Atlanta Police Chief Walks Tightrope As She Handles Protests

Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields, in white shirt, speaks with media as protesters gather Friday in Atlanta in response to the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.

Mike Stewart / Associated Press

Atlanta’s police chief quickly condemned the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and acted swiftly when she determined some of her own officers used excessive force, but now she’s questioning whether the crackdown on her officers is going too far.

Chief Erika Shields fired two officers and benched three others involved in an incident with two college students who were caught in traffic during the protests Saturday night. But then a prosecutor announced criminal charges against six officers.

Shields said in a department-wide email Tuesday that she hadn’t expected the criminal charges and suggested that handling ongoing protests could be more difficult as a result.

“The officers were fired because I felt that is what had to occur,” she wrote. “This does not mean for a moment that I will sit quietly by and watch our employees get swept up in the tsunami of political jockeying during an election year.”

In a video posted on YouTube three days after Floyd’s death, Shields said the officers in Minnesota deserve to go to prison.

“It’s not reasonable in any sense of the word,” Shields said. “These officers didn’t just fail as cops. They fundamentally failed as human beings.”

The next evening, Shields walked into the crowd in downtown Atlanta as a peaceful demonstration turned into a tense face-off between protesters and police. Videos circulated showing her listening and telling protesters she understands their frustration and fear.

That night, she appeared alongside Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms as the mayor made a personal and impassioned plea for protesters to go home. Both women drew broad praise for their leadership.

In response to significant damage to businesses, restaurants and vehicles in the city’s downtown and Buckhead neighborhoods that night, the mayor implemented a 9 p.m. curfew for Saturday night and the chief told reporters her officers would have a zero tolerance policy if protests turned destructive.

A few hours later, a group of Atlanta police officers confronted the two college students in a car stuck downtown. Video showed the officers shouting at the pair, firing Tasers at them and dragging them from the car. Throughout the confrontation, the students can be heard screaming and asking officers what they did wrong.

Shields and Bottoms spent hours reviewing body camera video after the incident gained attention online and decided that two officers needed to be fired immediately because they’d used excessive force. Three others were placed on desk duty pending further review.

The two students, 22-year-old Messiah Young and 20-year-old Taniyah Pilgrim, and their lawyers applauded that quick action during a news conference Monday. But they said other officers also needed to face consequences and justice wouldn’t truly be served unless criminal charges were brought.

The next morning, Young and Pilgrim appeared alongside Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard as he announced that four officers are charged with aggravated assault and one with aggravated battery, among other charges. The sixth officer was charged only with criminal damage for breaking the car’s window.

Shields lashed out in her Tuesday night email.

Explaining her decision to immediately fire Investigator Ivory Streeter and Investigator Mark Gardner, she said she reviewed the videos expecting to see that her officers’ actions were justified, “given the environment we find ourselves in; one that is highly dangerous and unpredictable.”

But she said it became “apparent we were in the wrong,” she wrote, adding “we created chaos and we escalated a low-level encounter into a space where we introduced violence. Once this occurs, we need to own it.”

She said her intention was to carry out an administrative investigation into the actions of the other officers, and that “criminal charges were never part of any discussion that I had with the Mayor or her administration.”

When she learned of the criminal cases Monday “through a fellow employee,” she contacted the district attorney and “strongly expressed my concern, both to the appropriateness and the timing of any charges.”

Now, Shields wrote, she’s “very concerned with the space we find ourselves in, both tactically and emotionally.”

“Multiple agencies that were assisting us in managing this incredibly volatile time have pulled out, effective immediately,” she said. “They are not comfortable with their employees being leveraged politically by the potential of also facing criminal charges.”

She wrapped up her email by telling her officers she feels it’s important they know what’s going on “if there is any chance of us navigating our current state safely.”

Howard became Fulton County district attorney in January 1997, the first black person elected district attorney in Georgia. He faces a challenge in next Tuesday’s Democratic primary election from two former prosecutors in his office, Fani Willis and Christian Wise Smith.

Howard said in an interview with The Associated Press Wednesday that he was confused by Shields’ reported surprise since she had identified the actions of at least two officers as excessive. He dismissed claims that his prosecution is politically motivated, saying that allegation is made any time he charges a police officer.

“We like to move forward when the evidence is available,” Howard said. “In this case, the evidence was there, it was available.”

Attorney Lance LoRusso defended Streeter and Gardner’s actions in a statement Wednesday, writing that the rush to fire the officers violates policies and the law and charges brought without a full investigation “should raise concerns.”

Officers protecting businesses and lawful protesters were pelted with debris and fireworks, and gunshots were common, he wrote. Young and Pilgrim did not follow officers’ orders, and the officers responded with the force they felt was appropriate at the time, in compliance with Georgia law, LoRusso wrote.

“Further, the United States Supreme Court prohibits the use of hindsight in evaluating an officer’s use of force, LoRusso asserted. “The use of force will never appear pleasant or comfortable to watch on a video.”