Police Killings Prompt Evaluation of Laws Allowing Deadly Force

ATLANTA — The swift decision on Sunday to fire the white Atlanta police officer who shot and killed a black motorist intensified the growing re-examination of the use of deadly force by the police, challenging longstanding principles that have given law enforcement officers wide latitude in cases in which an encounter ends with a death.

Although laws vary by state, police officers in America are generally allowed to use deadly force when they reasonably believe their lives or the lives of others are in danger, a legal standard designed to give the authorities enormous leeway to make split-second life-or-death decisions without hesitation or fear of prosecution.

But in the wake of years of growing anger over the deaths of African-Americans by the police, and particularly the nationwide upheaval following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month, those guiding principles are now falling away with astonishing rapidity, police and legal experts say.

“In the last two weeks, I have seen more legislators — federal and state legislators — talking about amending use of force laws, and I’ve seen more laws proposed than I’ve ever seen before,” said Seth Stoughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina who studies policing and use-of-force policies. “There is a much broader bipartisan recognition that the status quo is untenable and something needs to change.”

Within 24 hours of the shooting death in Atlanta of Rayshard Brooks, which took place near a Wendy’s drive-through, the city’s police chief resigned and the officer who fired the fatal shot was terminated.

According to video captured by surveillance cameras and bystanders in the drive-through, Mr. Brooks struggled with two police officers before taking one of the officer’s Tasers. An officer than shot him as he fled. On Sunday, the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled that Mr. Brooks’s death was a homicide and said he had been shot twice in the back, causing “organ injuries and blood loss.”

Also on Sunday, police released additional video showing that Mr. Brooks and the two officers spoke calmly for more than 25 minutes before the altercation.

Credit… The Atlanta Police Department/Afp, via Getty Images

As those details emerged, lawmakers and leaders drew parallels — and contrasts — with the other recent police-involved killings of black people that have ignited protests across the nation.

“We need reformation of how police officers do their jobs, how law enforcement does its job because what happened yesterday to Rayshard Brooks was a function of excessive force,” Stacey Abrams, the former Democratic candidate for Georgia governor in 2018, said on ABC’s “This Week.”

Over the last few years, a number of states have begun re-evaluating their use-of-force laws, particularly in the years since the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014, which stirred unrest there and set off a broader debate about race and law enforcement.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 16 states enacted new laws regarding use of force from 2014 to 2017. One 2014 law in Utah restricted officers to “use only that force which is reasonable and necessary” for executing a warrant. And nine states in that time period changed the law to provide more transparency in investigations of deaths involving police.

Georgia law states that officers may use deadly force if they “reasonably believe” a felony suspect has a deadly weapon, poses an immediate threat of physical violence, or if they have probable cause to believe that the person has committed a crime that involves serious physical harm, or the threat of such harm.

For Gerald Griggs, a lawyer and first vice president of the Atlanta chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., the law tends to benefit the police. “If anything, the rules are bent toward law enforcement, and that’s a special interest,” Mr. Griggs said Sunday. “The police unions are the ones that are voicing support for that. And I think the community is beginning to see it’s the voice of a very small few that are driving this opposition to police reform.”

The shooting death of Mr. Brooks happened while the relationships among Atlanta politicians, rank-and-file officers and activists were already especially tense.

It took place less than three weeks after Mr. Floyd’s killing unleashed a torrent of protests across the nation against police brutality. Those protests included Atlanta, where demonstrations escalated into a violent confrontation in which crowds smashed through downtown businesses and set police vehicles on fire. In one fraught episode caught on video involving two African-American college students, police officers pulled a woman from a car and tased a man as he sat in the driver’s seat, leading to the termination of those officers, who also were charged with using excessive force.

On Saturday night, the city’s mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, said she did not believe that the shooting death of Mr. Brooks was “a justified use of deadly force,” and said the officer, Garrett Rolfe, should be terminated immediately.

The swift response, which also included the resignation of the city’s police chief, Erika Shields, reflected the intensified scrutiny now being applied to officers after using fatal force.

“I think people are fed up,” said Geoffrey P. Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina, adding that the shift has been fueled in large part by the prevalence of video evidence that often provides a clear account of officers’ using force beyond their word alone. “We’re starting to see a lot more evidence that is either going to allow the officers the justification to do what they did or condemn and sometimes convict them.”

Advocates for the police argue that officers are now being left to navigate a difficult landscape, believing they do not have the support of elected officials when responding to dangerous situations. “It doesn’t matter if we’re right or wrong,” said Vincent Champion, the southeast regional director for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers.

The shift in political winds since Mr. Floyd’s death in police custody has emboldened efforts at overhauling laws and policies surrounding policing that activists have pushed for years but found to be intractable.

In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed an expansive package of bills on Friday that barred the use of chokeholds and also repealed a statute in the civil code, known as 50-a, that shielded police officers’ disciplinary records from being released to the public.

Activists had targeted the code for years, particularly after Eric Garner died after a police officer in New York placed him in a chokehold in 2014, but their efforts had little success as they collided with powerful opposition, including from police unions.

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom called for an immediate end to the use of “strangleholds” last week, saying such use of force had “no place any longer in 21st century practices and policing.”

In Washington, D.C., the City Council passed a new use of force provision last week in emergency legislation that will be valid for 90 days, but could eventually become permanent. It stipulates that a jury, in a criminal case against a police officer, must not only focus on whether the officer had a “belief” that the use of force was reasonable — a common standard in state law — but also find that an officer’s actions were reasonable.

This focus on “reasonable actions” is a seemingly small but potentially important shift in the goal posts in criminal use-of-force cases that was inspired by Cynthia Lee, a George Washington University law professor, who laid out the idea in a 2018 law review article.

The Washington law also requires juries to consider whether an officer engaged in de-escalation measures, and whether the officer’s preceding conduct increased the risk of a deadly confrontation.

“Even though law reform may not provide all the answers, it can help shift the culture,” Professor Lee said in an interview Sunday. “We want officers to be more careful when they’re in these tense situations and we want them to see people as human beings instead of enemies.”

In Atlanta, the police said they were called on Friday night to a Wendy’s where Mr. Brooks had fallen asleep inside his car while in the drive-through. Mr. Rolfe and another officer, Devin Brosnan, tried to take Mr. Brooks into custody after he failed a sobriety test, the police said.

Video filmed by witnesses shows Mr. Brooks wrestling with the officers, taking Officer Brosnan’s Taser and punching Mr. Rolfe, according to a New York Times visual investigation of the footage. Mr. Rolfe fired his Taser gun. The darts hit Mr. Brooks, and Mr. Rolfe continued trying to stun him. Mr. Brooks ran away, holding Officer Brosnan’s Taser gun. Mr. Rolfe gave chase, and continued to try to stun Mr. Brooks.

Mr. Rolfe fired his weapon three times at Mr. Brooks as he ran away. Mr. Brooks was taken to a hospital where he died, officials said.

Mr. Rolfe was fired over the shooting, officials said, and Officer Brosnan was placed on administrative duty.

Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs contributed reporting from Minneapolis, and Rebecca Halleck from New York.

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