Unarmed and shot in the back

AJC analysis casts doubt on claims that police shootings are always lawful.

Nearly half the 184 Georgians shot and killed by police since 2010 were unarmed or shot in the back, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News investigation has found.

Those findings emerged from the most extensive review of police shootings ever undertaken in Georgia, and cast doubt on claims by police that deadly force was always justified. The AJC and Channel 2 reported in October that every police shooting case since 2010 had been deemed lawful in the state’s criminal justice system.

“So many of these cases involve somebody being shot in the back. It’s very, very troubling,” said Philip Stinson, a nationally recognized expert on police shootings and misconduct from Bowling Green State University, who reviewed the AJC/Channel 2 findings. “I can think of some very, very limited circumstances where it would be legally appropriate, but it’s rare circumstances … You can’t just shoot somebody that’s running away from you.”

The AJC/Channel 2 investigation also found black Georgians killed by police were more likely to be shot in the back or unarmed than whites. About three out of five blacks were unarmed or shot in the back, compared to about two out of five whites. Seventy-eight percent of the officers who discharged their weapons were white.

Overall, police fatally shot black citizens at a rate twice that of whites based on population figures, the investigation found.

The disproportionate number of blacks killed mirrors other studies undertaken since a white police officer fatally shot a black man in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014 and suggests that in Georgia, a state with one of the highest populations of black citizens, race is a factor in the use deadly force.

The case of Maurice Hampton illustrates many of the findings identified by the AJC’s investigation. An Atlanta police officer pulled over Hampton for running a stop sign in 2011 as he headed to his new job as a dishwasher at a southwest Atlanta night club. Hampton, a black parolee, had no driver’s license. He got out of his car and ran. Minutes later, he was dead.

Fulton County prosecutors and an eyewitness alleged the officer shot the unarmed 37-year-old in the back after a scuffle in a grassy lot. Before a grand jury earlier this year, the officer gave an emotional statement that contradicted the prosecution’s eyewitness, describing a life-or-death struggle with Hampton, whom the officer said had stolen his police baton and pepper spray. Grand jurors cleared the officer. Hampton’s family remains filled with grief and questions.

“They just do it and they get away with it, they don’t do anything to these officers,” said Hampton’s mother, Rosa Hampton. “They know that they can get away with it. They know all they got to say is, ‘I was in fear for my life.’ … Shot in the back, no weapon.”

Because police shootings have never been systematically tracked by state or federal agencies, the AJC/Channel 2 investigation provides the most comprehensive public data in Georgia on an issue that has disrupted communities around the country and sparked a national re-examination of police powers.

In all, reporters conducted more than 100 interviews, obtained more than 500 public records and analyzed thousands of pages of incident reports, investigative files and court records.

The findings include:

  • About one in six people fatally shot were unarmed. Of those 31 cases, 17 people were black and 14 were white. That represented 19 percent of all black shootings and 16 percent of all white shootings.
  • In 18 cases, the person killed was shot solely in the back of their torso, neck, head or buttocks. In 52 other cases, they were shot in the backside, but also suffered wounds in other parts of the body.
  • In at least 11 fatal police shooting cases since 2010, the person shot by police was both unarmed and shot in the back. Seven people killed in this manner were black, four were white.
  • At least one in four of those killed by police had shown some signs of mental illness before the fatal encounter. About one in three whites fell into that category, compared to about one in five blacks. About 16 percent killed were veterans, but that figure could be higher because service records could not be determined for every death.
  • Black citizens killed tended to be younger, with a median age of 29, while white citizens tended to be older, with a median age of 41. Only 9 of the 184 killed were women.
  • At least 20 officers involved in fatal shootings had serious prior issues documented in their records. Four had previously been fired or resigned in lieu of termination from a previous police job in Georgia. Officers in two other shootings had been disciplined for lying. And two officers had failed to complete state-mandated annual use-of-force training to maintain their powers of arrest at the time they fatally shot someone.

The AJC and Channel 2 previously reported that more than one-third of the fatal police shooting cases involved people shot at their own home, often in confrontations that started with officers responding to a call for help or to respond to a domestic dispute.

“You can’t just shoot somebody that’s running away from you.”

Philip Stinson, nationally recognized expert on police shootings and misconduct from Bowling Green State University

Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vernon Keenan, whose agency investigated roughly two-thirds of the fatal police shootings in the AJC/Channel 2 review, said the news outlets’ investigation fills an important gap in what’s known about fatal shootings and will be used by law enforcement leaders to improve training and policing.

“I don’t believe the public and progressive law enforcement officials are going to accept the status quo,” he said. “There is an understanding by law enforcement executives that the environment has changed, and we must review these type of instances in a detailed manner to be able to improve police actions.”

Frank Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, called the AJC/Channel 2 data “alarming,” but said it will help encourage police agencies to become more transparent about police shootings.

“We already recognize there is a problem,” Rotondo said. “We are not blind to the idea that there is a problem in our country. And we are not blind to the idea that we have a lot of shootings that occur in Georgia.”

Rosa Hampton and her daughters, Van Harris-Wyatt and Kelly Hampton, visit the scene where her son was killed by police. (BOB ANDRES / AJC)

'Police own the narrative'

The majority of the 184 shootings analyzed by the AJC/Channel 2 involved dangerous situations with people who were threatening the officers or others with guns or other weapons. About one-quarter had discharged a firearm before or during the fatal encounter with police. But when the shooting appeared questionable, the system always ruled in favor of the officer.

Attorney Lance LoRusso, who has represented many officers in police shooting cases, including the Atlanta officer in the Hampton case, said police officers are trained to use deadly force in a lawful manner. It should be no surprise, he said, that they are routinely found to have used their weapons legally.

LoRusso pushes back against any notion “that officers are just looking for a reason to shoot someone. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

“The officers I’ve known and the officers I’ve represented and the officers I’ve interviewed who have had to use deadly force would do anything to go back and not have to do it,” said LoRusso, a former Cobb County officer.

Stinson, a former police officer and lawyer, said the lack of concrete data on police shootings makes it difficult to determine how often the system fails. He said a significant number of police shootings deemed justified may in fact be unjustified. He noted that several recent national cases were called justified but then appeared unjustified when video evidence was released, most recently in the case of a black man shot 16 times by Chicago police.

The actual number of fatal shootings that are unjustified is likely much higher than officially reported because “police own the narrative without any accountability,” Stinson said.

“That’s why this type of investigative reporting is so important,” he said. “We’ve got to learn a lot more about it and pay a lot closer attention to it. I really do believe that many of the shootings each year where officers shoot and kill somebody but they are not charged — I’ve got to believe those are criminal acts in many cases, but we have no way of quantifying what the number is.”

“The officers I’ve known and the officers I’ve represented and the officers I’ve interviewed who have had to use deadly force would do anything to go back and not have to do it.”

Attorney Lance LoRusso

Following reporting from the AJC and Channel 2 on how some shooting cases were handled in the legal system, state lawmakers plan to propose changes early next year to a law that grants police officers special grand jury privileges. Georgia is the only state in the nation that gives police officers the right to sit in on the entire grand jury and give a statement at the end that cannot be questioned by prosecutors or grand jurors. In close cases, that special privilege can make the difference in the outcome, prosecutors say.

“Most people are not aware at all that Georgia has this provision under the law, and they are certainly shocked to find out we are the only state in the union with this law,” Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said.

‘The officer…fired one time’

Many of the troubling aspects of the most questionable cases — unarmed citizens, people shot in the back, witness or video evidence that contradicted the officer’s story and a traffic stop that quickly escalated to violence — are captured in the case of Maurice Hampton, a man friends knew as Ray-Ray.

The case also illustrates the wide latitude police have to use deadly force and how their account of what happened in a shooting can overwhelm other evidence, including eye witness testimony.

Family photo of Maurice Hampton, who was shot and killed by Atlanta Police in 2011, and his son, Xavier.

On the day Hampton was shot, Carold Williams, a 72-year-old attorney and 24-year Army and Air Force veteran, was exiting an American Legion club in Atlanta in the early evening hours of June 30, 2011. He spotted Hampton running through the parking lot with a white officer in pursuit. Williams later testified in a civil lawsuit that he followed the chase to the lot’s edge, where he saw Hampton and the officer locked in a struggle in a field at the bottom of a slope.

Williams said it appeared that the officer was straddling Hampton on the ground and hitting him with his baton, court records show. The officer gained control and led Hampton away with his hands behind his back. It appeared as if Hampton had been handcuffed, Williams testified. Suddenly, Hampton took off running, and the officer reacted, according to Williams.

“The officer raised his weapon and with two hands and fired one time,” Williams testified.

Hampton was struck in the back and fell face down in the kudzu. Damage to his teeth suggested he may have fallen on his face without breaking his fall.

The officer approached Hampton and knelt down for a few seconds, according to Williams testimony in court records. Hampton had nothing in his hand when he was shot, Williams testified.

But when Williams turned on the news that night, he watched Atlanta police say that the officer shot Hampton in self-defense during a fight.

“I knew that wasn’t the truth,” Williams testified.

An eyewitness testified that Maurice Hampton was shot in the back after breaking free from an Atlanta police officer and running away. The officer said he cuffed Hampton's right hand after he shot him (left), but did not cuff his left hand, which was photographed holding the officer's baton. He was shot and killed behind this Atlanta nightclub (right).

Emotional statement to grand jury

Paul Howard’s office didn’t believe the story, either.

It took the Fulton prosecutors four years to bring the case to a grand jury, but when they did, they accused Officer Thomas Atzert of felony murder, aggravated assault and giving false statements to investigators.

Atzert said that Hampton took his pepper spray during their struggle and struck him with his own baton.

At the grand jury, Atzert delivered an emotional statement to grand jurors, his attorney said, describing what he called the worst day of his life and one that has haunted him every day for four years.

Atzert’s grand jury testimony has not been made public, but in a federal civil case earlier this year he described how Hampton had taken his baton, and said that he feared a blow to his head could have killed him. Atzert broke away from him and fired his gun when Hampton was three or four feet away, he said.

Officer Thomas Atzert

“I feared for my life,” he said. “I shot him in the back because when I pushed off of him, that was the portion of his body that was facing me. I wasn’t waiting for him to actually take that turn with the baton and shoot him in the front.”

Crime scene photos show Hampton face down with Atzert’s police baton in his left hand. Immediately after the shooting, Atzert testified, he placed a handcuff on Hampton’s right hand. But Atzert did not cuff the left hand that he said was holding the baton.

“I put it on his right wrist,” Atzert testified. “And when I did, that is unfortunately when I heard his last breath.”

A Fulton grand jury voted not to indict Atzert on any charge.

“Twenty people who never met Officer Atzert listened to 19 hours of testimony and made a determination that Officer Atzert was telling the truth,” LoRusso, Atzert’s attorney, said. “If the grand jury believed that he had committed a crime, they would have indicted him.”

LoRusso also disputed Williams’ eyewitness testimony. He said Williams’ story changed over time and that Williams couldn’t actually see some of the things he said he saw. LoRusso said the FBI and the Atlanta Police Department both investigated the case and neither found evidence of a cover-up. The theory that Atzert planted the baton wasn’t supported by the facts, LoRusso said. He noted that a civil jury also believed his story and ruled in his favor.

“It is very concerning to me that we are looking at accusing everyone of a conspiracy, when in fact, there was evidence to support Officer Atzert’s statement,” he said.

Shootings significantly under-counted

The problem of excessive force stretches back decades in American history, particularly in the South, where blacks have routinely felt the brunt of police violence and where law enforcement was routinely used as a tool of intimidation and control.

Two decades ago, there was a recognition that the lack of accurate, comprehensive data about police violence was a problem. In 1994, Congress ordered the U.S. Department of Justice to start collecting excessive force data and issuing annual reports on its findings. The agency didn’t follow through.

Today, the FBI remains the most quoted official source for national data on police shootings, but its totals on justifiable homicide significantly under count the actual number of fatal incidents involving the police.

“We are not blind to the idea that there is a problem in our country. And we are not blind to the idea that we have a lot of shootings that occur in Georgia.”

Frank Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police

In Georgia, the under-counting by the FBI system has been significant and longstanding. Over a five-year period, the AJC/Channel 2 investigation found more than twice as many fatal shootings than were identified by the FBI. The median annual count of fatal police shootings since 2010 was 29, the AJC/Channel 2 investigation found. There have been 28 so far this year.

Local police agency reporting to the FBI is optional. The GBI, which helps the federal government gather data in Georgia, said that only 16 of the more than 600 police agencies in Georgia reported the justifiable homicide data to the agency.

The lack of any tracking system for police shootings hampers statewide training efforts and undercuts information sharing that could help cut down on civilian deaths. A dramatic spike in fatal shootings in 2012 went completely undetected by policymakers or law enforcement leaders in the state.

And those leaders haven’t addressed the racial disparity that the AJC and Channel 2 found for police shootings in Georgia because the data hasn’t ever been systematically collected and analyzed.

Rev. C.T. Vivian, the Atlanta-based civil rights leader and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, said the data compiled by the AJC and other media outlets demands action. Police agencies across the country need more training and testing of officers around issues of race, he said.

The media attention has helped expose the source of the anxieties black Americans have long felt about the police, he said.

“Ninety-nine percent of us know that it could happen to us and/or our children,” he said. “Anytime a police (officer) tells you to stop and you pull over, or try to pull over, and can’t pull over, and you give him any trouble in following up, you don’t know how he’s going to react. You really don’t. This is the kind of thing that bothers us.”

Traffic stop leads to a death

Former East Dublin officer Jeffery Deal didn’t show up in the official data. The AJC and Channel 2 identified Deal as one of 20 Georgia officers involved in a fatal shooting who had conduct or training deficiencies documented in their records.

Officer Deal’s dashboard camera video captured Melvin Williams’ shooting and death.

On May 14, 2010, Deal spotted Melvin Williams, a 33-year-old black man from East Dublin, driving; he later said Williams ran a stop sign. Deal pulled in behind the unarmed man after he turned into a friend’s driveway.

What happened next was partially captured by Deal’s dashboard camera.

It shows his car’s blue lights flashing as Deal exits his car and rushes, hands on his holster, towards Williams’ vehicle, which is partially in view of the camera.

“Get in the car,” Deal orders. “You don’t get out of the car on a traffic stop.”

Melvin Williams was 33 when he was shot and killed by an East Dublin police officer in 2010.

A struggle ensues largely off-camera, and Williams can be heard yelling, “What is wrong with you! Man, what is wrong with you!”

During the struggle, Deal said they fell to the ground. Williams hit Deal several times on the head and then tried to grab the officer’s gun, according to Deal. When they re-enter the video frame, Williams can be seen hitting Deal once as the officer grabs his holstered gun and backs out of the frame. As Williams lunges toward him a gunshot rings out. Williams is struck in the chest and falls down.

“Get on the ground,” Deal says. He then says over his radio: “I just shot one.”

The incident lasted 30 seconds.

No charges, but many questions

On the day he fatally shot Williams, Deal was without police powers. Court records show that he and several fellow officers, including the chief, had failed to keep up with their annual use of deadly force training, which Georgia requires for police to maintain arrest powers.

“It’s a classic example of a cop using excessive force, then using deadly force to bail himself out of a situation he created.”

Mario Williams, Williams’ family’s attorney

Still, Deal was never charged. After a six-hour court hearing, in which Williams’ family were seeking an arrest warrant against Deal, the judge found Deal’s actions legal and ruled in his favor, saying he had authority to make a “citizen’s arrest.” The Laurens County district attorney chose not to take the case to a grand jury after the judge’s decision.

In a deposition, Deal said the confrontation with Williams escalated after Williams got out of his car and ignored his command to stay inside. Deal also knew that Williams was a convicted felon at the time of the stop, according to court records, which his attorney argued was relevant to how the officer dealt with him.

Deal acted properly, said LoRusso, who is also Deal’s attorney. He said eyewitnesses backed up Deal’s claim that his life was in danger.

“He thought he was going to die that day and he had to take a life,” LoRusso said.

Williams’ family’s attorney in the case, Mario Williams, who is not related to the family, said there is no credible independent evidence to support Deal’s version about what prompted the traffic stop or his claims that Williams went for the officer’s gun.

Officer Jeffery Deal

“It’s a classic example of a cop using excessive force, then using deadly force to bail himself out of a situation he created,” said Williams.

U.S. District Court Judge Dudley G. Bowen Jr., ruling in a federal lawsuit last year, said a jury should consider many questions about the case, including if Deal’s life was actually in danger and if he “acted too hastily in discharging his firearm without any warning.”

Deal declined to discuss the shooting, but said it has stayed with him.

“It’s something that you have to live with every day,” he said. “I pray for his family every day. I pray for mine. It’s something that you obviously wish would never have happened in the first place.”

Lena Williams' son, Melvin Williams, was shot and killed by police during a traffic stop in 2010.

Troubled legacy of a shooting

Williams was the third oldest of Lena Williams’ seven children. She said his death has devastated the family. For a long time after the shooting, she said she had trouble sleeping. Five years later, she still has gnawing questions about officer’s actions.

“Why did this man kill my baby?” she asked. “I’ve asked myself a thousand times, why did he do this?”

She’s also afraid now when she sees the police. She especially worries she’ll be stopped by Deal.

“It just petrifies me sometimes,” she said. “I can’t stand it.”

Deal left the East Dublin department in August to go to work for the Georgia State Patrol. But that didn’t last long — in trooper training school, an internal investigation was opened that raised questions about Deal’s honesty and substantiated allegations that he harassed other cadets, state records show. After facing an investigator’s questions, Deal “resigned while under investigation” on Sept. 21, according a patrol memo.

The next day, state records show, he went to work for the sheriff’s department in nearby Telfair County as an investigator — with all his police powers intact.

How we got the story

At the beginning of 2015, no one in Georgia could say how many people were killed by police each year. Reporters from the AJC and Channel 2 Action News set out to answer that question, and learn who, how and why civilians are killed by police, and how the legal system treats these cases.

Reporters compiled six years of fatal police shooting cases from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and police departments throughout the state to assemble the most comprehensive database of shooting cases ever assembled in Georgia. The files included police incident reports, investigative notes, crime scene photos and videos, medical examiner reports, autopsies and other records. The team examined death records to identify demographic information about civilians shot by police, consulted law enforcement agencies to determine the demographic, personnel and training records of police officers, and built a database to analyze the information. Reporters examined the mental state of those shot, the circumstances that led to a confrontation with police, the presence or absence of weapons and the training and backgrounds of the officers involved. Using death records, autopsies, investigative records and media reports, reporters learned the location of wounds for those killed.

To identify civilians shot in the back, the reporters determined if they had been shot in the buttocks, back of the torso, back of the neck or back of the head. In determining if the civilian shot was armed or unarmed, the reporters counted as unarmed a person who was driving a car if no other weapon was found. The unarmed cases in the AJC/Channel 2 tally include 11 people whom police said were armed with the car they were driving.

Because the investigation examined six years of data, the reporters were able to track the judicial outcome of closed cases. Reporters requested grand jury records and case outcomes from the district Attorneys across Georgia’s 49 judicial circuits.

In all, reporters conducted more than 100 interviews, obtained more than 500 public records and analyzed thousands of pages of incident reports, investigative files, court records, autopsy records, media reports and police officer certification records.