The firings of two Atlanta police officers over an incident in which two college students were pulled from a car in traffic during a large protest against police brutality have been overturned.
The Civil Service Board found the city did not follow its own personnel procedures, which resulted in the officers being deprived of due process because they were not given proper notification or adequate opportunity to respond. The board ordered Monday that the dismissals of Ivory Streeter and Mark Gardner be revoked.
Messiah Young and Taniyah Pilgrim, rising seniors at historically Black colleges in Atlanta, were stuck in traffic after a curfew declared by the mayor May 30 during protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota when officers confronted them.
Police body camera footage shows officers shouting at the couple, firing Tasers at them and dragging them from the car. Throughout the confrontation, the pair can be heard screaming and asking what they did wrong.
Video of the confrontation was shared widely online and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and then-Police Chief Erika Shields decided the two officers had used excessive force and must be fired immediately.
Streeter and Gardner each received a notice of proposed adverse action May 31 indicating dismissal effective the following day and citing “Maltreatment or Unnecessary Force.” That same day, they were served notices of final adverse action effective the next day.
Generally, an employee should be given 10 days between the notice of proposed adverse action, such as a firing, and its effective date, the Civil Service Board said in its order. An adverse action can become effective immediately in an emergency situation, but the board found the city did not follow its own guidelines for an emergency situation.
Shields, who stepped down as police chief about two weeks after the incident, told the board extraordinary circumstances resulted in the decision to fire the two longtime officers. City officials feared the incident would increase outrage against police.
“The circumstances were exceptional,” Shields testified according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We did, I did, what I had to do to make sure the city was stabilized.”
The newspaper reports that the two officers can now return to their jobs but could face an internal investigation.
They also still face criminal charges that the Fulton County district attorney at the time, Paul Howard, announced just a couple of days after the incident.
Streeter was charged with aggravated assault for using a Taser against Young and with pointing a gun at him, arrest warrants say. Gardner was charged with aggravated assault for using a Taser against Pilgrim, a warrant says. Four other officers were also charged.
In an email to the department after Howard’s announcement, Shields defended the firing of the officers but questioned the timing and appropriateness of the charges.
Newly elected Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who ousted Howard, asked Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr last week to assign the case to another prosecutor, saying Howard’s actions made it inappropriate for her office to pursue the case. It will be up to a new prosecutor to decide whether to proceed with the charges.
Attorney L. Chris Stewart, who represents Pilgrim, told the Journal-Constitution he was disappointed by the idea of the officers returning to work.
“The video speaks for itself,” he said.
Lance LoRusso, a lawyer for the officers, told the newspaper the firings resulted from a rush to judgment and said his clients are eager to return to work.