Murder charge against Atlanta cop shifts ground in Georgia

In a one-two punch, Atlanta’s top law enforcement leaders this month upended the deference and the legal latitude shown police officers who shoot civilians in the line of duty when they quickly brought criminal and disciplinary charges against an Atlanta cop who killed an unarmed black motorist.

On Friday, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard charged former Atlanta police officer James R. Burns with felony murder, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and violation of his oath of office for shooting Deravis Caine Rogers, 22, on June 22, and the officer turned himself into the Fulton County Jail Saturday.

It is the first and only time in at least six years that a Georgia DA has charged a police officer who fatally shot a civilian in the line of duty without first seeking an indictment from a grand jury.

Earlier last week Atlanta Police Chief George N. Turner said why he had fired Burns for unnecessary and excessive force just nine days after the shooting. In Georgia, such administrative reviews can drag on for months — if they take place at all — and often hinge on the outcome of any criminal investigation.

“Our communities are not going to allow us to spend six, eight, 10, 12 months before a grand jury determines if they are going to indict on an issue when there is clear evidence that suggests that the officer violated our standard operating procedures,” Turner told the AJC in an interview last week.

Together, the swift actions of Howard and Turner promise to diffuse a potent rallying cry for local activists who have urged widespread protests against police violence. Turner and Mayor Kasim Reed will meet with representatives of Black Lives Matter and other activists at City Hall Monday for a 9 a.m. community dialogue around policing and race.

Though overshadowed by the shootings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota, Rogers’ death was gaining attention in Atlanta and on social media, and activists said they were watching how Atlanta police handled the case.

Demonstrators would have been all over the chief “like white on rice” had he not taken some action, according to Marcus Coleman, a community activist who founded Save OurSelves.

“It’s very strategic on his end,” Coleman said. “What he did was smart. I’m not going to cheer too loudly. This is in line with his job. We’ll see what comes from it.”

Despite the skepticism, the disciplinary and criminal actions against Burns, who is white, suggest that the ground has shifted since protests erupted around the country following the shooting death of a black man in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 and more recently this month.

Police prosecutions rare

Criminal charges against officers are extremely rare. An AJC/Channel 2 Action News investigation last year found that no Georgia officer faced criminal prosecution in the 184 fatal police shootings between 2010 and 2015.

The first sign of change came in January when a DeKalb County grand jury indicted a DeKalb police officer for shooting a naked, unarmed and mentally ill veteran named Anthony Hill.

In that case, however, DeKalb District Attorney Robert James did not charge the officer before the grand jury met to consider an indictment against him.

Howard’s move to charge Burns before seeking an indictment is unprecedented in Georgia — and even for him.

Last year, Howard resisted calls to charge a former Union City police officer with murder before he presented the case to a grand jury in August. Howard brought the case against Luther Lewis after the AJC and Channel 2 uncovered damaging new evidence that undercut the officer’s story of why he shot an unarmed black teen during an arrest in 2011.

Grand jurors declined to indict the officer, reaching the same conclusion an earlier grand jury in 2012. In both instances, the officer testified on his own behalf, utilizing a unique Georgia law that allowed officers to deliver statements to grand jurors that could not be cross-examined.

That law was changed earlier this year following stories by the AJC and Channel 2 that quoted prosecutors saying the special privilege gave officers an unjust advantage in the grand jury room. It took effect this month.

Howard to treat officer same as ‘any other defendant’

The case against Lewis shares similarities with Burns’. The men shot were both unarmed, had committed no crime at the time of the shooting and were young and black.

In announcing the murder charge against Burns, Howard said the strength of the evidence he reviewed led him to charge the officer before presenting it to a grand jury.

Signaling a dramatic departure from how previous police shooting cases have been handled, Howard also said that Burns’ case “will proceed … in the same manner as any other defendant similarly charged — arrest, indictment and resolution.”

In Georgia, many, many months can elapse between a police shooting and the rare instances when cases are presented to a grand jury.

Howard indicated that he intends to move much more aggressively in the case against Burns, saying he planned to take the case to a grand jury in early August, less than two months from the date Rogers was shot.

Burns, who awaits a bond hearing after turning himself in, is being represented by Lance LoRusso, a veteran attorney who has defended many police officers in shooting cases. LoRusso said Burns is appealing his dismissal from APD and said the legal team will be conducting its own investigation into what happened.

On the administrative front, Chief Turner said law enforcement has historically tended to wait until a criminal investigation is complete to take disciplinary action against an officer, but progressive law enforcement agencies across the country are rethinking that approach.

“If we are going to change the dialogue and also the optics around the perceptions of police departments and citizens, we’ve got to act differently,” Turner said. “When there is clear evidence that shows that our officers have violated our policies we have to move quickly. Our citizens demand that.”

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