DeKalb County District Attorney Robert D. James Jr. announced that he will seek an indictment for felony murder against Police Officer Robert Olsen for the killing of Air Force veteran Anthony Hill. Promising?
Officer Olsen’s conduct has been scrutinized since last March, when he was called to an apartment complex in Chamblee, northeast of Atlanta, and Mr. Hill approached and behaved erratically. Witnesses said that Mr. Hill, whose family said he had post-traumatic stress disorder after an Air Force deployment to Afghanistan, had raised his hands or placed them at his sides and that he did not obey Officer Olsen’s instructions to halt.
Hill allegedly lunged at Olsen. Olsen killed him. There are sympathetic factors at play, that Hill was a veteran, suffered from PTSD, and was clearly unarmed. But no cop, current or former, will concede that it’s wrong to shoot and kill an erratic, non-compliant man who could potentially harm an officer. The First Rule of Policing.
They might agree that a cop could hopefully avoid the killing, but not that it would be wrong to do so. Olsen chose his path, to kill Hill so he risked no harm. He was not a therapist with a gun. Just a cop. Once a threat was presented to his safety, even if disputed by witnesses because they just don’t understand the dangers police officers face, the entitlement to kill kicked in. Boom. One life ended. One life saved. That’s the cop version, and he’s sticking with it.
While this places the prosecution in a difficult position in any state but Georgia, creating that inherent conflict between the interlocking arms of the prosecutorial function, DA James faces a singular challenge. Georgia law provides a police officer protections that can be found nowhere else.
17-7-52. Procedure for indictment of peace officer for crime in performance of duties; notification; rights of officer
(a) Before an indictment against a present or former peace officer charging the officer with a crime which is alleged to have occurred while he or she was in the performance of his or her duties is returned by a grand jury, the officer shall be notified of the contemplated action by the district attorney of the county wherein the grand jury shall convene and the officer shall be afforded the rights provided in Code Section 45-11-4.
What does that mean?
Georgia law allows some public officials, including police officers, to attend meetings where grand jurors hear evidence that could yield an indictment. The law, which supporters say is a vital safeguard for officers who are often required to make immediate judgments in chaotic circumstances, also permits potential defendants to address the grand jury, unrebutted and without cross-examination, at the end of the prosecution’s presentation.
After the presentment is completed, under the watchful eye of the target, the officer gets to explain, without interruption or fear of contradiction, why he had to do it. Only after hearing why the officer had no choice but to kill does the grand jury get to vote on whether to indict.
But Lance LoRusso, a defense lawyer who works with the Georgia division of the Fraternal Order of Police, said the laws here afforded officers a crucial opportunity to explain their decisions and experiences, and he said the protections helped to curb potentially overzealous prosecutions.
This procedure most assuredly helps to “curb potentially overzealous prosecutions.” It curbs completely proper prosecutions as well.
“It’s a check and balance on the D.A.,” Mr. LoRusso said.
Ironically, the grand jury was once intended as a check and balance on the D.A. Good times.
Despite Mr. James’s words of caution about the ultimate authority of the grand jury, Mr. Hill’s girlfriend said Thursday that she welcomed the step toward a possible indictment, particularly at a time when white police officers elsewhere have not been prosecuted in the killings of unarmed black men.
“I’m glad that we have an officer off the streets,” Ms. Anderson said of Officer Olsen, who was placed on administrative leave after the shooting. “He murders people because he’s hiding behind the badge.”
Whether Olsen murdered Hill is the question being put before the grand jury. That he killed an unarmed man is not in doubt. Whether the fact that Hill was black influenced the decision to shoot, because of the inherent attribution of fear or the sense that a black life was less worthy of value, is a matter of sheer speculation in any individual case. That it’s certainly the case in aggregate is undeniable, but this presentment will be about Olsen and Hill, not the other black bodies that seem to be bullet magnets.
It’s not enough that the prosecution of police officers for killing is treated with special concern, because cops are too special to be subject to the laws governing the rest of society. Georgia has decided that cops deserve an additional layer of protection found nowhere else. After all, everyone knows that prosecutors tend to be unduly zealous when it comes to prosecuting their cohorts on the street. Well, maybe not, but no one but a cop can appreciate the decision they’re forced to make when facing “chaotic” split-second decisions.
Whether the announcement by the DeKalb County district attorney means that he thinks he’s got a shot a getting an indictment of Officer Olsen, or just wants to put on a play to show the public that he’s doing his job, isn’t clear. He seems sincere, but what’s running through his head is unknown. What is clear, however, is that the law in general, and in Georgia specifically, has deigned to do everything possible to provide police officers with the latitude to kill if there is any excuse, any rhetorical flourish, that will explain why he was in fear of his safety.
There is a saying tattooed on the brain of every cop: Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six. No cop wants to die on the job, and it would be impossible to expect otherwise. No cop wants to risk any harm on the job either. This is a bit harder to justify, when it means that someone else must die. In Georgia, it’s better not to be judged at all than carried by six. So that’s what the law provides.