ATLANTA (AP) — Newly released Atlanta police body camera video shows officers clearing tents from the site of a planned public safety training center and then reacting after they heard the barrage of gunfire that left an environmental activist dead and a state trooper injured.
The four Atlanta police officers whose body camera video was released late Wednesday were part of a multi-agency “clearing operation” at the site on Jan. 18, but they did not witness the exchange of gunfire. Manuel Esteban Paez Teran, who went by Tortuguita, died at the scene, and a state trooper whose name hasn’t been released was hospitalized with a gunshot wound to the abdomen, authorities have said.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has said that no body camera or dashcam video of the shooting exists. The agency has said officers encountered Tortuguita in a tent in the woods and fired in self-defense after the activist failed to follow verbal commands and shot a trooper.
“The videos released by the City of Atlanta raise more questions than they answer, but confirm the family’s worst fears that Manuel was massacred in a hail of gunfire,” Tortuguita’s family said in a statement released Thursday by their lawyers. “The videos also show the clearing of the forest was a paramilitary operation that set the stage for the excessive use of force.”
Activists have questioned the official narrative and called for an independent investigation separate from that being done by the GBI. Tortuguita’s family on Monday called for the release of more information.
In response, the GBI asked for patience, saying it is “not releasing any videos currently because agents are continuing to conduct key interviews and want to maintain the integrity of the investigation.”
Tortuguita, who preferred that moniker over their given name, had moved from Florida months ago to join the activists in the woods who had been protesting the planned facility for over a year by camping out at the site and building platforms in surrounding trees.
City Council approved the $90 million Atlanta Public Safety Training Center in 2021, saying a state-of-the-art campus would replace substandard offerings and boost police morale, which is beset by hiring and retention struggles in the wake of violent protests against racial injustice that roiled the city after George Floyd’s death in 2020.
Self-described “forest defenders” say that building the 85-acre (34-hectare) “Cop City” would involve cutting down so many trees that it would be environmentally damaging. They also oppose investing so much money in a project that they say will be used to practice “urban warfare.”
The January clearing operation was the latest attempt by law enforcement to remove the project’s opponents from the site.
Body camera videos released Wednesday show a group of Atlanta police officers coming upon a pair of tents as they walk through the wooded area. They yell warnings, identifying themselves as police and ordering anyone inside to come out with hands raised.
After determining there’s no one inside, they use folding knives to tear the tents apart and seize a backpack inside one of them.
“You think they’re gonna come back now?” an officer says as he slices the green fabric of a tent.
The officers chat and sometimes joke and laugh as they walk through the woods. But at 9:01 a.m., according to the video time stamps, four shots ring out and then, a few seconds later, roughly two dozen more shots are heard.
Officers reach for their guns and position themselves behind trees. One shouts to the others to, “Put your bodycams on.” Yelling can be heard in the distance, but it’s not clear what is being said.
The officers head in the direction of the gunshots as radio traffic bounces back and forth. At one point, one of the officers, seemingly reacting to the radio traffic, says, “You (expletive) your own officer up.”
Activists have singled out that comment, saying on social media that it supports assertions some of them made from the beginning that the trooper was shot by friendly fire.
The GBI has said that records show that a handgun found at the scene was purchased by Tortuguita in September 2020. Ballistics analysis has confirmed that the bullet that injured the trooper matches that gun, the agency said.
In a statement Thursday, the GBI acknowledged that, in the videos, “at least one statement exists where an officer speculates that the Trooper was shot by another officer in crossfire.” But it goes on to say, “Speculation is not evidence. Our investigation does not support that statement.”
When the officers in the video come upon a green tent after the shooting, they establish a perimeter and one of them is heard saying, “We just need to hold until we can get them out. Get the officer out first. We don’t want to cause another incident.”
Again, the officers yell commands to exit. After giving a warning, they shoot pepper balls toward the tent and then advance toward it, determining that it’s empty.
Over the last two months, about a dozen people have been arrested on charges including domestic terrorism related to protests against the training facility. Six of those arrests came during a Jan. 21 protest in downtown Atlanta after Tortuguita’s death that prompted GOP Gov. Brian Kemp to declare a state of emergency, giving him the option of calling in the Georgia National Guard to help “subdue riot and unlawful assembly.”
Since then, local officials have vowed to move forward with the project.