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Heads We Riot, Tails You Lose

The spectacle of Rayshard Brooks' horrifying death is not going to lead to justice. But the rush to appease the mob is probably going to lead to more mobs and more riots. We need cooler heads.

The Fulton County Medical Examiner’s office has ruled Rayshard Brooks’ death a homicide. This rather pro-forma ruling, that Brooks died from gunshot wounds to his back, sets up a rather bleak scenario for Atlanta’s tinderbox race and security situation. For those who can’t wait to riot, it’s “heads we riot, tails you lose.”

Comments by Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard to CNN’s Fredricka Whitfield point the way this may go. Howard said that some time around Wednesday, the DA’s office will be making a decision in this case.

Howard characterized the interaction between Brooks and the officers as “cordial,” and noted that the conversation went on for about 22 minutes prior to the struggle that ended with Brooks’ death. He said it was “difficult when you see the demeanor of Brooks to imagine that some short time later it ends up with him being dead.”

“It just seems like this is not the kind of conversation and incident that should have led to someone’s death,” he added.

Obviously, something went wrong at the end. Based on Howard’s remarks, former Atlanta Police Department chief Erika Shields’ firing of officer Garrett Rolfe, her subsequent resignation, and remarks by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, our expectation is that the DA will pursue charges, and do so very quickly.

That’s a problem.

To read all the news accounts that mention George Floyd, Armaud Arbery, and every incident leading to the death of a black man at the hands of white police (or retired vigilante police), this case is not just about justice for one man’s death and a police officer’s action, it’s about keeping the nation, and Atlanta, from exploding into a conflagration.

Making a quick ruling of homicide, and then having DA Howard, Mayor Bottoms and the media rush to a decision creates the possibility for a lot of bad scenarios.

First, if Howard declines to prosecute for murder, and goes for manslaughter or another lesser charge, then there will be demonstrations, and likely some rioting, because Rolfe is really being tried for the crimes Travis and Greg McMichael, William Ryan, and the murder of George Floyd. Nothing less than murder will satisfy the mob’s lust for justice.

Second, if a Grand Jury declines to indict Rolfe for murder, and the Department of Justice won’t pursue a hate crime or civil rights violation, there will be riots, because another officer will walk free. It will be seen as a failure of the justice system, rather than its proper operation.

In an actual Grand Jury, the panel needs to believe that the charges are justified without reference to larger issues going on in the nation. They may not make that judgement–though if the DA pushes enough evidence it’s not difficult to indict a ham sandwich, as the saying goes.

Third, let’s say Rolfe is prosecuted for murder, and the Grand Jury indicts. It goes to trial. Unless there’s a whole lot of evidence the Fulton DA’s office can gather in just three days to make a decision, that will yield a guilty verdict, it seems difficult to predict that a jury will convict him. Regardless of what the national mood is, the bar to convict a police officer of murder, when all other indications of this particular interaction with a member of the public is “cordial,” seems to be against the prosecution.

This will not be an open-and-shut case. In fact, most cases like this end up with either lesser charges, or an acquittal, because police are given a wide latitude for self-defense by juries and judges issuing instructions.

An acquittal will lead to riots, just like they did with the Rodney King beating at the hands of LAPD officers, who were acquitted in state court.

It seems the only path forward in Rolfe’s case is to do the opposite of what everyone here is doing. The mayor, the DA, and the media should not rush toward charges, but should hold off and take a very careful approach. Yes, yes, the video is disturbing and spectacular, but justice is about truth, not spectacle.

The spectacle of Rayshard Brooks’ horrifying death is not going to lead to justice. But the rush to appease the mob is probably going to lead to more mobs and more riots. We need cooler heads.


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