AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Atlanta police officer, indicted in fatal shooting, faced early questions about judgment

Former Atlanta police officer James R. Burns, indicted for murder last week, was fired less than two weeks after he shot and killed an unarmed motorist on June 22.

But the incident wasn't the first time the Atlanta Police Department had reprimanded Burns and questioned his judgment. In fact, the rookie officer's career very well could have ended before it ever got off the ground, a review of his personnel file by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution discovered.

A peculiar incident in July 2014 at his apartment complex, while a probationary employee, led to an internal affairs investigation, his temporary relief from duty and written and oral reprimands, records show. It involved Burns and an apartment resident entering a locked vehicle late at night in a clumsy effort to disarm its blaring car alarm.

"It was clear that the actions Officer Burns took exceeded reasonableness," the November 2014 investigator's memo concluded.

The incident was chalked up as reflective of Burns' inexperience and he was allowed to continue with the force.

But in hindsight, the investigator's conclusion carried echoes of APD Chief George N. Turner's assessment of Burns' actions when he fatally shot Deravis Caine Rogers in June.

"The force you used against the suspect as described above was unnecessary and unreasonable," Turner wrote in his July 1 memo informing Burns that he was being terminated for his actions in the shooting.

Turner went on to say: "You did not have reasonable suspicion that the driver had engaged, or was about to engage in, criminal activity."

Burns has said he believed Rogers was trying to run him over, but the internal affairs investigation concluded he was not in danger. Fulton County DA Paul Howard also reached the same conclusion and moved swiftly to charge Burns in July, setting up last week's rare grand jury indictment of an officer involved in a fatal on-duty shooting.

Read more about one grand juror's observations on video evidence presented  last week and learn more about Burns' history in our story that ran on the AJC's front page Sunday.

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About the Author

Brad Schrade is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter on the AJC’s investigative team.