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How police killing of Rayshard Brooks could empower Atlanta's Citizen Review Board

The board was established in 2007 after a 92-year-old woman was killed during a police raid on her home. Since then, the agency has tried to hold police accountable.

The fatal police shooting of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta is changing how the city's citizen watchdog group operates and, after years of criticism that it is a "toothless" body, could further empower it in investigating and recommending disciplinary action against officers.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced a series of administrative orders Monday related to de-escalation and police reform, one of which would send all cases of deadly force by officers to the Atlanta Citizen Review Board, a process that is normally triggered only when someone files a complaint.

An amended ordinance was also presented at a City Council meeting Monday that would, among several other changes, broaden the board's authority to conduct investigations and hold public hearings; expand the board to include younger members, because their age group often comes into contact with police; and institute an independent "reviewer" who would essentially mediate and make binding rulings when the board and the police department fail to agree on investigations.

Samuel Lee Reid II, the board's executive director, told NBC News on Tuesday that he supports the measures and believes they can strengthen the board's guiding purpose, which is to field misconduct and civil rights abuse complaints against police and to open independent investigations. The panel also has subpoena power to interview officers, an important tool that was introduced in 2010, three years after the board was established.

According to the board's latest data, the Atlanta Police Department has agreed with the board's findings about 41 percent of the time, but Reid said he believes that should be far higher — at least 75 percent — to show "how serious the department is to address citizen complaints." (The number was as low as 11 percent in 2015.)

The board received 153 complaints in 2019, a 13 percent increase from 2018. The complaints centered mostly on allegations that officers failed to follow protocol, used excessive force or exhibited questionable conduct. According to board data, the majority of complaints last year were made by Black men over 35, while the majority of law enforcement officers identified in the complaints were Black officers who had more than five years of policing experience.

While the board has four investigators who review complaints before they're brought before all 13 members for hearings, Reid said, he'd also like the city to hire an analyst to perform audits and conduct studies on why officers might be disciplined only in some cases or not at all, as well as highlight other trends or gaps in reporting.

"We want to dig into that data," Reid said, adding: "If you want to do this correctly, you need the power and the manpower to do it. We want to catch these issues before it happens again."

There are about 150 civilian review boards nationwide, most of them associated with larger municipal police agencies and many formed either after high-profile incidents or as responses to patterns of complaints of police brutality or racial bias.

The death of Brooks, 27, during a police encounter Friday night has focused renewed scrutiny on the Atlanta Police Department, which has about 2,000 sworn officers. Chief Erika Shields resigned Saturday night, less than 24 hours after the shooting; Assistant Chief Rodney Bryant is serving as interim chief.

Image: Rayshard Brooks
Rayshard Brooks in an undated photo.Stewart Trial Attorneys / via AFP - Getty Images

The city was also roiled by protests in recent weeks following the death last month of George Floyd, a Black man who died in Minneapolis police custody. On June 2, six Atlanta police officers were charged in connection with the protest-related detainment of a young Black man and woman and the use of stun guns on the man in an incident caught on police bodycam video.

Brooks' shooting in a Wendy's parking lot was captured on security and bodycam video. Police responded to a report that a man had fallen asleep in his car in the drive-thru. Two officers encountered Brooks, and a struggle ensued after they administered a field sobriety test and tried to take Brooks into custody.

Video shows Brooks holding a stun gun as he runs away. He appears to turn around and point the weapon before an officer, Garrett Rolfe, fires at him, hitting him in the back, according to investigators. Rolfe, a six-year veteran of the department, was fired, while the second officer, Devin Brosnan, a veteran of nearly two years, was placed on administrative leave.

Fulton County prosecutors on Wednesday took the rare step of announcing charges in a police shooting. In this case, Rolfe faces 11 charges, including for felony murder, and Brosnan faces three charges, including for aggravated assault.

Earlier this week, Atlanta police released Rolfe's disciplinary record, which shows that he was issued a written reprimand in 2016 related to a use-of-force incident involving a firearm. Details weren't disclosed. In addition, Rolfe was the subject of four citizen complaints during his career, which didn't result in any disciplinary action, and he was also involved in vehicle accidents, one of which led to a written reprimand and another to an oral admonishment.

There was also an incident involving the discharge of a firearm in 2015, although it's unclear how it concluded.

Reid said it wouldn't be surprising that officers with histories of complaints could remain employed in the Atlanta Police Department, particularly if they are cleared internally and aren't seeking to be promoted.

But Xochitl Bervera, director of the Racial Justice Action Center, an Atlanta-based organization fighting the criminalizing of Black and brown communities, said that even though there's an independent police oversight agency, it's apparent that Atlanta officers with complaints can continue operating in communities and that residents may be left in the dark about how many complaints they have and for what, a disconnect she said she believes doesn't engender trust.

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"We need to rethink what community engagement and community control of policing looks like and how we make accountability of the police something transparent," Bervera said, adding that there is a role for some form of a review board but that "we have to ask ourselves at this point, does this model work?"

The Atlanta Citizen Review Board was established after the death of Kathryn Johnston, 92, a Black woman who was killed during a police raid on her home in 2006. Officers, dressed in plainclothes and wearing bulletproof vests, were executing a "no-knock" warrant in connection with a man who they claimed was selling drugs from Johnston's home. After officers forced their way in, Johnston, a resident of one of Atlanta's most crime-plagued neighborhoods, opened fire on them and was killed in a shootout, according to reports.

The disturbing case enraged residents after one of the officers admitted to having planted bags of marijuana inside the home after Johnston was killed, as well as having based the warrant on falsified records. Three officers were charged with federal crimes and sentenced, which also galvanized the community to demand police reform and paved the way for the Citizen Review Board.

Proposals to abolish the use of no-knock warrants have been revived in recent weeks as part of policing reform efforts in other cities and states following the death of Breonna Taylor, a young Black woman who was killed by Louisville, Kentucky, police in her home this year.

Vincent Fort, a former Democratic state senator in Georgia who tried unsuccessfully to get a no-knock bill passed, said subsequent police-involved killings and injuries of Atlantans over the years have resulted in board investigations that appeared only to languish for months without meaningful repercussions.

"The administration and City Council made the review board toothless," Fort said. "The problem with it is, even as they acquired subpoena power over time, there's a loophole the police use: If I'm on the board and I ask the police for data, documents or even for the officer to appear, all they say is 'it's an ongoing investigation.' And the case just drags on and on."

"I once told them: 'You're a paper tiger. You're a joke in the community,'" Fort said of the board.

In 2015, the Citizen Review Board drew heat from activists who demanded an investigation into the death of Alexia Christian, a Black woman who was killed in police custody, and criticized the board's "Don't Run" campaign, meant to encourage residents not to flee from police. Bottoms, who was a City Council member at the time, had supported the idea of the campaign but said she also felt it was telling people not to exercise their constitutional rights.

Fort said that now that she's mayor, Bottoms must go further.

"Right now, Black people believe that the police in their community are tantamount to an occupying force that's designed to keep Black people and working-class people under control," he said.

Atlanta police didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. Bottoms said Tuesday on NBC's "TODAY" show that more administrative orders involving the police are likely coming.

"We have to objectively look at de-escalation. That's not very clear in our policies," Bottoms said. "Shooting at moving vehicles and so many other things — that as we're peeling back the layers of our standard operating procedures. Some of it's ambiguous, and some of it is simply not laid out."

Given the history of Atlanta, a majority-Black city, and its storied place in America's civil rights movement, the police department has benefited from a reformist-type legacy in the past, with Black officers joining the force and pushing back at Jim Crow restrictions themselves, said Nirej Sekhon, a Georgia State University law professor who studies policing.

But that "hasn't translated to particularly radical renovation in recent times," he said. "We have to be careful about celebrating Atlanta's civil rights history, not because there's nothing to celebrate or because it's all a lie, but because it's still incomplete."