The official response to the shooting of Rayshard Brooks should alarm everyone

By this time, you’ve probably already seen the video of an Atlanta police officer shooting and killing Rayshard Brooks in the parking lot of a local Wendy’s restaurant on Friday night. (You can view the video at this link from NBC News.) The shooting looks to me as if it should have been entirely preventable, as I’ll discuss below, but the official response to it has also been troubling, though for different reasons. Not even a day later, the officer who shot Brooks had been fired and the Police Chief had resigned. Saturday night, rioters burned the Wendy’s restaurant to the ground. And then, not even two full days later, authorities ruled the shooting to be a homicide.

Authorities in Georgia ruled Sunday that the fatal police shooting of Rayshard Brooks outside an Atlanta Wendy’s was a homicide.

Brooks, 27, died after he was shot twice in the back on June 12, the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s Office said in a statement. Brooks was shot last Friday night after a confrontation with two Atlanta police officers in the parking lot of the fast-food restaurant.

Police had been summoned there on a report of a man sleeping in his car in the drive-through.

The speed at which events are proceeding in this case is not some sign of the wheels of justice moving quickly to right a wrong. Or at least not yet. Allow me to explain before anyone breaks out the pitchforks and torches.

I’ve watched the video of the shooting several times now and it’s not unreasonable to say that this incident shouldn’t immediately be lumped into the same category as the death of George Floyd or even Ahmaud Arbery. Clearly a number of things went wrong and fault for that lies at least in part on the shoulders of the two responding officers. There is simply no way that the response to a report of an allegedly drunk person falling asleep in their car in the drive-through of a restaurant should end with a suspect dead on the parking lot pavement.

But with that said, the interactions between Brooks and the police actually looked almost boringly normal throughout much of the encounter. After awakening the suspect, the normal questions were followed by a field sobriety test. When Brooks failed the test, the officers moved to take him into custody. That’s when everything went wrong. Obviously, Brooks was wrong to suddenly bolt out of their grasp and make a run for it when all he was likely looking at was a couple of hours in the drunk tank and the probable loss of his license for six months. (We’ve heard no other reports thus far of anything additionally incriminating at the scene.)

But it was the fact that Brooks was able to break free that establishes what the police did incorrectly. They should have had him under better physical control to prevent that. The next few seconds of the encounter – which would prove to be the final seconds of Brooks’ life – were when things became a lot more complicated. Seizing a stun gun from one of the cops was an inexcusable escalation of hostilities on the suspect’s part. Turning as he ran to fire the weapon at one of the cops upped the ante even further. That’s always going to provoke a response from police officers.

Now, it’s perfectly valid to ask whether discharging a weapon into the back of a fleeing suspect carrying a non-lethal (and at that point, expended) weapon was an appropriate use of lethal force, particularly in the middle of a public parking lot. I believe it’s certainly possible that a jury might be convinced that the decision was wrong and the officer is guilty of something, whether it’s murder, manslaughter or something else. But my point here is that this wasn’t such a clear-cut case that the officer should be fired before any sort of thorough investigation could be begun. And declaring the shooting to be a homicide in equally rapid fashion only serves to poison any such investigation.

What we’re seeing here is the Atlanta Police Department and the municipal government reacting in panic. The ongoing protests, riots and unrest obviously have them on edge and worried about more of the same in Atlanta. The fact that the restaurant was burning down in less than 24 hours likely only increased those fears. But the ability of the city’s law enforcement agencies to remain functional is completely undermined if everyone believes that they can be cowed into any particular decision at the hands of mob rule.

While it’s always frustrating for the families of any deceased victim to have to wait for the process to play out and justice to be served, we have these processes in place for a reason. The normal procedure in a case like this would have been to place the officer on paid leave while a full investigation was conducted. If prosecutors determined that there was sufficient evidence to support an arrest and prosecution (which there clearly could be) the officer could then be dismissed. The Police Chief’s resignation was also far too rapid unless it could be quickly established that the officers had insufficient training leading to the situation getting out of hand so rapidly.

What we saw in this case over the weekend was law enforcement and municipal leadership throwing a scalp to the mob in the hopes that it would appease them. And that’s a terrible precedent to set because now it will be assumed that riots produce results and they’ll probably never end. A formal, transparent investigation could have led to justice for Rayshard Brooks, but at this point, we still don’t know definitively what that justice would or should look like.