ATLANTA — Garrett Rolfe, the Atlanta police officer who was fired from his job after fatally shooting a Black man, Rayshard Brooks, in a fast-food parking lot, was reinstated on Wednesday by the city’s Civil Service Board, which found that Officer Rolfe’s firing violated his due process rights.
Officer Rolfe was terminated one day after the shooting, which came a few weeks after the police killing of another Black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis. The killing of Mr. Brooks led to a new round of demonstrations across the United States, including in Atlanta.
Though reinstated to his job, Officer Rolfe is being placed on administrative leave until the resolution of murder and aggravated assault charges he faces for the June 12 shooting, according to a city news release. Though criminally charged, Officer Rolfe has not yet been indicted, a step needed for the case to move forward. But his lawyer maintains his innocence. “Garrett did not violate the law on June 12, 2020,” the lawyer, Lance LoRusso, said Wednesday.
The decision by the Civil Service Board to reinstate Officer Rolfe turned not on whether the shooting was justified, but on whether the city had followed proper procedures when firing him. At a hearing before the board on April 22, Allegra Lawrence-Hardy, a lawyer for the city, argued that under the city code, “immediate dismissal” of an employee was proper when the employee’s presence on the job “impairs the effectiveness of others.”
“Here we have an officer-involved shooting of a Black man occurring at a time when there are protests against police officer brutality, against Black men in particular,” Ms. Lawrence-Hardy said. Keeping Officer Rolfe on the job, she said, “would have been extremely disruptive.”
But in its written order on Wednesday, the board noted that Officer Rolfe was not afforded the opportunity to adequately respond to the city’s notice that it intended to fire him. The decision cited the testimony of Sgt. William Dean of the Atlanta police’s internal affairs division, who said that the firing “seemed rushed.”
Officer Rolfe, the board concluded, was not afforded his right to due process “due to the city’s failure to comply with several provisions” of the city code.
In a statement, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms defended the city’s move to fire Officer Rolfe so quickly, given the level of anger and pain in the streets of Atlanta, a majority African-American city.
“Given the volatile state of our city and nation last summer, the decision to terminate this officer, after he fatally shot Mr. Brooks in the back, was the right thing to do,” Ms. Bottoms said. “Had immediate action not been taken, I firmly believe that the public safety crisis we experienced during that time would have been significantly worse.”
Ms. Bottoms, a first-term mayor, said the day after the shooting that she had called for the “immediate termination” of Officer Rolfe. At the same time, she announced that the police chief, Erika Shields, was stepping down. Rodney Bryant, a department veteran, was named interim chief.
This week, Ms. Bottoms announced she was making Mr. Bryant the permanent chief. The appointment comes after a period of low morale at the Police Department, which saw a number of officers call in sick after Officer Rolfe was criminally charged.
The department has more than 400 officer vacancies on a force authorized for just over 2,000 sworn positions. Atlanta, like other American cities, has also seen a spike in violent crime that researchers say is connected to the pressures of the coronavirus pandemic.
The killing took place on a Friday night, after Officer Rolfe and his partner, Devin Brosnan, both of whom are white, were called to a Wendy’s restaurant where Mr. Brooks, 27, had fallen asleep in his car in the drive-through line.
The two officers had a lengthy and cordial discussion with Mr. Brooks, body and dashboard camera footage shows. But when he failed a sobriety test and the officers began to arrest him, Mr. Brooks fought with them, then wrested away Officer Brosnan’s Taser, firing it at Officer Brosnan. As Mr. Brooks ran away, he fired the Taser in the direction of Officer Rolfe. Officer Rolfe then fired his handgun, striking Mr. Brooks twice in the back.
Officer Brosnan was charged with three counts for his role in the encounter, including aggravated assault and violations of oath, and was placed on administrative leave. But the criminal case against the officers has been beset by complications and controversy.
The charges were brought by the former Fulton County district attorney, Paul L. Howard Jr. In January, his successor, Fani Willis, wrote to Attorney General Chris Carr of Georgia, alleging that Mr. Howard had engaged in misconduct, including using videos of the shooting in campaign commercials in violation of state bar association rules.
As a result, Ms. Willis argued, there was “sufficient question of the appropriateness” of the Atlanta-based prosecutor’s office continuing to handle the case.
Ms. Willis asked Mr. Carr to refer the case to a special prosecutor, but he declined. The matter is currently before a local judge.
On Wednesday, Mr. LoRusso said that Officer Rolfe was “very happy” with the decision, “and appreciative that the Civil Service Board had the courage to do the right thing.”
Gerald Griggs, the vice president of the Atlanta chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., said that he hoped the city would appeal the Civil Service Board’s decision and that prosecutors had been right to bring murder charges against Officer Rolfe. “He used a lethal weapon to respond to nonlethal force,” Mr. Griggs, a lawyer, said. “There definitely was probable cause for murder charges.”
In the late afternoon, about two dozen demonstrators rallied in front of Atlanta City Hall to protest the decision. “It was a kick in the gut and a slap in the face,” Britt Jones-Chukura, an organizer with a group called Justice for Georgia, said through a megaphone.
Chassidy Evans, Mr. Brooks’s niece, said she was upset that Officer Rolfe got his job back. She said she was frustrated with Ms. Willis for not moving forward with the criminal case, and with the city for not handling the firing properly.
“At this point it’s like, there’s no court date set, there’s no ending,” she said. “He’s still gone. His children are still without a dad, and it’s hard.”
Sean Keenan contributed reporting from Atlanta.