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Garrett Rolfe, Officer Fired In Rayshard Brooks Killing, Reinstated But Put On Leave

Updated May 6, 2021 at 9:26 AM ET

An Atlanta oversight board has ordered the reinstatement of Garrett Rolfe, the fired police officer charged with murder in the death of Rayshard Brooks, based on technicalities about dismissal procedures under the Atlanta city code.

Rolfe will remain on administrative leave until his criminal charges are resolved, the Atlanta Police Department said in a statement to NPR.

The department filed paperwork to dismiss Rolfe the day after he shot Brooks, a 27-year-old Black man, in the parking lot of a Wendy's on June 12. Rolfe has since been charged with murder, though his criminal case has been bogged down by procedural delays.

"We are very pleased at this action and consider it the first step in the total vindication of Officer Garrett Rolfe," Lance LoRusso, an attorney defending Rolfe, said in a statement.

The order to reinstate him, made by the city's Civil Service Board, is based on the finding that Atlanta police did not follow city code when it dismissed him. The board found the department made several errors on the dismissal paperwork and did not give Rolfe adequate time to respond.

The board specifically did not make a judgment about whether Rolfe's conduct was criminal.

"It is important to note that the CSB did not make a determination as to whether officer Rolfe violated Atlanta Police Department policies. In light of the CSB's rulings, APD will conduct an assessment to determine if additional investigative actions are needed," department spokesperson Anthony Grant told NPR.

On the night of June 12, Rolfe and another officer were called to the Wendy's because Brooks had fallen asleep in his car in the drive-through lane, according to authorities. The officers arrived and questioned Brooks, and conducted field sobriety tests for about 30 minutes, police body camera footage shows. They then moved to handcuff him, saying he'd had too much to drink to be driving.

Footage captured by police body cameras, Wendy's security cameras and bystanders showed Brooks resisted arrest but was running away from the officers when he was shot. In the scuffle, he grabbed an officer's Taser, then ran away. Rolfe chased him with his own Taser drawn. Still running, Brooks tried to fire the Taser back toward Rolfe. Rolfe then drew his handgun and fired three shots, two of them striking Brooks.

The officers, including Rolfe, did not immediately provide medical assistance. Brooks died soon after at a hospital.

Rolfe's dismissal was announced that weekend.

His firing came at a chaotic time for the Atlanta Police Department. Less than two weeks earlier, two other officers were fired for using their Tasers on two Black college students during a traffic stop. (Those officers have also been reinstated.) The chief, Erika Shields, resigned June 13, the same day the department filed paperwork to fire Rolfe.

During a board hearing last month over whether Rolfe's firing should be reversed, witness testimony and evidence showed an error-ridden, rushed dismissal.

Atlanta city code requires that the subject of disciplinary action have an opportunity to respond before the action — in this case Rolfe's dismissal — takes effect. That response period can be shortened in the case of emergency.

But the board ruled the city did not provide Rolfe that chance to defend himself, instead delivering the notice of his dismissal at a meeting neither he nor police supervisors could attend.

Additionally, officials made several mistakes on the disciplinary paperwork, including checking both "yes" and "no" boxes on one form under the section indicating whether the dismissal was an "emergency action."

"This was very rushed. Time was of the essence. Sometimes mistakes happen when you rush," Sgt. William Dean, an investigator with the department's internal affairs unit, testified at the hearing.

The hearing did not address whether any of Rolfe's actions that night were criminal. Rolfe, making his first public statement since killing Brooks, refused to answer any questions related to June 12, citing the Fifth Amendment.

Two witnesses from the Atlanta Police Department, Dean and Assistant Chief Todd Coyt, testified that they believed Rolfe and his partner had acted appropriately during the encounter with Brooks.

The conditions of Rolfe's bond ban him from possessing firearms and prevent him from having contact with any of the department's officers except in case of emergencies, according to court documents.

Rolfe will receive back pay, according to an Atlanta city ordinance. It was not immediately clear whether his administrative leave would be paid or unpaid.

"We are working with the city and have not received specifics on his status upon his reinstatement," LoRusso said in an email to NPR.

In response to the board's order to reinstate Rolfe, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms defended the initial decision to fire Rolfe.

"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," she said in a statement.

The reinstatement frustrates activists like Britt Jones-Chukura. On Wednesday evening, she joined dozens of activists gathered on the steps of Atlanta City Hall to protest the decision.

"Why do we keep doing this? Why do we keep disrespecting the legacy of the home of the civil rights movement? Enough is enough," she said.

Johnny Kauffman of WABE in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.