Months after incidents where police officers shot suspects in Sandy Springs — including wounding a teenager and killing a possibly suicidal man — there are still no official rulings on whether the shootings were legally justified.
In fact, there is little official public information about the cases at all. The three shootings still are under investigation, the Fulton County District Attorney’s office says. It is unclear how far the investigations have gone and how much further they have to go.
Meanwhile, the Sandy Springs Police Department’s decision to withhold details in the initial report on one of the shootings apparently contradicts its own policy and, according to David Hudson, an attorney and board member of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, the city may not be meeting requirements of the state Open Records Act when it has withheld initial reports on other cases.
The city declined to give the Reporter initial incident reports from two of the three shootings, which Hudson said may be illegal, and the initial incident report on the other shooting, obtained in 2019, lacked significant detail about the incident itself.
Two people were shot by Sandy Springs police officers in separate incidents on May 11 and May 31 of 2018 and an apparently suicidal man was shot and pronounced dead at the hospital on March 21, 2019.
The three cases were investigated by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, as is routinely done. The two May 2018 cases were handed over to the district attorney office in the fall of 2018 and the March 2019 case was handed over in June 2019. As of Jan. 13, all three of the cases remain under investigation by the district attorney office, spokesperson Chris Hopper said.
The GBI acts as an independent investigator on city police shootings. The agency investigates and turns over its evidence to county district attorneys for legal review. The district attorney has the final authority to decide whether the shooting was legally justified or to seek charges against the officer.
According to Hopper, the GBI conducts the initial investigation, but it does not reach any conclusions. Therefore, if there is any additional testing or evidence gathering involving experts that are outside the scope of the GBI investigation, it is the responsibility of the district attorney’s office to do so.
“The GBI investigation is the starting point in the district attorney’s investigation which is thorough and independent of any other examination,” Hopper said.
Hopper said it is up to each individual police department to determine whether officers involved in shootings will still be employed during investigations.
SSPD spokesperson Sgt. Sam Worsham said the officers involved in the three shootings are still employed with the department and are on active duty.
In the May 11, 2018, shooting, officers were attempting to detain Jaquan Barnes, 22. But police said Barnes began moving his car as they approached, and that the car struck two officers. They fired their weapons and one round struck Barnes, who was taken to the hospital in stable condition, according to a GBI press release.
Barnes is serving a sentence in South Carolina Department of Corrections for burglary and attempted armed robbery. His case here is pending until his time is served there, Hopper said.
The May 31, 2018, shooting involved a 15-year-old burglary suspect who threatened suicide during a three-hour standoff that ended with the suspect sustaining multiple gunshot wounds after attempting to flee. The suspect allegedly fired at officers. He was taken to a hospital in stable condition, police said.
The district attorney’s office did not have an update on the case before publication.
An apparent suicidal man, Erick Cruz Ramirez, 32, was shot to death by an officer March 21, 2019, on Northwood Drive.
911 call logs obtained by the Reporter say Ramirez had a knife, was “violent” and “not completely alert,” and apparently had already stabbed himself in the abdomen.
He was initially reported to be holding a knife to his throat, the call log said. The log later reports that a man was running around the location and asking the officer “not to shoot him.” The log does not identify the man and it is unclear whether it was Ramirez.
Police Chief Ken DeSimone defended the killing in comments at a May 7 City Council meeting. The shooting was captured on 10 different police car and body cameras, DeSimone said while discussing the department’s use of body cameras. DeSimone said the killing was a case of self-defense proven by video. The police department previously declined to release that video.
District Attorney’s investigation
Hopper said no timeline for the investigations can be estimated. “These are all unique and individual investigations,” Hopper said in an email.
Hopper said because the cases are open, no specific details can be given on their progress in the investigation.
“These are open investigations, I can’t divulge the details of these cases and where they are in the process of investigation,” Hopper said.
Atlanta City Councilmember Dustin Hillis has been advocating for answers on Atlanta Police officer-involved shootings from the district attorney’s office. In 2019, the Public Safety Committee, which he chaired, sent a letter to the district attorney’s office requesting a meeting.
“All we received was emails and a meeting was never set up,” Hillis said.
Hillis said he is still advocating for investigations to be completed in a timely manner because the people involved deserve closure.
“It is important for cases to be investigated thoroughly and charges brought in a timely manner so that…charges can be filed and justice sought in a court of law and the victim and/or the victim’s family can have some type of closure,” Hillis said in an email. “If the evidence is not there to sustain the claims of criminal wrongdoing, it is then equally important for the officer to be cleared so he or she can move on with his or her career and life.”
The Reporter last year obtained the March 2019 initial incident report through an open records request. In December, the Reporter submitted an open records request to the city for the incident reports for the two 2018 cases. On Dec. 19, the City Clerk’s office did not provide the incident reports, citing an exemption for cases being under investigation by an outside agency.
“When a law enforcement agency receives an Open Records Act request for records in a case that has been referred to the District Attorney or Solicitor-General for prosecution but the case has not become final or otherwise terminated, the prosecutor should be immediately notified and, no records should be released without the approval of the prosecutor,” the city cited.
The city referred questions to the district attorney’s office. Hopper said he does not believe any reports would be available for distribution, as they are a part of open investigations, but suggested filling out an open records request with the district attorney’s office for an official answer.
While that may be true for ongoing incident reports, Hudson, the attorney for the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said under Georgia’s Open Records Act, the exception does not apply to initial incident reports.
“Accordingly, the city of Sandy Springs should honor your open records request for those documents,” Hudson said.
In response to The Reporter’s second request for the initial incident reports citing Hudson’s explanation, the city said they would discuss with a staff attorney and follow up with a resolution.
On Jan. 28, the City Clerk’s office declined a second time to provide initial incident reports, citing an exemption that said records of law enforcement in any pending investigation, other than initial incident reports, cannot be provided.
In response, Hudson said that the city must provide a copy of an initial incident report regardless of whether it forwards the information to the district attorney.
“Initial incident and arrest reports are public records — no ifs nor buts about it,” Hudson said in an email. “Other records that may be in the possession of the DA or solicitor can be withheld while an investigation or prosecution is ongoing, but not the initial incident or arrest report.”
The police report from the March 21 incident, which includes a section where the responding officers usually write out what happened, only said the officer was “dispatched to a person armed with a knife at the intersection of Kingsport Drive and Lake Placid Drive.” The police report listed the event as a suicide attempt.
Police reports for incidents like burglaries and arrests often provide much more detail and a description of the event. When asked about the lack of detail in the report in May 2019, Worsham said that the department has “an internal policy on report writing guidelines.”
The Reporter recently obtained the internal policy. It says in part that “the narrative should be concise but complete, providing all the information necessary for the investigation, prosecution or other follow-up activity.”
When asked how the policy can be cited as to why some reports are brief, Worsham said because patrol officers take initial reports and they are then forwarded to detectives for investigation.
“After completing the investigation, the detectives determine the proper course of action to be taken,” Worsham said.