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Another Case Involving Ex-Atlanta Officer Garrett Rolfe Is Scrutinized

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Georgia, former Atlanta Police Officer Garrett Rolfe was charged with murder less than a week after fatally shooting Rayshard Brooks. That kind of quick response is unusual. And there's actually another case involving Rolfe that has now come under scrutiny. And as Emily Green of member station WABE reports, this case highlights an often slow-moving justice system that lacks accountability.

EMILY GREEN, BYLINE: In a 2015 dash cam video, police cars race through Atlanta, barreling through stop signs, chasing the driver of a stolen pickup truck.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: (Yelling) Shots fired. Shots fired. Stop the car. Stop the car.

GREEN: The chase ends when the truck crashes into a parked police car that has no one in it. The officers fire at the driver. It's unclear whether that happens before or after he rams into the police cruiser. In the minutes afterwards, the officers talk amongst themselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

GARRETT ROLFE: I mean, God, with the atmosphere, they're going to charge us.

GREEN: That's Garrett Rolfe, the former Atlanta police officer now charged with murder in the fatal shooting of Rayshard Brooks. This incident happened in 2015 in the heat of national protests over the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Rolfe fired three of the five shots of the driver. He was hit in the back, causing one of his lungs to collapse.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

ROLFE: Oh, my God. Now I see. Now I see why they don't want us to chase carjacked vehicles - 'cause when something like this happens...

GREEN: Despite the national outcry over police accountability at the time, the wheels of justice in Atlanta move slowly. The district attorney investigates all cases where police officers fire their guns. He kept the case open for nearly five years. It wasn't until this past February the DA cleared Rolfe and the other officers of wrongdoing. Judge Doris Downs presided over the case. She remembers it for another reason. The initial police report makes no reference to any officer firing a gun.

DORIS DOWNS: I had never really seen anything like this case, where the police report didn't even mention that any shots were fired, much less that the defendant was hit.

GREEN: In fact, the reason Judge Downs knew about the omission at all was because the suspect survived and wrote her a letter. He accused the Atlanta Police Department of trying to cover up that the officer shot him. Michael O'Connor is a major with the Atlanta Police Department. He says the department's best detectives conducted a thorough investigation.

MICHAEL O'CONNOR: It's very clearly in the file shot, how many times they shot, why they shot. All of that's available. It's just not in the initial police report.

GREEN: He also says the Atlanta Police Department generally concludes its investigation into officers' conduct only after the district attorney makes a decision whether to charge them criminally, a process that can drag on for years, at least until a few weeks ago. As protests over police abuse have rocked the nation, District Attorney Howard moved quickly to prosecute Rolfe and other officers for misconduct. Critics say it's a political gambit to win reelection. Howard didn't respond to repeated requests from NPR for comment. Here he is on CNN.

(SOUNDBITE OF CNN BROADCAST)

PAUL HOWARD: The more important or significant the case, the more the accusation was that it was political. This is nothing new, but we charged it based upon the facts.

GREEN: The Atlanta Police Department is also tackling misconduct with uncommon speed. It wasted no time firing Rolfe and other officers who repeatedly tased two college students in a separate incident. This shift is running up against decades of complicity, says Jon Rapping. He is president of Gideon's Promise, which trains and supports public defenders around the country.

JON RAPPING: Atlanta's no different than every place in the country. There is a culture in our criminal legal system that prioritizes arrests and convictions over everything else.

GREEN: Rapping says police continually push the line of acceptable behavior. And some prosecutors routinely bury evidence of misconduct.

RAPPING: So we shouldn't be surprised when that culture leads to police violently attacking people in the streets and even killing people sometimes.

GREEN: But the culture is changing. Prosecutors in San Francisco, Boston and Philadelphia have launched commissions to hear from people who say they are victims of police abuse. And police departments are showing little leeway for officers who break the rules. The question is, will it last?

For NPR News, I'm Emily Green in Atlanta.

MARTIN: This story was reported in collaboration with APM Reports. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.