ATLANTA – The death of a Riverdale police officer during a drug bust on the same day two officers were shot near Cordele in a chase illustrates the violence Georgia law enforcement faces.
The number of incidents has steadily increased in the last four years in which an officer has been involved where someone either died or suffered serious bodily harm. In 2015, there were 86 incidents, 32 of them fatal, according to figures the Georgia Bureau of Investigation released to Morris News Service. That was an increased from the prior year’s 79 incidents and 16 that resulted in a death.
“Everybody’s shooting everybody,” said Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, former president of the Georgia Sheriffs Association. “When people are being shot for no reason at all, why wouldn’t we have more officer-involved shooting?”
Georgia is part of a national trend. Across the country last week, seven on-duty officers died in as many days, six of them shot.
“This news is shocking,” said Craig Floyd, CEO of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. “I cannot recall any time in recent years when six law enforcement professionals have been murdered by gunfire in multiple incidents in a single week. Already this year there have been eight officers shot and killed, compared to just one during the same period last year and represents a very troubling trend.”
The Riverdale officer killed Thursday, Maj. Greg Barney, was in a foot chase with a suspected drug dealer who had run out the back door of an apartment as Clayton County officers executed a no-knock search warrant, according to the GBI. Barney was shot twice, and then a Clayton County lieutenant shot the suspect as he was pointing a gun at the lieutenant. The suspect was hospitalized.
The incident near Cordele started when an Asburn police officer tried to pull over a car on Interstate 75 for a tag violation, according to the GBI. The driver didn’t stop, and in the chase the people in the car began shooting.
By the time it ended as other officers joined the chase, a female police officer, a sheriff’s deputy and a woman in the car had all been injured by gunfire, and the driver died of what officials termed a self-inflicted shot to his head.
The two wounded officers were treated and released at a hospital but were wounded by “friendly fire.”
The increase and frequency of such incidents – roughly two per week – have put such a strain on the GBI that it is asking the legislature for $3.7 million to hire 20 additional agents to keep up with the investigations.
“We’re extraordinarily busy,” GBI Director Vernon Keenan told legislative budget writers.
Most of the time, the officer is found to have been justified in using deadly force. The reason that the GBI handles the investigations is to protect local police departments and sheriffs from whitewash accusations.
“Currently, there’s been such a demand for these types of investigations that we’re having to pull agents off of child-sex trafficking, other corruption and drug enforcement and put them working these officer-use-of-force cases,” Keenan said.
Law enforcement veterans say changing attitudes – and criminal techniques – is behind the rise in violence. The GBI doesn’t track how many of the incidents involve an unarmed citizen, but experts say the usual scenario is a criminal who starts a shootout or fires from a fleeing car.
“It is more tumultuous now to be a police officer. There are more automatic weapons out there. There is more of a propensity of people to use those automatic weapons,” said Frank Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Chiefs of Police.
Reasons that veterans give include a new wave of illegal drug use, the end of institutionalization for the mentally ill and public disrespect for law enforcement. A key to addressing these trends, Rotondo says, is more and better training.
Other states require more initial training before a rookie can wear a badge and longer in-service training each year to keep it. While expensive, the extra class time allows for greater proficiency in crisis-intervention skills, learning the signs of mental illness and techniques for deescalating tense situations.
Last month, the White House convened a conference of big-city police chiefs, criminologists and other experts for the drafting of a set of 30 training principles. For example, the document calls for abandoning instruction in the “21 foot rule” that tells officers they are justified in shooting anyone with a knife who comes within 21 feet of them. The new approach is to add distance or get behind a barrier. Another principle calls for teaching a policy to never use deadly force on a person who is only a danger to himself.
Revised training is expected to address many of the situations leading to avoidable injury or death. However, it is unlikely to have an immediate impact on public perceptions that result in disrespect for the institution of law enforcement.
One thing most observers think is fueling disrespect is the number of use-of-force incidents recorded and broadcast on social media, most notably in Ferguson, Mo.
Public criticism of internal investigations has led all of Georgia’s local law enforcement agencies to automatically turn over gun-battle probes to the GBI.
“I think we all are concerned about the appearance of the fox guarding the henhouse,” said Augusta District Attorney Ashley Wright. “Whether that is true or not, if the perception is there, the public will never have any faith in the integrity of the investigation.”
She recalls the riots, lights shot out in police cars and other demonstrations surrounding a fatal police shooting in Augusta’s Cherry Hill area when she first entered office.
Wright is quick to challenge any suggestion that the policing fraternity always sticks up for fellow cops. If that were true, she said, none would ever be investigated for anything, much less convicted.
“If that were the case, a blind eye would be turned to all conduct, not just what the public knows about in the media,” she said.
The outcome of those GBI investigations depends on the prosecutor and a grand jury. Critics say that a quirk in Georgia law tilts things in the officer’s favor be allowing the officer to sit in while the jury works and then testifying at the end to refute what other witnesses have said – testifying not under oath or facing cross examination. It’s a privilege no one else gets who is the subject of a grand jury inquiry.
To address concerns of unfairness, the Prosecuting Attorneys Council asked House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee Chairman Rich Golick, R-Smyrna, to sponsor House Bill 941 to change how grand juries handle deaths involving law enforcement.
“Right now when there is a fatality or serious bodily injury as a result of a police shooting, our grand jury process is set up in such a way that there is at least the possibility that the integrity of that process could be compromised,” he said.
The bill, developed through many drafts in conjunction with prosecutors and law enforcement associations, would only allow the officer involved to testify under oath at the end of the process with a court recorder present to prepare a transcript for release to the public. Officers who choose to make a statement will have to submit to questioning, too, under the bill.
Golick brought the bill before his committee Friday morning, and the agreement of the various groups practically assures its passage.
For officers involved in a shooting and their colleagues, the consequences can be dramatic. They instantly give up their gun, are escorted away from the scene for questioning and effectively stop being a cop during the weeks of investigation. They typically are counseled by a department chaplain, a peer mentor and often treated by a psychologist.
It’s not unusual for an officer who is shot to quit for a safer line of work. Spouses of others on the force who weren’t involved many times pressure a job change because the danger has become more real.
Low pay, irregular hours and a certain amount of risk and occasional hostility from the public have always been parts of the job. But now, the danger and hostility have increased while the pay and hours haven’t improved, and officials say as a result the applicant pool has shrunk, and almost completely dried up for minority applicants.
“It’s long been damned if you do and damned if you don’t. But now it’s dead if you don’t,” Sills said.
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