The Cobb County Police Department has announced changes to the way officers are trained to use force after a November 2016 officer-involved shooting left an unarmed teen wounded.
The shooting occurred Nov. 6 when then-Officer James Caleb Elliot confronted a group of teenagers sitting in a parked car that was reported stolen in a carjacking, police said.
One of the teens, who was 16 and unarmed, took off on foot through the Mableton neighborhood. Elliot pursued, firing eight rounds as the teen fled, striking him in the leg. He administered first aid as he waited for paramedics to arrive, police said, and the incident was captured on his body camera.
During the chase, Elliot gave verbal commands for the teen to stop or he would fire his weapon, police said, but the teen continued running.
In May, a grand jury declined to indict Elliot on criminal charges related to the shooting, Cobb District Attorney Vic Reynolds confirmed.
Case law historically protects officers who fire at fleeing suspects believed to have committed a violent felony, Reynolds said.
“If officers believe they are pursuing an individual who committed a violent, forcible felony, then they are allowed to use lethal force against that individual,” Reynolds said. “Thankfully, the young man was not killed. He was shot, and the officer rendered him aid until EMTs arrived and transported him to the hospital.”
Though the grand jury elected not to pursue charges in the case, Cobb Police Chief Michael Register on Tuesday announced changes were being implemented as a result of the shooting. Register was hired as the county’s new police chief in June.
“The changes in training were made to address some of the issues associated with this incident which will assist officers in the future to make better decisions when faced with similar situations,” Register said. “As such, we have dedicated significant resources toward the identification, investigation and presentation for prosecution of any individuals involved in similar such conduct.”
Tanya Miller, an Atlanta-based attorney representing the teen, said she intends to file a federal lawsuit against the police department and Elliot, who tenured his resignation days before the shooting occurred.
“Officers are empowered to use deadly force under narrow circumstances and we trust them to do that. But when they do, the threat needs to be imminent,” said Miller, a former prosecutor. “They’re not permitted to be judge, jury and executioner when there’s no imminent threat.”
Miller said her client, whom she declined to name, was unarmed and fleeing down a residential street when he was shot — that there was never a threat to the officer.
She said while she was disappointed Elliot wasn’t criminally charged, she isn’t surprised.
“When a prosecutor goes into a grand jury, they wield a considerable amount of power over what facts that grand jury hears,” she said. “It is a one-sided presentation. When we were in law school, we learned the expression ‘A grand jury will indict a ham sandwich’ — or not, as the case may be. We’ve seen this time and time again in various officer-involved shootings across the country.”
Reynolds said his office presented the facts of the case and the law, leaving it up to the grand jury to determine whether to pursue criminal charges against the officer. They chose not to, deeming the use of force was authorized.
Yet just because an officer’s actions may be legal doesn’t mean it’s an appropriate policy for a police department to adopt, he said.
“The grand jury is looking at whether he committed an illegal act,” Reynolds said. “They’re not looking at whether that was the smartest thing to do or the wisest thing to do.”
Cobb Chairman Mike Boyce called the incident “unfortunate,” but said it is “not indicative of the level of training I have observed of our police officers.”
Records show Elliot was hired in September 2014 and left the force Nov. 24, 2016, nearly three weeks after the shooting.
THE CASE FOR BODY CAMERAS
Agencies across the nation have invested in body cameras for their officers to wear, something proponents say protects police and the citizens they’re tasked with serving.
Cobb Police Lt. N. A. McCreary estimates less than half of Cobb’s officers wear them. But both Reynolds and Miller said they can be helpful in cases like this.
“I think in any case, body camera evidence is certainly good,” Reynolds said, noting that he encourages any department to purchase them if they can afford to. “The more we know, the better off we are, especially if a case goes to trial. It helps people determine what’s right or wrong.”
Miller said the footage shows there were other options available to Elliot in this case — that he didn’t need to fire his weapon.
She said body cameras benefit both officers and residents, holding everyone accountable for their actions.
The November footage shows Elliot firing his service weapon from long distance, missing several times.
“You know how these bullets fly,” Miller said. “Drive-by shootings happen all the time (and) unintended people get killed because bullets don’t have names on them. Once you pull the trigger that thing is gone.”
She said she was impressed by the new police chief’s announcement that additional use-of-force training would be required for his officers, calling it the right move.