Atlanta Officer James Burns Recited Magic Words: I Was In Fear For My Life
July 18, 2016 (Fault Lines) — In just how many police shooting cases have you heard, “I was in fear for my life”? Likely, every single one of them. But, gone are the days that bad cops can simply claim fear justified a shooting. No longer can officers stretch the truth and report a threat preceded their firing of a weapon. Video is here, and it’s here to stay. Former Atlanta police officer James Burns has been charged with murder after video disputed his story of fear.
On June 22, 2016, Burns was responding to a suspicious activity call from an off-duty officer. Burns and other officers arrived and found a car leaving the apartment complex. Burns attempted to keep the car from leaving the scene by firing one shot into the car. Devaris Rogers, the driver, was struck in the head and died. According to a statement from the district attorney’s office:
At the time of the shooting, Burns was not provided with any facts describing Rogers as a threat to the officer or the public. Neither was Rogers identified as the man the off-duty officer had previously reported.
Rogers had not tried to strike the officer with the vehicle.
As Burns arrived, he knew nothing about Rogers. He had no suspect description. He had no report of violence or threatening behavior; only a report of suspicious activity. However, he decided to stop that car, not even knowing whether a suspect might be in it. With no particular reason to fire upon Rogers or the car, Burns gave investigators the magic “get away with murder” phrase: he feared for his life:
Burns admitted he didn’t know who was inside the car when he opened fire, but insisted he pulled his weapon because the car was racing toward him and he feared for his life.
I shot at the car who [sic] was trying to run me over and kill me.
About a week after the shooting, with his attorney at his side, Burns told investigators he was in fear for his life and stated:
I didn’t know to block that particular car.
Burns described the car as racing toward him; he painted an ever so common picture of a life-threatening event. Not knowing if the driver was a suspect, he needed some reasonable explanation for having fired upon the car. Certainly, he could not simply report that he exited his car, after the car drove past him, and shot into it. He could not simply say the car just didn’t stop at his show of authority.
In police shootings, the officer will almost always say he feared for his life. Sometimes the officer will add he believed he saw a weapon, whether or not one is actually recovered. When the suspect is in a vehicle, it’s not surprising to have the officer claim the driver was attempting to run him over; after all the vehicle could be the deadly weapon that threatened the officer’s safety.
These facts are recited time after time, in shooting after shooting. And, of course, officers are given the benefit of the doubt: jurors will believe his word over the suspect every day of the week and twice on Sundays. Officers know in a swearing match, the judge or jury will side with the officer, even where it is embarrassingly clear the officer is lying. It’s rare that officers are held accountable, administratively or criminally, for their lies. So they continue, even where dash cam video exists and other officers are present.
In this case, a review of dash cam videos and other evidence revealed Burns unequivocally violated police policies and he was fired. According to a July 1, 2016, disciplinary memo from Atlanta Police Chief George N. Turner, the shooting was unnecessary and an excessive use of force:
“As the vehicle approached you, you were in your vehicle,” the memo said. “The driver of the vehicle posed no immediate threat to you…You did not have probable cause that the driver posed a threat of serious physical harm either to yourself or others.”
“You did not have reasonable suspicion that the driver of the vehicle engaged in, or was about to engage in, criminal activity. Yet rather than allow the driver to drive past you, you exited your vehicle and ultimately prevented the driver from driving away through the use of deadly force.”
Burns apparently just didn’t like the fact that the driver failed to stop on command. He lights were activated and Rogers simply drove on past. Nothing reckless about his driving. No threat to Burns or anyone else. But he was going to stop, one way or another.
Unlike most police agencies across the country, since January, Chief Turner has turned over criminal investigations of police shootings to the Georgia Bureau of Investigations rather than handling them in-house. This move is to be applauded for its transparency and lack of bias. Departments are criticized, right or wrong, for their internal investigations.
The public has grown weary of what appears to be officers giving their fellow colleagues a pass for misconduct. Turner’s voluntary relinquishment of this investigation lends credibility to GBI’s findings that ultimately resulted in Burns being charged with felony murder, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and two counts of violation of oath by a police officer.
Perhaps with more independent investigations, cops will learn to be more honest rather than simply recite those magic words. Not every cop is in fear for his life in every situation.