Atlanta cops fired over students’ arrests win jobs back

Two fired Atlanta Police officers captured on video using a stun gun as they forcibly pulled a pair of college students out of a vehicle last May have had their terminations reversed, and the lawyer for one of those students calls his client “stunned and saddened.”

Lance LoRusso, the attorney for Atlanta Police Investigators Mark Gardner and Ivory Streeter, tells WSB the decisions came Monday afternoon by the Atlanta Civil Service Board.

“We were able to get a Civil Service Board hearing and were able to prove to the Board’s satisfaction that the officers were denied due process,” says LoRusso. “They failed to follow the ordinances and failed to follow their own policies, and the Board ordered them reinstated.”

Body-cam footage showed several officers surrounding the vehicle of Taniyah Pilgrim and Messiah Young, smashing the window, and using a stun gun as the pair were forcibly pulled from their car shortly before 10:00 p.m. on May 30, during protests following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Young said the couple were slowed in traffic as they drove home from dinner, when he saw a fellow Morehouse student being detained by Atlanta Police. Young believes officers reacted to him recording the incident on his phone and asking police to let him take the other student with them.

The incident left Young, then 22, with a fractured arm and with deep cuts requiring nearly two dozen stitches. The news that two of the officers may soon be back to work was a different kind of injury.

“He was devastated. In absolute and utter disbelief,” Young’s attorney, Mawuli Davis, said Tuesday.

Davis says Young is dealing with “back-to-back setbacks” as it pertains to justice in his case, as the ruling comes days after the new district attorney in Fulton County, Fani Willis, turned over these officers’ criminal cases to the state attorney general’s office, contending she believed there might be a conflict with her office pursuing the prosecution begun by the previous D.A.

Young and Pilgrim both expressed relief last year when the officers were terminated.

“No one should feel safe with them on the street if they have the capacity to do what they did that night,” says Davis. “It was calculated, it was coordinated, and it was brutal.”

LoRusso says had the students obeyed “10 lawful orders” by officers to leave, the incident would not have happened.

Davis scoffs at that.

“Why’d they have to leave?” Davis asks. “They were observing an arrest, they were not interfering with the arrest. Why’d they have to leave? There was bumper-to-bumper traffic. The officers acknowledged that they were yelling that, ‘There’s nowhere for you to go!’ So the idea that they’re saying ‘because they didn’t leave?’ They weren’t obstructing them. They had an absolute right to be exactly what they were, doing exactly what they were doing.”

LoRusso believes the firings were “politically expedient” and says the former Police Chief, Erika Shields, contended in her Board testimony that the officers were fired because “they thought the city was going to burn” if Gardner and Streeter weren’t terminated. “It is absolutely a victory, not only for these two amazing officers who have not received a paycheck since June 1, but is also a victory for due process and the rule of law, and stating to the City: Do an investigation. Rushing to judgment is not going to solve anything,” says LoRusso.

The City can appeal the decision.

LoRusso notes that while the Board did not address the allegations of excessive force the officers face, he believes that Gardner and Streeter will be cleared when the investigations occur. Davis is hoping that a thorough, well-presented investigation by the Office of Professional Standards confirms that the officers should be fired, after all.

“Their use of force was completely appropriate. It was according to their training,” says LoRusso. “Lawful force will never look good on a video. Instead of saying, ‘It looks bad so we need to do something,’ there should’ve been a presumption that these were highly-trained officers, and maybe what they did was appropriate.”

Davis disagrees.

“When people see that video, their eyes are not lying to them,” says Davis. He says the officers acted as if the two students “had just robbed a bank or had just shot and murdered someone.” The video reveals that as officers broke into the car, the students were screaming and asking police what was happening.

“He was driving through, sees a friend being assaulted by police, tries to capture it on video, and then because he’s saying, ‘Hold on, don’t do that, don’t do that,’ then they target him,” Davis says. “I mean, if that isn’t synonymous with what we see in terms of gang behavior, what is? That’s how gangs move: ‘Oh, you want to help him? Well, we got something for you too.’ And that’s what happened.”

Young, he said, has made it a point to push forward with his life and his studies even as the aftermath of the altercation with police lingers.

“He was traumatized, and that trauma continues,” says Davis. “Anyone who has been in a life-or-death situation where you believed you were about to die, where you were violently assaulted, you don’t come out the same.

“And he has not.”

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