botching the firing of Garrett Rolfe, a police officer who fatally shot Rayshard Brooks last June. Atlanta’s Civil Service Board reinstated Rolfe last week on the grounds that the administration had not given him due process. Today, CNN national correspondent Ryan Young on Keisha Lance Bottoms and the political toll of a COVID crime wave.
One of the things that's been highlighted in the years since George Floyd was killed is how mayors and police forces across the country have dealt with racial justice protests. Keisha Lance Bottoms took her own stand when things started turning destructive in Atlanta. This was on May 30th of 2020 with rapper Killer Mike by her side.
[TAPE] Keisha Lance Bottoms: I am a mother to four black children in America, one of whom is 18 years old. And when I saw the murder of George Floyd, I hurt like a mother would hurt. I wear this each and every day and I pray over my children each and every day. So what I see happening on the streets of Atlanta is not Atlanta.
[TAPE] Killer Mike: So I'm duty-bound to be here to simply say that it is your duty not to burn your own house down for anger with an enemy. It is your duty to fortify your own house so that you may be a house of refuge in times of organization. It is time to beat up prosecutors you don't like — at the voting booth. It is time to hold mayoral offices accountable, chiefs and deputy chiefs. Atlanta is not perfect, but we are a lot better than we ever were and we are a lot better than cities are.
Virginia Prescott: Ryan, bring us back to that night and how it was handled.
Ryan Young: Yeah, you know, I'm glad you actually went there. And one of the reasons why is being an observer and watching what happened in this city, there's something that — a transformation that happened. This is a city that's dealt with protests very well. The social change of last year really took a turn. It became angry. Cops were actually the target of protesters in terms of just how they were yelling at them. And I think when you had Rayshard Brooks shot and killed after George Floyd, it was a bridge too far for so many people here. So then you had police officers who had done protest duty for 20 years in the city who had never faced the sort of anger that was going on. I mean, you had urine being tossed at officers. You had water bottles being tossed at police officers. And if you think about it, there was no one person who could stand there and say, “Hey, calm down,” and it put this city in a position that I don't think it's been in a long time where you had the old guard saying, “We don't protest like this in the city of Atlanta.” And then you had a new sort of chapter of protester who was like, “We don't care about how you used to do it and we don't care because we don't think you guys went far enough the first time.” And that was something very interesting to watch as it happened in real time.
Virginia Prescott: And after Rayshard Brooks was killed on Friday night, June 12th of 2020, fatally shot by Officer Garrett Rolfe at a Wendy's parking lot in south Atlanta — this killing, as you point out, happened just weeks after the murder of George Floyd and that ignited protests across the world, really. But Mayor Bottoms announced Officer Garrett’s termination the next day.
[TAPE] Keisha Lance Bottoms: 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. I do not believe that this was a justified use of deadly force and have called for the immediate termination of the officer
Virginia Prescott: And police chief Erika Shields resigned that day. What — what kind of calculations were going on for Keisha Lance Bottoms at that point?
Ryan Young: When you throw this whole thing together, you had a city that basically had two women sort of leading the charge here. You had a police chief who people really respected in the city, the first openly gay female police chief in the city of Atlanta. You had this mayor who — there were shirts that said, "My mayor's name is Keisha." And people sort of loved her all across the country. I mean, you got to think she was being considered and vetted for a job at the White House. So this was a momentum moment and people wanted that officer fired. So you understand the emotions were just unreal at this time. So they fired him. But the problem is in this city, there's a process in which you have to fire an officer. And the board didn't feel like the process was followed. And if you look back at this and you think about the ramifications, Chief Shields wasn't ready to go along with that either. And you look at the political football that this case has now become. You have a new DA who doesn't want to go with the charges from the old DA, Paul Howard. There were 11 charges for this officer, including felony murder. That DA is no longer in. You have no court case. And then you have the massive reaction from police officers, the fact that so many quit the police force, that there were callouts on a nightly basis in the city that literally put the safety of the citizens in jeopardy because you had a police force saying this wasn't right, that you fired him. Now, when you watch that tape and you see what happened between Rayshard Brooks and the officer, there was 20 minutes of like decent policing. And there was like 20 minutes of like really good personal interaction between all the men included.
[TAPE] Rayshard Brooks: I was just parked right here, go to sleep. I'm not feeling, you know, I'm just not feeling right.
[TAPE] Garrett Rolfe: What do you mean you're not feeling right?
[TAPE] Rayshard Brooks: See, like I said.
[TAPE] Garrett Rolfe: Do you think maybe that you had too much to drink and you realized that you shouldn't drive, so you parked?
[TAPE] Rayshard Brooks: I mean...
[TAPE] Garrett Rolfe: Would that be accurate to say?
[TAPE] Rayshard Brooks: Yes sir, Mr. Rolfe, yes.
Ryan Young: Like there was a conversation, there was de-escalation on both sides. We really thought it was going to go one way and then all of a sudden when it's announced he's going to jail, you can tell there was a decision made by Rayshard Brooks that he was like, “I'm not going back.” And then there was that struggle. And the next 45 seconds will be debated for a long time. He got ahold of one of the officers’ Tasers. He started running. He pointed back toward the officer and the officer met his force of that Taser with that weapon. And Rayshard Brooks died.
Virginia Prescott: That decision to fire Officer Rolfe is one that has come back to haunt Mayor Bottoms. She did not follow process. She did not say to the crowd, “We have to wait 10 days. There's — there's a process here. There's a hearing, there's an investigation.” She fired him. But the argument has been made that in context, that was a really difficult decision for her. So can you give us some of that sense of what was going on at that time?
Ryan Young: Wow. I mean, I think that's a great question. And I think when you think about people in general, they saw the crime happening downtown and they forget just how violent it was. So we had protesters at the CNN Center throwing rocks, painting things. But then at that Wendy's, where they burned it down, a child died during these protests. And we don't ever talk about that that much. But you had an 8-year-old who lost her life because the family decided to drive by the site where the Wendy's was burned down and people were, like, containing it and someone fired into a car.
[TAPE] Good Morning America ABC: Secoriea Turner was shot near here outside the Wendy's parking lot where 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks was killed at the hands of a white police officer last month. People with long guns have taken over the restaurant and the street in front of it and police let it happen.
Ryan Young: You also had some of the worst protesting that we've seen in quite some time during a pandemic where people actually had the time to protest 24/7. The mayor has said she feels like, if she wouldn't have made that decision, though, it might have been a tipping point where we might not have been able to get the city back safe. And I think sometimes when people look back at decisions, it's easier to give the officer his job back and let the process work itself out and then see him go to court. And if he gets — if he beats the charges, if he gets the job back and they still fire him, but there's recourse. But what we were headed for as this city, this multicultural melting pot, the seams were sort of being torn right in front of our eyes. They often say leadership is tough. And I don't know if anyone could ever second-guess the idea of firing that officer and he gets his job back. Well, did we really lose anything? Could we lose any more lives? Could we put any more officers’ lives in danger based upon where we were at that point in the city?
Virginia Prescott: At the beginning of her tumultuous week, Keisha Lance Bottoms named Rodney Bryant the new police chief of the Atlanta Police Department. A lot of clout back, by the way, for her not conducting a national search, but for naming somebody, a veteran of the force. But he comes out and he says: We are recruiting.
[TAPE] Rodney Bryant: We are actually beefing up our background and recruitment unit as we speak. The mayor has allotted her administration to help in us finding individuals that specialize in human resources. And so we believe that changing that structure of our background and recruitment will give us an advantage.
Virginia Prescott: What is the appeal right now of being an Atlanta cop?
Ryan Young: I talked to police officers all the time and — both white and Black — and last summer was too much. I mean, if you think about it, they were dealing with COVID, they were dealing with a pandemic. They were dealing with calls they never dealt with before. On top of that, you have to worry about your family because you have to wear masks to every single call you have and then you literally showing up to protests where now you are the enemy. I talked to one police chief last week and he said it's no longer just a crime in your city that you have to be concerned about. When an officer does something that the public deems wrong, every single police officer in the country now faces that reaction. So essentially what ends up happening here is now all these police officers are having to face something. Police officers left this city because they did not want to be fired like that. Police officers left this city because there was a perception that the mayor didn't have their back. Police officers also left because they loved Erika Shields. And so when you put all that together, it was really weird, because remember, the mayor had given them a raise at one point. So there was like a close intersection between the mayor's office and the police department, and that all evaporated in 35 seconds. And the thing about crime, as you know, there's no quick fixes. Like you can't look at it and say, how do you stop the car break-ins and do it in one weekend? It's going to have to be sustained. But we've never had a pandemic like this before where a modern police force has had to face some of the income equalities that that we face here in the city.
Virginia Prescott: Mayor Bottoms has championed community-centric over tactical policing. What does reform look like for the Atlanta Police Department? Stay with us for more Georgia Today. I'm Virginia Prescott.
Virginia Prescott: This is Georgia Today, I'm Virginia Prescott. Protests ignited by the killing of George Floyd last summer included calls to defund the police. That slogan was rejected by Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and many other Democrats who instead advocated for reforming policing policy and tactics and for improving de-escalation training.
[TAPE] Keisha Lance Bottoms: We have to objectively look at de-escalation. That's not very clear in our policies.
Virginia Prescott: Even the toned-down terminology rattled police unions and politicians who rallied around law and order campaign platforms and “blue lives matter” flags. Those opposing movements collided again last week when Garrett Rolfe was reinstated to the Atlanta Police Department. Although put back on the force because he was fired without proper procedure, the killing of Rayshard Brooks remains a flashpoint for anger and has revived questions about the rights of citizens and law enforcement.
So now Officer Rolfe has been reinstated in his job; he's placed on administrative leave until the resolution of the murder and aggravated assault charges that he's facing. But he's not yet been indicted. That's a step that's needed for the case to move forward. Of course, his lawyer’s maintaining his innocence. So what happens now and how does watching this case affect how Atlanta goes forward in the police reform, which the mayor advocated for?
Ryan Young: Here's the thing. You have a mayor who was trying to do the best she could by her public. But you have a police force that is one of the largest city agencies. And at the end of the day, when you think about coming to a city like ours, who had the best airport in the world for such a long time, you just want to feel safe. And seeing these crime numbers go up is something that's going to shake everybody. I guarantee you, whoever decides to run for mayor, the safety is going to be the thing that we all going to hear about for the next six months. It's going to drive all of us crazy. And so how do you build a police force that looks like the future? And I think that comes through de-escalation, that comes through outside services, that deals with some of these mental health calls. I think what you have to do is give police officers more equipment that they can use when they are not facing lethal weapons. Right? But that all takes time and none of it is going to happen overnight.
Virginia Prescott: You have been talking a lot about what police are facing. Of course, on the other side, there are people who are saying, “Well, the police have represented violence, especially against people of color and have exercised power over people of color in a determined way for centuries now. It is ingrained, it is part of the culture.” Is there a possibility of satisfying calls for racial justice in the cases of police violence and ensuring due process for Garrett Rolfe at the same time?
Ryan Young: Honestly, we better all hope so. I'm hearing more police chiefs say those words that you just said out of your mouth. So, you know, the police chief, Rodney Bryant, said “We have a branding issue” the other day. And I thought about that deeply because I think it goes deeper than that. What we have is we have a lack of community connection with the police department and people. So community policing was something that people said all the time. But if it doesn't become a part of the ethos, then it doesn't matter. If police chiefs don't find a way to address the needs of the community and be partners with them, then none of this matters, right? Because at the end of the day, we all want to live in this wonderful city of ours. We all want to go home. But if someone breaks into my house, that breaks my security. If someone carjacks a family member of mine, that breaks my security. We want retribution. We want justice. So we have to figure this out. But when you start speaking about equity, you think about car stops. Are they happening the same in Buckhead that they are in southeast Atlanta or southwest Atlanta? Like we know through numbers that black people and white people offend at the same rate when it comes to traffic violations, but who in this city is facing that more than others? That's what we talk about when it comes to equity. Like the mayor said on Friday, when you have someone who's poor, that can't pay a $200 fine and they get out — can get out of the city jail and then all of a sudden they lose their job because they're in the city jail because they couldn't pay a $200 fine. And then they lose the car and the job and then they get behind on child support. And the system has basically leveled someone for $200. We have to make this turn. Because, you know, if you ever got a superspeeder ticket in the city — let's say it's a thousand dollars — well, a thousand dollars to some of our listeners is nothing. A thousand dollars is the difference between someone living in an apartment and not in this city, as well, because of the income disparity.
Virginia Prescott: So what I'm not hearing here is, is somebody looking from a social justice angle, someone who sees the — the police officers who pulled people from their cars that first weekend of the protest, they were fired and then reinstated. Or now Garrett Rolfe gets his job back, even if on procedural grounds, and think that, “Well, the law is clearly on the side of the police. They win out every time.” Where do you go from there? What is the message for people who feel more vulnerable than protected?
Ryan Young: So I think there's that conversation now where people want to see something be a little different when it comes to their police officers. They want more discretion. It's all about training and what — training costs money. Right now, as a city, most of us go, “OK, if crime's down, then everything is good.” There needs to be more services for poor people. We need to get some of these homeless people off the streets. And one thing I would love to see — this doesn't happen often — when we put these groups together from the community, it's always like the people that you respect, like the CEO or this — this champion. That's great. We need some people from the lower income rungs to have a voice in these committees because they are the ones who are directly impacted by what's going on with the police department. They are the ones who are adversely affected by the nonstop stops or the over-enforcement. We need to hear from those community members in a calm setting before we hear from them when it flashes on the streets. And by that time, the anger is so broad and so emotional, you can't stop them. When Philando Castile got killed in Minnesota and that cop shot him, I'll never forget the wailing that I heard from mothers who were scared that their sons would end up in the same way. It's no different than what the cries I heard in Atlanta last summer. People are upset, they're angry, they're frustrated, and they don't think the system hears them. We need to make sure that the system hears these people on the streets to make the cops safe and the community safe because it has to work at the same time. It's the only way it's going to happen.
Virginia Prescott: But how do you think the family of Rayshard Brooks is looking at this? They're confused. You know, there were charges against this Officer Rolfe, then there weren’t; then he's reinstated. How do you think they're feeling right now?
Ryan Young: Lost. And I think Chris Stewart said it best when he said Minnesota might be more progressive than Atlanta.
[TAPE] Attorney Chris Stewart: It appears that Rayshard Brooks’ life didn't really matter and that the world has moved on. But that's what happens in the city of Atlanta with civil rights cases. And it's just not talked about because Atlanta's supposed to be the Black Mecca. We need people to wake up and realize that Minnesota, Minneapolis, those are good examples of the reform and elected officials actually caring and being proactive in changing things and resolving situations. And it's sad that they're the blueprint and the city of Atlanta isn’t.
Ryan Young: But he was just basically like Minnesota is doing more for the people than we are. And they settled and they had this trial. In Atlanta, there's no settlement and there's no trial date. And all the people involved are kind of Black. So you have a Black mayor and you have a Black district attorney. So why is it taking so long? And there's no way that I think anyone can feel good with what's going on down there with the district attorney in terms of whether or not she can prosecute the case or not, because the family was happy with the charges. But now the court case is not moving forward, not even in a lesser sense. So I would be asking questions because we're getting closer and closer to the year anniversary. I would love for someone to step to the cameras and say, ”This is why we're not moving forward.” I would love to know what's in the GBI report. And this is what I talk about when it comes to transparency. We don't have any right now. We just know that the case is in limbo.
Virginia Prescott: Some details of that GBI investigation were listed in a motion to ease bond restrictions filed by Garrett Rolfe's attorney and made public this week in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The probe's findings contradict some assertions made by former DA Paul Howard, who filed charges against Rolfe five days after the shooting. Among those discrepancies: Toxicology reports found evidence of cocaine, a prescription sedative and eutylone in the blood of Rayshard Brooks, the Black man shot and killed by white officer Garrett Rolfe. Illegal drugs were also found in Brooks' car, a probation violation, though attorneys for the Brooks family say that has no bearing on what happened outside the vehicle. According to the defense filing, the GBI report found no eyewitnesses or video evidence to confirm Howard's claim that Rolfe yelled, “I got him” or kicked Brooks' body after shooting him. If the judge agrees to reexamine the conditions of the bond, Rolfe would no longer be prohibited from possessing a firearm or interacting with other police officers.
Georgia Today is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can subscribe anywhere you get your podcasts. Please do leave us a rating and review on Apple. Jess Mador and Jahi Whitehead, our producers and our engineer is Jesse Nighswonger. Steve Fennessy will be here with the new episode on Friday. I'm Virginia Prescott. Thank you for listening.