Atlanta police officers fired for using TASERs on college students reinstated

The officers were fired after a viral video of a use-of-force incident last June drew public criticism


By Christian Boone
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ATLANTA — The Atlanta police officers who were fired after using their Tasers on two college students during last summer's protests downtown were reinstated Monday.

The Civil Service Board ruled that the city "did not follow the personnel regulations of the Atlanta Code of Ordinances in the dismissal" of officers Mark Gardner and Ivory Streeter, who were let go one day after the May 31 incident went viral.

In this Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018, file photo, Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields attends a news conference in Atlanta.
In this Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018, file photo, Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields attends a news conference in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

That video created a furor nationwide. It showed officers forcibly extracting Spelman College junior Taniyah Pilgrim, 20, out of the vehicle and onto the pavement, where she was stunned with Tasers repeatedly. The driver, 22-year-old Messiah Young, a senior at Morehouse College, was also stunned with Tasers and arrested.

Police had repeatedly ordered Young to turn around and head out of the city, but thick traffic made compliance difficult. The students were guilty of violating a 9 p.m. curfew and, according to the cops' lawyer, Lance LoRusso, the officers feared there was a gun inside the vehicle. They would later determine that the students were unarmed.

"Lawful use of force is never going to look good on video," LoRusso said. "You have to be trained to understand why the officers were doing what they were doing. There was a clear rush to judgement."

In her testimony before the board, former Atlanta Police Department Chief Erika Shields said the decision to fire the officers was made under extraordinary circumstances.

The incident came amid protests that had followed the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. On this particular evening in Atlanta, demonstrations had grown increasingly violent.

"Reports of gunfire were so numerous, they stopped talking about it on the radio," LoRusso said.

Shields testified that city officials were afraid the students' arrest would only fuel mounting outrage against police.

"The circumstances were exceptional," Shields testified. "We did, I did, what I had to do to make sure the city was stabilized."

The officers were not given the usual five days to respond to the allegations against them, LoRusso argued.

"The city just trampled over their rights," he said.

LoRusso said the deadline for his clients to respond to the allegations against them coincided with the start of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms' press conference announcing their dismissal.

"There clearly was an excessive use of force," Bottoms told reporters. "We understand that our officers are working very long hours under an enormous amount of stress, but we also understand that the use of excessive force is never acceptable."

The mayor's office did not respond to a request for comment about the officers' reinstatement.

Gardner had been with APD 23 years; Streeter, for 16. The officers are now eligible to return to their jobs, though they could face an internal investigation they were initially denied.

The two officers also face potential criminal prosecution. Former Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard charged them, along with four other officers on the scene, with a variety of counts, including aggravated assault and simple battery. The other officers were placed on desk duty pending an internal investigation, the outcome of which has not been disclosed.

The criminal case was recently turned over to Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr's office after new Fulton DA Fani Willis recused herself, saying the conduct of her predecessor made it impossible for her office to proceed with the case.

A new prosecutor, once appointed, will determine whether the case should go forward.

In a memo sent to all APD officers, Shields said the decision to fire Gardner and Streeter was justified, but the criminal charges filed against several officers were the result of "a tsunami of political jockeying during an election year."

Attorney Chris Stewart, who represents Pilgrim, said the idea of the officers returning to work was "disappointing."

"The video speaks for itself," he said.

LoRusso said his clients are anxious to return to duty. Neither has received a paycheck since last June, he said.

THE STORY SO FAR

Atlanta police officers Mark Gardner and Ivory Streeter were fired last June after video surfaced showing them using their Tasers against two unarmed college students. On Monday, the city's Civil Service Board reinstated the officers, ruling that the city violated its own policies in dismissing the cops. Gardner and Streeter, along with four other Atlanta Police Department officers, still face potential criminal charges for their involvement in the arrests of students Messiah Young and Taniyah Pilgrim.

(c)2021 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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