- By Christian Boone The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
One side seeks justice. The other, exoneration. The family of 24-year-old Deaundre Phillips, and the officer who shot and killed him, have been waiting 13 months for the Fulton County district attorney to decide whether the force used in this case was necessary or over the line.
In Fulton, the resolution of cases involving police officers can be an agonizing process measured in years, not months. It’s a delay that leaves the officers as well as the victims and their families in a harrowing limbo.
APD Officer Yasin Abdulahad, who fired the lethal shot at Phillips, is back at work but could face criminal charges if prosecutors conclude he exercised excessive force. Even if he’s not charged, Abdulahad’s law enforcement career could be in jeopardy, depending on the findings of the investigation.
Still, he is among the more fortunate ones. Of the 28 APD officers currently under investigation by the Fulton DA, 20 cases, mostly officer-involved shootings, are pending. All but seven of the cases predate 2017. Five of Abdulahad’s APD colleagues have been waiting since 2014 for their investigations to be closed. Four officers are currently without police powers as a result of these probes, according to the department’s Office of Professional Standards.
After being asked about the delays by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard issued a statement blaming a chronic budget shortfall and pledged that the APD cases from 2014 that remain open will be resolved in the next 40 days.
“We agree with the Atlanta Police Department – PIU needs more staff,” the statement read. “Our office will continue to investigate and prosecute the cases as quickly as possible, more importantly, our office we will continue to petition the Fulton County Board of Commissioners for more staff for this department.”
Attorney Chris Stewart, who represents the Phillips family agreed that the office is underfunded and left “juggling a million cases.”
“It’s hard to preach patience,” Stewart continued. “The longer it takes, the more suspicious they become of the process. It gives the appearance that (investigators) are dragging their feet on behalf of the officer.”
Six to 12 months is a reasonable time frame, said Stewart — “Anything over that is ridiculous.”
Atlanta’s police chief Erika Shields said the delays have taken a toll on the department.
“When you put someone in such a prolonged holding pattern you can see the stress it takes on them,” Shields said. That stress is only exacerbated by the increased scrutiny on police conduct, she said, leaving some officers under investigation to worry “they’ll be offered up as sacrificial lambs.”
Attorneys and law enforcement officials familiar with the the caseload of the Fulton DA’s Public Integrity Unit — tasked with investigating possible police abuse and alleged corruption involving public officeholders — support Howard’s contention that he has been hobbled by a lack of funding by the county.
“For nearly a decade, my office has sought additional funding for PIU from the Fulton County Board of Commissioners,” Howard said in his statement.
He was finally granted four temporary employees during the 2017 budget cycle, additions that Howard said helped the PIU resolve 33 cases, a 200 percent increase from the previous year.
APD officers are in wait-and-see mode, as the long turnarounds date back to the PIU’s infancy. In 2008, the AJC reported that some officers under investigation weren’t even being notified when their cases were closed. One officer waited four years for resolution, unaware that prosecutors had decided not to bring charges against him for the death of a suspect in police custody.
“There’s no need to mince words about it,” Howard said at the time. “We need help.”
Back then, the issue of police use of force barely registered on the public’s radar. That all changed in 2014 with the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, followed by a number of controversial police shootings across the country.
Now, when there’s not prompt adjudication of cases involving charges against law enforcement, the public trust suffers, said DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston.
“Anytime you have a use-of-force case the community needs to know if it’s justified or excessive,” Boston said. “If there’s a long wait you start getting questions about a cover-up.”
To that end, Boston has pledged a six-month turnaround, when reasonable, from the time her office receives the complete investigative file from the GBI (which now handles all investigations of police-involved shootings in the state).
“It’s important for the family of victims, for law enforcement and the community in general to have closure as soon as possible,” Boston said.
The problem isn’t isolated to Fulton County. When Boston was elected DA in May 2016, she inherited two dozen pending investigations involving law enforcement, some dating back three years.
“It’s really hard on the families (of the victims) because you can’t share information with them until the investigation is complete,” she said.
The officers under investigation say they also feel powerless. And trying to put pressure on any district attorney to expedite the process can be counterproductive, said Ken Allen, past president of the Atlanta Police Union.
“If we try to push for an answer how do we know that’s not going to hurt the officer’s case?” he said.
Whenever they have pushed for faster resolutions “we’ve heard the same argument: What about the people who are not officers?” Allen said. “You’re between a rock and a hard place.”