Fatal police shooting of Atlanta mother triggers transparency concerns
Late in the afternoon of 30 April, Atlanta police officers Jeffery Cook and Omar Thyme found Alexia Christian inside a stolen white F-150 pickup truck parked in a downtown Atlanta parking deck.
What happened next is largely uncertain. According to the Atlanta police department, the two officers, who are both African American, detained Christian, put handcuffs on both her wrists, and placed her in their patrol car parked one block north of the Fulton County courthouse.
A few minutes later, the 26-year-old African American mother lay dead following a police shootout that has raised questions about what happened inside the squad car.
One week after Christian’s death, community advocates have demanded more answers from the police department, calling for the release of surveillance footage, and insisting that an independent investigator handle the internal inquiry into both police officers.
Though Christian was armed, her death has occurred at a time when the outrage over police shootings of unarmed victims in Maryland, South Carolina and Missouri has dominated national headlines. Hers is Atlanta’s second officer-involved shooting in 2015.
The day after the shooting, Atlanta’s chief of police, George Turner, and other high-ranking police officials attempted to explain how Christian died in police custody.
“She was fully handcuffed, both [hands] to the rear, at the time as they walked her down to the location and placed her in the rear of the patrol car,” said Turner, who noted Christian had slipped out of restraints during at least one prior APD arrest.
“Something happened that she was able to remove one of her hands out of the handcuff.”
Turner said Christian then pulled out a pistol and fired three bullets at the officers sitting in the front of the car. Cook and Thyme, who the bullets narrowly missed, quickly exited the APD vehicle and shot at Christian a total of 10 times, he said. Emergency responders transported Christian to Grady Memorial hospital, where she later died from her injuries.
Multiple police departments in the Atlanta metro area had arrested Christian nine times before 30 April. Two of those arrests, one for shoplifting and the other for selling marijuana, occurred in 2015. She had been previously taken into custody three times for auto theft.
How Christian allegedly brought a pistol into the patrol car’s back seat is now the subject of an investigation. Turner said APD policy requires a woman officer to conduct a full body search of a female suspect. If witnesses are present, a male officer can use the back of his hand to search for weapons, drugs and other contraband. Turner said the officers had not yet fully searched Christian.
Felecia Christian, the victim’s mother, declined to be interviewed before her daughter’s funeral on Saturday. She previously told WGCL her daughter didn’t deserve to die no matter how frequently she had encountered the police.
“She has a criminal history, yeah, but most of us do,” Christian said. “I have one myself. But it’s not nothing that will cost her her life. She should have been in jail if she broke the law, that’s what jails are for. I shouldn’t be making funeral arrangements for her.”
Local community activists staged a rally on 4 May on the front steps of Atlanta’s police headquarters, where they demanded greater transparency in the Christian investigation. The APD has not yet released video from the patrol car’s front dashboard camera, nearby security cameras, or cellphone footage obtained from witnesses. The police department has said it follows proper protocols and nationally recognized best practices.
State senator Vincent Fort, called on the APD to immediately release all surveillance tapes in its possession to shine a light on the events surrounding Christian’s death. Without that, he said, the APD would lose the trust of Atlanta residents who are already skeptical of police.
“When police want the public to go to sleep, the media to go to sleep, they delay releasing information,” Fort said. “That’s unacceptable.”
Longtime Atlanta civil rights activist Joe Beasley, southern regional director of the Rainbow/Push Coalition, urged the APD to hand over the case to an outside investigator to ensure transparency.
“They made mistakes,” Beasley said. “The woman was not searched. She would be alive now. The children would still have a mother. A mother would still have a daughter. It’s a human tragedy. They need to be transparent.”
He recommended the APD follow the lead of other police departments in the Atlanta metro area who voluntarily asked the Georgia bureau of investigation to take over shooting cases involving their officers. In the past six months, the chief of the DeKalb County police department, Cedric Alexander, handed over the high-profile shooting deaths of 27-year-old US air force veteran Anthony Hill and 44-year-old cook Kevin Davis to the state agency’s investigator. More than a week after the death of Nicholas Thomas just north-west of Atlanta, Smyrna police agreed to let GBI conduct the investigation in the “spirit of transparency and openness”.
Both the APD officers have been placed on routine administrative leave. Sergeant Greg Lyon of the APD said the department is conducting a criminal and internal investigation into the 30 April shooting. Investigators from the APD’s office of professional standards this week are planning to speak with Cook and Thyme to determine if they broke operating procedures, as they took Christian into custody.
But Lyon said the APD would not bring in third-party detectives to conduct the investigation. He also said no further updates will be released regarding Christian’s death, including any surveillance tapes, until the criminal and internal cases are closed. Not immediately, as residents wanted.