As the district attorney of Fulton County, Georgia, Paul L. Howard Jr. says he attends a lot of funerals.
In an interview with ABC News, Howard said seeing the family of Brooks at the service “magnified the hurt” he felt when he watched the video of Brooks’ death.
Brooks was fatally gunned down by police in a Wendy’s parking lot in Atlanta, Georgia on June 12.
“Because of our investigation, I had a chance to watch an extraordinary kind of interchange between him and two police officers, and it’s almost like you got a chance to know something about him and his life just by watching [those] 41 minutes or so. And so I wanted to honor his death,” Howard said.
Howard continues to face criticism from lawmakers and the police union representing Atlanta police officers for his decision last week to charge former officer Garrett Rolfe and officer Devin Brosnan in the shooting death of Brooks. But Howard said he was “just doing his job.”
“What we do is to look at the evidence. And in this case, we had the evidence that was before us. And my philosophy is we should move,” Howard told ABC News. “If we had been talking about a civilian who shot someone, I’ve never heard anybody say that we indicted or charged the civilian quickly. It’s strange that people only talk about quickly when you’re talking about a policeman. I think that’s one of the things that we’ve got to change in this country.”
Howard said that there was nothing political about his decision to charge the officers, referring to the first police case his office prosecuted in 2002. That case, he said, involved a 19-year-old Black man who was killed by police while sitting in a car that belonged to his mother, but which an officer believed was stolen. “Every case that we’ve handled, that’s what they’ve said, it’s political, every case,” he said.
Howard also defended himself against criticism that he charged the officers before the Georgia Bureau of Investigations finished its investigation. He said his office had “enough evidence to move” and that they are not required by law “to wait for anyone.”
He questioned the criticism further, noting that the GBI is a state police office. “I guess people are suggesting that we should wait for the police to tell us how they’ve investigated themselves. I don’t think that’s the way that the law works. We are independent. We made an independent decision and we will appreciate the report when they get it to us,” Howard said.
Howard’s office continues to add to its own investigation and is preparing for a bond hearing for Rolfe scheduled for next Tuesday. He told ABC News that he does not expect the grand jury to convene in this case until October 1.
His office is not planning on seeking the death penalty, the harshest possible punishment, for Rolfe’s felony murder charge. “We have not even gotten to the point that we’re thinking about what kind of sentence we’re asking,” Howard said.
Meanwhile, both Rolfe, through his legal team, and Brosnan, have denied the allegations against them, which include that they were late in administering aid to Brooks after he was shot. Howard said he charged the officers based on videotape evidence. “It’s really critical in a case when somebody has been shot twice in the back that there ought to be some immediate medical attention, and I know people will say that you shot in the heart and that means you can’t survive; that doesn’t mean that you should not try,” he said.
Howard believes that the officers broke the rules when they did not immediately attempt to keep Brooks alive.
Howard has also been critiqued for backtracking on whether a Taser is a deadly weapon, deciding so in the recent tasing incident of college students Taniyah Pilgrim and Messiah Young, but seeming not to decide the same in this case. “You know what they seem to be saying, ‘Mr. Howard, if you’re not perfect, if you made a mistake in the other case then now you have to bear with it,” Howard said. He called the criticism “hogwash” and disgraceful to Mr. Brooks. “First of all, Mr. Brooks, at the time he was shot, he was running away, his back was turned. He was not firing a Taser. So why people are engaged in this imaginary argument about a Taser, I’m not real sure,” he said.
Howard contended the Taser had nothing to do with Brooks’ death. “He was some 18 feet, 3 inches from the officer when he shot him. And I would just ask people to use their common sense. And if you did that, I don’t think you’d be talking about a Taser,” he added.
Howard took particular issue with the officers’ actions after Brooks was gunned down. For one, he said that Rolfe kicked Brooks. Brosnan, meanwhile, admitted that he stood on Brooks’ shoulder, because he thought he was still a threat.
“Number one, you don’t shoot a man in the back. You know, it’s the immediate sign of a coward when you shoot a man in the back. But once you do that, when a man is already down, you know, even if you were hunting an animal, if you were hunting a deer, when the deer is down, you don’t walk over and then kick him and stand on him,” Howard said.
“So when people are talking to me about Tasers, and how quickly you finished, I’m saying to them, ‘Did you see the insult to humanity?'” Howard said. “‘What are we going to do about that?’ And I think what those young kids on the streets are trying to say to people is, ‘When are you going to pay attention to what’s really happening?'”
Howard has a lengthy list of policy suggestions to answer protesters’ outcry for change in policing. He believes the nation should require all police misconduct criminal incidents to be independently investigated by a police agency separate from the department involved in the act of misconduct. Additionally, Howard would like to see district attorneys as the “gatekeepers” to the criminal justice system, granted the authority to charge police officers in the death of a civilian without the involvement of a grand jury.
He believes there should be a national law that every police officer, federal or state, involved in the arrest of an individual, or in contact with civilians, be required to wear and operate a body camera and utilize dash cameras. He also believes an independent federal agency should be created devoted to police shootings and collecting data. That agency would keep a nationwide database of officers involved in police misconduct and use of force incidents, develop and provide training standards and programs, reward police departments and communities that practice and excel in de-escalation with pay increases and pay incentives and provide an avenue for citizens to appeal local prosecutors’ decisions not to charge or prosecute cases. This agency would be authorized to prosecute state cases in federal court.
In addition to policy reform, Howard argued there needs to also be a culture change. It begins with what he called the “thin blue line” — the lack of officers willing to speak out against their fellow officers.
“What I hear people say often is, ‘Well, you know, there’s some good police officers, some bad ones, few bad ones, but everybody else is good.’ And this is where I ask people all the time, ‘Well, guys, when is the last time that you heard of those good officers testifying or complaining about the bad officers?'” he said.
Howard believes the conduct of police unions and what they mean to police departments and the average citizen also needs to be examined.
“There’s a culture that has developed. If we don’t change that culture, then the result that we’re going to get is going to continue to be the same,” he added. But until that change comes, he said he hopes the young people in Atlanta keep putting pressure on the system.
“I’m hopeful that we can change. I’m hopeful that people will say this is too much,” Howard said. “As an African American, my feeling is the reason we haven’t stopped is because the deaths are mainly deaths of African Americans — and until we accept the fact that we are not treated equally as citizens of this country, we will continue to make these mistakes.”