Saying America was watching, Cobb County officials Thursday announced plans to fire a police lieutenant who told a woman during a traffic stop that “we only kill black people.”
But Lt. Greg Abbott sent an email to the county announcing that he plans to retire, even as the police chief was on live television saying Abbott would be terminated, according to Commission Chairman Mike Boyce. Boyce said he was unsure how that development would affect the decision to fire the lieutenant.
The racial comments by Abbott, who is white, only surfaced this week, when WSB-TV aired video from Abbott’s dash cam from a July 10, 2016, traffic stop. Abbott has been on the Cobb force for 28 years.
“Remember, we only kill black people,” Abbott says on the video. “Yeah. We only kill black people, right?” He was speaking to a white woman who was a passenger in a car that had been pulled over for DUI.
At a press conference Thursday afternoon in Marietta, Police Chief Mike Register said, “There is no place for those types of comments. This badge and uniform should mean justice and fairness for all.
“I have known Lieutenant Abbott for years and perceive him as honorable, but he’s made a mistake. I don’t know what is in his heart, but I know what came out of his mouth. We recommend that he be terminated and we are moving forward on that.”
Register said the recommendation to fire Abbott came from his command staff. Register notified Abbott of the recommendation Thursday morning.
"Not only is Cobb County watching, but America is watching what we do to respond to these events,” Commission Chairman Boyce said at the press conference. “What we told America today is that we are different. We believe in the rule of law. We believe in equal justice. We have a long way to go, but our journey is forward.”
‘Police misconduct is not news’
There’s never a good time for a police officer make such remarks, even in jest, but Abbott’s timing couldn’t have been worse. According to the date stamp on the police video, Abbott’s encounter with the woman occurred July 10, 2016.
That was just four days after Minnesota police shot and killed Philando Castile, a beloved cafeteria supervisor at a Montessori school, whose last moments were recorded by his girlfriend on her phone.
“In this environment, with sensitivities running high, it is inappropriate, for any police officer, but especially one of our leaders,” Register said.
Ben Williams, president of the Cobb Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Deane Bonner, president of the county’s NAACP chapter, both attended the announcement and said they were satisfied with the department's decision.
“Police misconduct is not news," Williams said. "The real story here is the behavior of this police chief in Cobb County. . . . To be here today and stand with Chief Register as he pulls the shades up and exposes the sunrise . . . is news.”
The footage obtained by WSB-TV shows the officer speaking through the car window to a female passenger in a vehicle that had been stopped for suspected DUI. The police had already arrested the driver of the car in which the woman was riding and placed him a squad car.
The woman tells Abbott she is afraid to reach for her cellphone because “I’ve just seen way too many videos of cops ... ” At that point, Abbott cuts her off.
“But you’re not black,” he says. “Remember, we only shoot black people. Yeah. We only kill black people, right? All the videos you’ve seen, have you seen the black people get killed?”
Lt. Abbott’s attorney, Lance LoRusso, argued in a statement that Abbott’s “comments must be observed in their totality to understand their context. He was attempting to de-escalate a situation involving an uncooperative passenger.”
LoRusso said Abbott was trying to “gain compliance by using the passenger’s own statements and reasoning to make an arrest.”
That explanation didn’t fly with Register, who said the comments make it harder for officers on the street trying to gain community trust.
“No matter what context was, the statements were inexcusable and inappropriate,” Register said. “I have worked hard since becoming chief to strengthen the relationship between the department and the community. It is sad to think that several seconds of video has the potential of tearing that apart.”
The county's black leaders expressed grave concern about Abbott's comments.
“We know police officers get up every day and protect and serve, but this was so cavalier,” the NAACP’s Bonner said. “(The) young lady . . . never mentioned ‘black.’ So, for him to take it to that level, it’s just very sad.”
Cobb County Commissioner Lisa Cupid, also present at the press conference, also said she was satisfied with the chief's decision.
Cupid filed a seven-page complaint with county police in 2012 after an undercover officer followed her into her subdivision late one night.
It said, “I believe the officer who followed me had complete and utter disregard for my safety, my well-being and the sanctity of community. That police officer was not there to protect and serve. He was there to harass and intimidate.”
Cupid’s concerns were dismissed by her fellow commissioners, who were all white, and by the police department as well.
‘It makes you cringe’
On Thursday, Cupid said regardless of what Lt. Abbott’s intentions were, his comments only served to confirm the fears many people of color have of law enforcement. She also questioned how Abbott’s remarks were received by the woman in that moment on the side of the road.
“There’s nothing that indicates that woman was put at greater ease when those statements were made,” Cupid said.
Chief Register took over the department in June, so the Abbott incident predated his arrival by almost a year.
Suri Chadha Jimenez, an Atlanta attorney who represented the man charged with DUI in the case, said he thinks the officer was being sarcastic after the woman “gave him some lip.”
“It makes you cringe when you hear it. It’s unacceptable,” Jimenez said.
The attorney also said on Thursday that neither his client nor the woman in the car wants the media attention that has come with the revelations.
“She’s not trying to get paid,” Chadha Jimenez said. “She wants it to go away.”
Correction: This article initially quoted the officer as saying “we only shoot black people.” The correct quotation was “we only kill black people.”
Staff writer Meris Lutz contributed to this article.