Sanctions likely in controversial police shooting case

Black teen’s shooting by white officer typified many AJC findings about fatal police shootings in Georgia.

A former Union City police officer who twice avoided indictment for killing an unarmed teen is likely to lose his police certification when the state’s certification agency meets early next year, the agency’s head told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News.

The move comes after an AJC/Channel 2 investigation into the fatal shooting of Ariston Waiters revealed Luther Lewis later lied when applying for a new job with another department.

“Our council takes a very, very dim view of people who lie on an application or in any case for that matter,” said Ken Vance, director of Georgia’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Council (POST) which certifies and disciplines Georgia’s officers.

The AJC and Channel 2 revealed new details about the 2011 shooting of Waiters earlier in May, and the case heralded many of the investigative findings from a year-long examination of fatal police shootings since 2010.

This week, the AJC and Channel 2 reported that almost half of the 184 Georgians fatally shot by police since 2010 were unarmed or shot in the back. Black Georgians were also twice as likely to be shot by police than white ones, based on population, the investigation found.

Waiters, who was black, was both unarmed and shot in the back. The 19-year-old ran when police arrived to break up a neighborhood fight he’d been watching, and was already lying face down on the ground with one arm handcuffed when Lewis shot him twice in the back. The teen hadn’t committed a crime.

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard reopened that case in May, after the AJC and Channel 2 investigation raised new questions about the case, including two prior incidents where fellow officers said Lewis lied, once by saying he fired shots because someone had shot at him, and again saying he saw the suspect inside a house he wanted to raid; the house turned out to be empty.

That second grand jury also declined to indict Lewis in August, and Howard referred the case to the U.S. Attorney’s office for further investigation.

The grand jury’s action was consistent with what the AJC and Channel 2 learned from analyzing six-year’s of fatal shootings: since 2010, no officer in Georgia has faced criminal prosecution for killing a civilian, even in instances when videotape or eyewitness evidence raised serious questions about a shooting.

Prosecutors, including Howard, whose office has attempted to prosecute the most officer-involved shootings of any in the state, said that Georgia’s special law allowing officers to sit through grand jury proceedings and give an unchallenged statement at the end was a major factor in the failure to indict any officer for wrongly using deadly force.

The AJC and Channel 2 identified several cases in which an officer’s testimony appeared to sway the outcome in the grand jury, including the controversial 2010 death of an unarmed Glynn County woman, Caroline Small, whose shooting was captured on police dashcam video. Both officers who shot Small were cleared, and several grand jurors told the AJC and Channel 2 that the officers’ emotional testimony influenced the grand jury’s decision.

Prosecutors and state lawmakers are working on legislation that would curtail the grand jury privileges of officers in Georgia, following the AJC/Channel 2 reporting.

Separately, state law enforcement leaders said they will use the AJC/Channel 2 data on police shootings, the most comprehensive examination ever undertaken, to improve police training around situations that have the greatest potential to escalate into violence.

“With the kind of coverage we’re getting now and the questions that are being asked, not only by people in the street, but people at the highest levels of government, we’ve got to find a way to close that gap and build … trust back,” Vance, the POST director, said. “Nobody likes bad law enforcement officers.”

Lewis fired for ‘deception’

When Lewis made his statement to the grand jury in August, Howard said, he did not disclose that he’d just been fired by the Savannah Airport Commission “for deception during the interview process” — just the week before.

Lewis had been on the job as a patrol officer at the Savannah Hilton Head Airport for one week when his superiors discovered during a background check that the case against him had been reopened.

POST wanted to get the transcript from Lewis’ grand jury testimony, but Howard has now declined that request, citing the pending federal investigation into Lewis’ actions by the U.S. Attorney’s office.

Vance says POST is still considering whether to prosecute Lewis for making false statements. But the agency is prepared to move forward with the disciplinary case against Lewis for lying to the Savannah Airport Commission.

“Especially when you lie on a document, you’ve signed your name to that lie. Your credibility is destroyed on the stand from then on,” said Vance, “We have a history of revoking certifications for lying.”

Vance says the case is slated to go before the POST Council at its next meeting in March.

If Lewis’ certification is revoked, he would have the chance to appeal, but it would all be noted in his file in case he tries to get hired by another department.

“We have to be as objective as we can and play the hand we got dealt. And right now we’ve just got one pretty good card. So we’ll work with that one,” said Vance, “I think that in the end there will be a certain amount of small justice in this case.”

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