• Ch. 2 Investigation of Georgia police shootings finds nearly half shot in back, unarmed

    By: Jodie Fleischer

    Updated:

    ATLANTA - Rosa Hampton's grief over losing her son, Maurice, is still just as raw as it was in June 2011 when he was shot in the back by an Atlanta police officer.
     
    "If I had just been there, maybe there was something I could have done. Maybe this would not have happened," said Hampton.
     
    Maurice was unarmed when he took off during a traffic stop; the officer had pulled him over for running a stop sign.
     
    "Shot in the back, no weapon," Hampton said, fighting back tears.
     
    A Channel 2 Action News - Atlanta Journal Constitution investigation found Maurice was one of 90 Georgians killed by police since 2010 who were either unarmed, shot in the back or both.  That's nearly half of all 184 cases reviewed 
     
    “I have a problem with that, because I just don't see the threat," said attorney Max Richardson, who represented the Hampton family in a federal lawsuit.
     
    "It pierced my soul to lose a case like that knowing what the family had to go through," he added.
     
    Hampton did not have a driver's license but the officer did not know that at the time.
     
    The officer caught up to him when they both stumbled at the bottom of a hill; they tussled on the ground.
     
    The only witness said Maurice looked like he was handcuffed but then broke away from the officer and ran again. That's when he was shot in the back.
     
    The absence of gun powder suggests it was not close range.
     
    "The officer twisted the facts entirely in another direction," said Richardson.
     
    Officer Thomas Atzert told a grand jury he first used his pepper spray and baton, but that Maurice grabbed both away and began hitting the officer.
     
    “He pushed away and fired one shot to prevent him from turning around with a deadly weapon in his hand," said Lance LoRusso, who represented Atzert during his grand jury appearance.
     
    LoRusso says the officer was in a fight for his life.
     
    But prosecutors didn't believe that, and tried to indict Officer Atzert for false statements, violating his oath and murdering Maurice. They instead voted to clear the officer.
     
    "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 said.
     
    Channel 2 obtained never-released photos, which show the officer's baton in Maurice's hand.
     
    But records show prosecutors thought the baton was planted, and that Maurice may have been handcuffed before he was shot. Injuries to his teeth and face suggest he fell forward without using his hands to break his fall.
     
    When backup officers arrived, one of Maurice's arms was handcuffed but Atzert said he did that after the shooting.
     
    "The FBI also investigated this case and they found no evidence of a cover-up," said LoRusso. "And it was very concerning to me that we were looking at accusing everyone of a conspiracy, when in fact, there was evidence to support Officer Atzert' s statement."
     
    In all, 184 deadly police shootings in Georgia since 2010, not one officer has faced criminal charges.
     
    "They know that they can get away with it," said Rosa Hampton. "They know all they've got to say is 'I was in fear for my life'."
     
    Police files, autopsies and court records all paint a picture of the lives lost.
     
    Sixty nine were shot in their own home or that of a loved one. One in four had been treated for mental illness.
     
    "I would be devastated if nothing resulted from this because we're not getting the job done. We're not getting the true facts," said Richardson.
     
    “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."
     
    Because police shootings have never been systematically tracked by state or federal agencies, our 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.


                  
    Our review of 184 fatal police shootings revealed these findings:
     
    *About 1-in-6 people fatally shot (16 percent) were unarmed, or in a vehicle which officers sometimes claim can be used as a weapon.
     
    *About 1-in-3 people fatally shot (38 percent) were shot in the back.
     
    Eighteen out of those 71 people were shot solely in the back of their torso, neck, head or buttocks. Fifty two others were shot in the back, but also suffered wounds to other parts of their body.
     
    *The number of blacks and whites was almost identical
    89 blacks - 49 percent
    87 whites - 49 percent
     
    However, based on population figures, blacks are killed at a higher rate, since whites outnumber blacks in Georgia by nearly 2-to-1.
     
    *About 1-in-4 people fatally shot (27 percent) had been treated for mental illness or had expressed suicidal thoughts.
     
    *About one-third were fatally shot in their own home or that of a loved one, many after a call for help.
     
    "It's appalling, it's disgusting it's sickening," said attorney Max Richardson, "And it's even worse when nothing is being done about it."


     
    Following our investigation, Georgia’s Prosecuting Attorney’s Council is working to draft new legislation in the upcoming session to limit the special treatment officers get when they go before the grand jury.
     
    Currently, Georgia is the only state where officers are allowed to remain in the room for all of the evidence and then make an unchallenged closing statement with no restrictions.
     
    The district attorneys say they've found encouraging support from law enforcement leaders around the state. 
     
    GBI Director Vernon Keenan, whose agency investigated roughly two-thirds of the cases, said the Channel 2 - AJC investigation fills an important gap in what's known about fatal shootings and will also 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 Channel 2 - AJC data "alarming," but said it will help encourage police agencies to become more transparent.
     
    "We are not blind to the idea that there is a problem in our country," said Rotondo."And we are not blind to the idea that we have a lot of shootings that occur in Georgia."
     
    The majority of the 184 shootings analyzed involved dangerous situations with people who were, in fact, threatening the officers or others with guns or other weapons.
     
    About one in four had discharged a firearm before or during the fatal encounter with police.

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