Georgia police officer Garrett Rolfe has been charged with the murder of Rayshard Brooks, the 27-year-old black man who was fatally gunned down last week in Atlanta. Before we celebrate justice being served, however, it’s important to consider the officer’s troubling discipline history, which reveals that this is yet another case of too little too late.
On June 12, Atlanta police officers Devin Brosnan and Rolfe (both white) responded to a complaint that a man, later identified as Brooks, was asleep in his car at a Wendy’s drive-through, the BBC reports. Videos of the incident show that Brooks consented to a sobriety test and searches for over 30 minutes. When officers tried to handcuff him, however, he began to struggle. A scuffle ensued and Brooks tried to run away. He was shot three times in the back by Rolfe, who exclaimed, “I got him.”
The now-fired Atlanta Police officer faces 11 charges, including felony murder, aggravated assault, and seven violations of his oath of office. He is being held without bond. Brosnan was also charged with aggravated assault and two violations of oath. Moreover, Brosnan has now come forward as a state witness in the case against Rolfe.
According to NBC News, department records reveal that prior to this shooting, Rolfe already had a troubling history at the force since he was first hired in 2013. He was reportedly reprimanded in 2016 following a firearms incident, but no other details have been disclosed. Rolfe was involved in another firearms incident in 2015, but again, it’s not clear what the incident was or whether it was met with disciplinary action.
Rolfe also has four citizen complaints on his record, none of which resulted in disciplinary action. The records show that he was involved in five vehicular accidents, too, wherein one resulted in an oral admonishment and one in a written reprimand. Again, he faced no disciplinary action.
While Atlantans can be relieved that a dangerous cop such as Rolfe is finally off the streets and Rayshard might get justice, the same cannot be said for Breonna Taylor and countless other black civilians. Why? Because former-officer Rolfe’s alarming history of discipline within the force is indicative of a larger problem across the US.
The following information is America-specific.
Are police officers ever held accountable?
On-duty police officers shoot and kill about 1,000 people each year. Per CNN, out of thousands of deaths by on-duty police between 2005 and 2016 (when the CNN piece was published), only 77 officers were charged with murder or manslaughter, and only 26 were convicted.
Particularly in cases with black victims, officers are let off the hook, often despite compelling video evidence. For example, Minnesota officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted of all charges related to the death of 32-year-old Philando Castile, who Yanez shot seven times at close range in an incident that was streamed live on Facebook.
In 2017, Betty Shelby, the officer who was caught on video fatally shooting Terence Crutcher, was found not guilty of manslaughter because her use of fatal force was “unfortunate, and tragic, but justifiable due to the actions of the subject.” Per NBC, Shelby had been responding to a routine traffic matter and a video showed Crutcher, a father of four, walking towards her with his hands up. The video doesn’t show the moment he was shot, but a statement given stated that shots were fired when Crutcher failed to respond to commands and Shelby guessed that he was reaching for a gun.
Why is police accountability in the US broken?
Police accountability is institutionally fraught for several reasons. Firstly, crimes committed by law enforcement are impossible to keep track of because official nationwide data isn’t collected nor collated. In many districts, policies allow disciplining records to be destroyed, which means that there are no public records of police misconduct, and transparency between police departments is rare. How do you make sure police officers are held accountable if most of their full disciplinary records are no longer available?
Furthermore, misconduct in police departments is often investigated internally, which means officers are disciplined by their colleagues. Worse yet, the federal law of qualified immunity, which protects government officials from civil lawsuits, is one of the most efficient ways police officers are able to evade accountability, meaning most officers will never see a court date.
Police also have the option to transfer to a new department where they receive a blank slate and avoid having a record of misconduct or unsuitable job performance. Timothy Loehmann, the Cleveland officer who fatally shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice for playing with a fake gun in 2014, was one such cop. According to a petition, Loehmann had lied on his job application and claimed that he left a job in Independence, Ohio for personal reasons, but in fact had quit on learning they deemed him unstable, unfit to work as a police officer, and intended to fire him.
Police unions also have a huge role to play in holding police accountable for their actions. In Loehmann’s case, once the Cleveland Police Department learned of his lie, they tried to fire him, but the police union immediately appealed the decision and tried to get him reinstated — this is after he murdered Rice. John Oliver recently dove into the matter of police unions and how they prove a major obstacle in the path to defunding the police. Watch below.
What should police accountability look like?
Alternate models for police disciplinary procedures need to be introduced. For instance, the indictment process should be made transparent, citizen reviews should be instated to investigate misconduct, and police unions should be reformed.
To a degree, these changes could be met through bills such as the Congressional Black Caucus’ Justice in Policing Act of 2020, which calls for the elimination of qualified immunity for local and state law enforcement officers. Last week, Democrat lawmakers also introduced legislation that would curtail protections that shield police officers accused of misconduct from being prosecuted.
Police accountability — or lack thereof — is an institutional problem that needs to be addressed not only to sentence guilty cops but also as an essential part of dismantling systemic police violence.