By: Matt Scott
On Saturday, around 200 people joined the family of Johnny Hollman in a march on Atlanta City Hall to demand the public release of body camera footage of Hollman’s death at the hands of Atlanta Police Department Officer Kiran Kimbrough in August, but new guidance from city attorneys indicates that footage of Hollman’s death – or any other footage of future police violence – will not see the light of day for months after the encounter.
The city appears to be using previous requests about a January police homicide case from the Georgia Attorney General’s Office and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) to justify not releasing footage that could cause public uproar and protests.
In response to a question about the city’s plan to release of the Hollman footage asked by Council Member Michael Julian Bond during a presentation at Monday’s public safety committee meeting, City Attorney Nina Hickson told the committee that the city would not be releasing the footage at the request of the GBI, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr and unspecified district attorney (DA).
“We’ve been specifically requested by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation not to release those,” Hickson told Bond, “we’ve consulted with the DA, and they’ve asked us not to release those publicly until the investigation is over.”
It was unclear at the time if Hickson was referring specifically to the Hollman footage. The Atlanta Community Press Collective (ACPC) reached out to the City of Atlanta Department of Law to request communication from those other agencies instructing the city not to release footage of Hollman’s killing. Atlanta’s Senior Attorney Amber A. Robinson responded to ACPC’s saying that there were no such documents.
Councilmember Bond appeared to be laboring under the assumption that Hickson’s comments about instruction from the GBI and DA were related to the Hollman case in particular. “People are thinking that we are just solely sitting on that video,” Bond commented to Hickson. “Knowing that the GBI is involved, and that they have asked that it not be released, I think that’s helpful to the public.”
Hickson provided neither correction nor clarification to Bond regarding the lack of documents specifically asking the city not to release the Hollman footage. Instead, Hickson indicated the city had additional support in its decision not to release the footage. “I would just add that they have the support of the attorney general in their conclusion that these are not videos to be released,” Hickson concluded.
ACPC amended its request to the law department to ask for any documents directing the city and APD not to release body camera footage of any events while they are under investigation from other agencies. Robinson responded with letters from the GBI and Georgia Attorney General’s office sent in response to APD releasing body camera footage from its officers nearby to a Georgia State Patrol (GSP) SWAT team that killed environmental activist Manuel “Tortuguita” Paez Terán.
Terán was killed Jan. 18. The GBI quickly claimed that Teran fired on officers, striking one, and was killed in return fire, but activists strongly disagreed with the GBI narrative. While the public demanded the release of body camera footage of the incident, officials said none was available as GSP officers do not wear body cameras. On Feb. 8, weeks after the killing, APD suddenly released four body camera videos from APD officers who had also been participating the in the raid that led to the killing of Teran and were operating in the area nearby at the time. In one of those videos, an APD officer can be heard saying, “man… you fucked your own officer up,” in reference to the injured GSP officer, which created additional doubts about the GBI narrative.
In a Feb. 13 letter to APD, the GBI asked the department not to release any additional APD body camera videos related to the killing of Terán. Notably, the bureau neither asked nor instructed the city to withhold videos in future similar situations. “In the interest of justice and to protect the integrity of the investigation,” wrote GBI Legal Division Director Laura W. McDonald, “the GBI requests that, in response to the requests for records in the above referenced matter, the APD withhold those records.”
The letter from the Georgia Attorney General’s office is more general – it does not mention the Terán shooting – but provides an argument for the city to use an exemption under the Georgia Open Records Act to decline releasing records while another agency is investigating or prosecuting a case. While it was sent in support of the GBI’s request that the city of Atlanta not release additional videos from that case, the letter also does not instruct the city of Atlanta that it should use that exemption in future cases, only that the city is entitled to that exemption if needed.
Yet months later, those letters are now in use to avoid publicly releasing footage in the Hollman case.
Members of the Hollman family and their attorneys have seen the footage in question and in a press release, described Kimbrough’s actions as “inhumane and illegal.” This description evokes similar videos that previously set off massive protests both in Atlanta and around the nation.
It’s not just the Hollman footage that the city is refusing to release on the grounds of the Terán letters. During the public safety committee meeting, Council Member Antonio Lewis questioned APD’s Deputy Chief Timothy Peek on whether the city would release footage of a 2022 police homicide that took place in Buckhead. “Is there a specific reason we aren’t releasing the tape for Nygil Cullins?” Lewis asked, “I’ve had the same folks reach out to me about the Nygil Cullins murder.”
“I would have to go back to look at the specifics, but I’m certain it is gonna be very, very similar to the [Hollman incident],” Peek replied. “We’re ensuring that we work closely with Department of Law, Georgia Bureau of Investigation – or whatever those entities are – to ensure that we coordinate those things so that we don’t hamper any investigations that are ongoing.”
APD is now frequently using the “ongoing investigation” refusal, including in a case the city is preparing to settle legally. Last week, ACPC also requested body camera footage of the September 2022 killing of Ricardo Dorado Jr., which APD denied on the grounds of an ongoing investigation. According to a notice of intent to sue sent to the city of Atlanta by Gabe Banks, attorney for the family of Dorado, the man was “hogtied” and “[APD] officers kept him in the prone position for roughly 15-to-20 minutes.” On Monday, the Atlanta City Council is set to approve a $3.75 million settlement with Dorado’s family.
In a city seeing an increase in policing violence, APD’s “ongoing investigation” refusals to disclose body camera footage only serves to hinder attempts at addressing the issue.