ATLANTA (AP) — Video of Atlanta police officers using Tasers and pulling two college students from a car during a large protest last year against police brutality and racial injustice sparked national outrage, and two of the officers were immediately fired. This week their dismissals were 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, which is made up of five residents recommended by the mayor and confirmed by the city council, ordered Monday that the dismissals of Ivory Streeter and Mark Gardner be revoked.
Officers confronted Messiah Young and Taniyah Pilgrim, rising seniors at historically Black colleges in Atlanta, as they were stuck in traffic after a curfew declared by the mayor May 30 during protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota.
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.”
Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on Tuesday noted that the Civil Service Board did not say the officers’ conduct was lawful.
“(G)iven the unrest across our city and nation at the time, and the disturbing video footage before us, I still believe that the right decision was made,” she said in an emailed statement.
Rev. James Woodall, state president of the Georgia NAACP, said the mayor didn’t do enough to work with community leaders to address an unfolding crisis in the city.
“Unfortunately we are seeing the continued failure of Atlanta’s Mayor and the newly appointed DNC Vice Chair Keisha Lance Bottoms to address the systematic failures of extra judicial violence against Black Atlantans,” he wrote in a text message Tuesday.
The two officers 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 actions by Howard 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.
The Civil Service Board reversed the firings “only on the basis they were not done in accordance with Atlanta City Code,” Atlanta Senior Police Officer TaSheena Brown said in an email, adding that the board didn’t determine whether the two violated department policies and the department will determine whether more investigative actions are needed.
“Because Investigator Gardner and Investigator Streeter have criminal charges related to this incident, they will remain on administrative leave until those charges are resolved,” she wrote.
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.
Attorney Mawuli Davis, who represents Young, said his client was “stunned and saddened” to learn that the officers’ firings had been reversed.
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.
Bottoms said this incident and others led to changes in the city’s use-of-force policy, “including de-escalation training and guidance on when and how to intervene in specific situations.”
“It is my sincere hope that these policy changes and additional training for our officers will help eliminate the potentially life-threatening and deadly encounters that have happened in the past,” the mayor said.