rayshard brooks

Atlanta’s Reforms Won’t Save the Next Rayshard Brooks

A Wendy's in Atlanta was set on fire after police killed Rayshard Brooks in its parking lot.
A Wendy’s in Atlanta was set on fire after police killed Rayshard Brooks in its parking lot. Photo: Ben Hendren/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The killing of Rayshard Brooks on Friday prompted a rare admission from Atlanta’s mayor: The typical measures offered to curtail police violence — retraining officers and reforming departments — are failed experiments. She then announced the city’s plan to implement several of those same measures as a solution. The past few weeks have provided many lessons. Whether they’re durable is proving to be another matter.

Brooks, 27, was killed by Atlanta police after falling asleep in his car at a Wendy’s drive-through. Officer Garret Rolfe is seen in body-camera footage of the encounter asking Brooks to get out of the vehicle and subjecting him to a sobriety test; Brooks is polite and deferential throughout. When Brooks fails the test, Rolfe moves to handcuff him. A scuffle ensues — the details of how and why it began are unclear — and security footage from the eatery shows Brooks come away with Rolfe’s Taser and flee into the parking lot. As Brooks fires the Taser at Rolfe over his shoulder — wildly, missing badly — Rolfe deploys another Taser to little effect, then switches hands and draws a firearm. He fires three times. Brooks stumbles to the concrete with two bullets in his back. He died that night at a hospital. He is survived by his wife and four children.

Protesters were already primed to respond — they’d spent weeks decrying the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, whose death sparked nationwide protests and riots. In Atlanta, the early days of unrest were punctuated by the incineration of a police car and vandalism of the CNN Center. Nonviolent demonstrations have defined the weeks since, disrupted primarily by police, who’ve hemmed in peaceful crowds so they couldn’t disperse and assaulted dissidents without provocation; in one incident captured by local news crews, a group of police is seen surrounding a car in traffic, smashing its windows, and using Tasers against the two college students sitting inside. (Four officers have been fired in connection with the assault; six have been arrested.) Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has criticized both strains of misrule, condemning police violence while offering impassioned pleas for order, reserving her most scathing remarks for rioters. “We are all angry,” she said. “But what are you changing by tearing up a city? You’ve lost all credibility now. This is not how we change America.”

The questions of who’s credible, and how we change America, have only grown more salient since. Demonstrations responding to Floyd were still underway when Brooks died, and the cycle repeated itself — more protests, including one action where dissidents blocked traffic across Interstate Highways 75 and 85, and the torching of the Wendy’s where the 27-year-old was shot. The chaos was untenable for law-enforcement leadership; APD chief Erika Shields resigned, with Bottoms citing the need to repair frayed trust with Atlanta’s black communities, and was joined by eight other officers. (Officer Rolfe — Brooks’s killer — has also been fired; Fulton County D.A. Paul Howard is weighing criminal charges against him.) In remarks during a CNN town hall on Sunday, Mayor Bottoms noted that Rolfe had benefited from substantial investment of the sort long touted as critical for preventing police violence: He’d recently been trained in de-escalation tactics and took coursework in cultural awareness two months prior. Bottoms acknowledged the methods’ insufficiency. “We have implicit-bias training in this city,” she said. “We require people to go to the National Center for Civil and Human Rights … But yet and still, it’s not enough. I don’t think that we can out train our way as a country out of where we are and how we view race and how we interact with each other. I think that while we are doing it in our police departments there is clearly a bigger conversation that has to be had across the country because we are not in a post-racial society and the biases are still there.”

These remarks aligned her, at least in principle, with proponents of police abolition; their analysis offers that policing can’t be reformed or retrained into gentility because its function is violence — specifically, violence toward preserving a kind of order to which black and poor people are considered fundamentally disruptive. The abolitionists’ solution is to pursue a world where policing is not reshaped or refined, but replaced altogether by massive investments in social welfare and new standards for addressing harm. This framework demands, among other items, shrinking the police’s purview, a pursuit articulated by the rallying cry, “Defund the police.” It takes as affirmation years of reform efforts that have failed to meaningfully diminish police violence across the country, and done even less to alter its racial and class asymmetry.

Those years — most of which have fallen between the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 and today — have, among other lessons, demonstrated the folly of implicit-bias training. “We don’t have any evidence that anti-bias trainings work (in general), and we know even less about whether they work for police officers,” Joshua Correll, a University of Colorado professor who has been studying implicit bias for more than 20 years, told HuffPost last week. The same article cites a 2016 study showing that nine different methods for reducing bias had no effect beyond a few hours. The same ineffectuality has marked regulations intended to mitigate abuse. The famous example is Eric Garner’s death by chokehold in a city where police chokeholds had long been banned. The more immediate one is Floyd’s death in Minneapolis — a model of policing reform where, despite requirements that officers intervene to stop the vicious behavior of their colleagues, Derek Chauvin knelt on the handcuffed 46-year-old’s neck for almost nine minutes, while three of his fellow officers stood guard.

So it was that Monday brought Bottoms’s anticipated response to a string of problems that, by her own admission, included the failure of Rolfe’s de-escalation training and, by broader inference, the failure of reforms prompting officers to intervene when they see fellow police abusing the badge. Her proposal was to implement the same failed measures. From local WAGA:

Bottoms said that the new rules will require officers [to] use de-escalation tactics prior to using physical or deadly force. All uses of deadly force must also be reported to the city’s citizens review board.

Officers will also be required to intervene if they see another officer using force “which is beyond reasonable in the given services” and must immediately report that use of force to a supervisor.

Alongside an administrative order “to convene a body to air grievances and propose solutions regarding police violence,” this is the extent of the city’s immediate response. “We understand that this is the beginning of a great deal of work that lies ahead of us to make sure that we do all we can do to protect our communities,” Bottoms acknowledged. “It is very clear our police officers should be guardians and not warriors within our communities.” But just as she was transparent about the extent of work yet required, offering tactics known to fail is its own form of transparency. The dissonance between admitting the impotence of certain methods and then pursuing them invites déjà vu. Moreover, nothing proposed here seems likely to have prevented Rayshard Brooks from being killed.

The past several years have been a learning process in Atlanta. Black Lives Matter protests in 2016 drew withering condemnation from some of the city’s old guard — which is notable, given the dynamics at issue, for being among the nation’s blackest. The current mayoral administration rebuked the destructive methods used by some dissidents two weeks ago, only to demonstrate in the past week that their misrule was a prerequisite for city officials admitting that reformist approaches had failed, and that deeper change was required. We’ve come a ways since. But there seems to have been intentional ambiguity around what officials felt needed to be changed to begin with. If the goal was to stop racially disproportionate police violence, they knew precisely what didn’t work, and pursued it anyway. The lens through which this makes the most sense is that they wished to signal decisive action, but feared the ramifications of committing to anything that might materially challenge the notion of policing as a noble public safety institution. They’re not alone among American municipalities. And they might have bolder proposals forthcoming. But it’s an inauspicious start, the likely cost of which is inviting more fates like what met Rayshard Brooks.

Atlanta’s Reforms Won’t Save the Next Rayshard Brooks