The death of a black man in Atlanta police custody on June 12 intensified ongoing protests against police brutality and systemic racism in the U.S., and put law enforcement’s use of deadly force in cases where it isn’t necessary under further scrutiny.
Rayshard Brooks, 27, was killed after an altercation with two white police officers in the parking lot of a Wendy’s in South Atlanta. They had been dispatched to respond to a complaint after Brooks had fallen asleep in his vehicle outside the fast-food restaurant.
Reaction to Brooks’ death was swift — by the end of the weekend, the officer who shot him, Garrett Rolfe, had been fired and the Atlanta Police Department chief had resigned. The other officer on the scene, Devin Brosnan, was placed on administrative leave. Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard announced 11 charges, including felony murder, against Rolfe on Wednesday. Brosnan faces three lesser charges, including aggravated assault.
Protests already happening around the U.S., sparked by the killing of George Floyd by police on May 25, grew following news of Brooks’ death.
Here’s what we know so far about Brooks’ death and the subsequent fallout from his killing.
Who was Rayshard Brooks?
Rayshard Brooks was a husband to Tomika Miller and a father to his 13-year-old stepson, Mekai, and three young daughters: 8-year-old Blessing, 2-year-old Memory and 1-year-old Dream.
“There’s no justice that can make me feel happy about what’s been done,” his wife, Tomika, said at a news conference Monday, June 15, with immediate and extended family. “I can never get my husband back, I can never get my best friend…so it’s just going to be a long time before I heal. It’s going to be a long time before this family heals.”
Brooks was always happy and always smiling, his cousin, Jymaco Brooks, told reporters. “Look at your children when you see them laugh — that innocence, that joy, that pureness of soul — and you had a glimpse of what we lost.”
The family’s attorneys said that Brooks’ daughter Blessing was having friends over to celebrate her 8th birthday the day after Brooks was shot.
“She had her birthday party on the same exact day that they found out that their father was killed,” Justin Miller, one of the family’s attorneys, told reporters. “She was supposed to go skating with her dad and that didn’t happen of course.”
His niece, Chassidy Evans, remembered him as a devoted father, husband, brother and uncle. “Rayshard Brooks was silly, he had the brightest smile and the biggest heart, and loved to dance since we were kids,” she said.
The Atlanta Police Department was dispatched to the Wendy’s at around 10:30 p.m. on the evening of Friday, June 12, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. They had received a complaint that a man in the drive-through had fallen asleep, causing others to drive around the car.
When the first officer, Brosnan, arrived on the scene, he woke Brooks and asked him to pull into a parking spot. He then called another officer, after which Garrett Rolfe arrived.
The officers then asked Brooks to get out of the car and perform a sobriety test. Body and dash camera footage from the incident indicate that Brooks was not armed, and complied with the officers.
Rolfe then asked Brooks to take a breathalyzer test. Brooks complied and registered a .108, which is above Georgia’s legal limit of .08. He had asked if he could lock his car and walk to his sister’s home, but Rolfe told Brooks he was too drunk to drive and began to handcuff him.
Police footage and video filmed by a witness and analyzed by The New York Times shows that Brooks then fought back and was pinned down by the two officers, after which Brosnan drew a Taser on him. Brooks grabbed the Taser from Brosnan, stood up and punched Rolfe, and began to run from him. Rolfe then chased Brooks with his own Taser gun and fired at him, as Brooks aimed back with the Taser gun he had grabbed.
Finally Rolfe took out his handgun and fired three times at Brooks, who fell to the ground, according to surveillance video released by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. An ambulance arrived at the Wendy’s eight minutes later, and Brooks died after receiving surgery.
How the police department reacted
Rolfe was fired from the Atlanta Police Department the day after the fatal shooting and the second officer, Brosnan, was placed on administrative leave the same day. The city’s police chief, Erika Shields, announced Saturday that she would step down, saying in a statement that “it is time for the city to move forward and build trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who called for Rolfe’s firing, said that she did not believe Brooks’ actions toward the officers amounted to a“justified use of deadly force.”
The Fulton County medical examiner ruled on Sunday that Brooks’ death was caused by two gunshot wounds to his back that caused organ injuries and blood loss.
“Mr. Brooks never presented himself as a threat,” Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said when he announced charges against the officers in a news conference Wednesday. Howard said it was the 9th time his office has prosecuted a case against officers related to a homicide.
Atlanta Police Union representative Ken Allen defended Rolfe in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, saying he was an “exceptional” officer who had simply done what he had been trained to do when responding to situations like the one he encountered with Brooks. “You don’t let a suspect just run away once you’ve been engaged in a use of force,” Allen said.
What the family’s attorneys say
L. Chris Stewart, one of the attorneys representing the Brooks family, said in a news conference Saturday evening that the officer who shot Brooks had committed “an unjustified use of deadly force, which equals murder.” He said that not only should the officer be terminated, he should be prosecuted.
“You can’t have it both ways in law enforcement,” Stewart said. “You can’t say a Taser is a nonlethal weapon…but when an African American grabs it and runs with it, now it’s some kind of deadly, lethal weapon that calls for you to unload on somebody.”
Stewart noted that officers Rolfe and Branson waited for more than two minutes after he was shot before they checked Brooks’ pulse and began giving him medical attention.
According to witnesses, the officers also picked up their shell casings with plastic gloves after Brooks had been shot. “I wonder why — so that all of you can’t know how far away he was when they shot? So that you can’t find their positions when they used that weapon?” Stewart said. “They appear to be caring more about covering their tracks than providing aid — aid that could have saved his life …”
Renewed calls to defund the police; cut back on use of force
Protesters set fire to the Wendy’s restaurant on Saturday night where Brooks was fatally shot, as well as started several other smaller fires in the area.
“I would describe what we saw last night as rage,” Georgia Public Broadcasting reporter Leah Fleming told the NewsHour on Sunday. “And that rage just reemerged in the wake of this killing of yet another black man at the hands of police.” Fleming noted that before Brooks was killed there had been several days and nights of peaceful protests in Atlanta following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Brooks’ death has intensified calls from protesters and activists to “defund the police,” as well as to reconsider how deadly force is used by police departments across the U.S.
If cities were to divest funds from the police department and reinvest it in other social services, some argue, the response to 911 calls like the one made after Brooks fell asleep in the parking lot might be approached very differently.
“This should have been a ‘wellness check’ instead of an arrest,” Nancy Flake Johnson, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Atlanta, said in a statement. CNN commentator W. Kamau Bell noted that the situation could have easily de-escalated if the officials dispatched to the scene simply offered to call Brooks a ride home.
Marc Morial, the president and CEO of the National Urban League and former mayor of New Orleans, told the NewsHour on Sunday that if police are expected to handle a wide range of incidents beyond the traditional realm of public safety, the threshold for using deadly force should be higher than it is currently: “Some of them are not truly criminal offenses. And so we’ve got to rethink this. And they could have done that and he could have not used his gun,” he said of the officers who responded to the 911 call about Brooks.