A police officer fired rounds from a pepperball gun into Manuel Paez Terán’s closed tent before an exchange of gunfire that resulted in the death of the environmental activist and injury of an officer, according to police incident reports obtained by the Guardian.
Armed police in tactical gear killed the 26-year-old Paez Terán on the morning of 18 January as they swept through an Atlanta forest to clear activists who were camping there to prevent construction on a $90m police and fire department training facility known as “Cop City”.
The death of Paez Terán – the first time an environmental protester has been killed by police in US history – created headlines around the US and the world and further galvanised a protest movement against the huge project amid accusations of heavy-handed police action and some local Georgia politicians eager to depict activists as “terrorists”.
The incident reports reveal that officers were first to discharge a weapon – they fired a pepperball gun into Paez Terán’s tent, which was followed by gunshots they believed were coming from inside the tent, leading officers to fire a barrage of shots blindly into the tent, killing Paez Terán inside. It also reveals that, while they rendered medical assistance to an injured officer, they did not immediately do the same for Paez Terán.
Until now, the police agencies involved in the operation have released few records detailing what happened that day, but have claimed that officers shot Paez Terán in self-defense.
There are nine mentions of the phrase “domestic terrorist” or “domestic terrorists” used by officers in the 20-page police incident report, which Paez Terán’s family said showed the attitude they took towards anyone they encountered in the forest during an operation that resulted in the death of the activist, who went by “Tortuguita” and used they/them pronouns.
The new records sent to the Guardian through a public records request by the Georgia department of public safety reveal the previously unreleased written narratives of the officers involved, including the lead-up to the police clearing of the forest, what happened during the shooting and the immediate aftermath. The officers’ names are redacted.
In a statement to the Guardian responding to the release of the documents, Paez Terán’s family said the reports “reveal that officers were fed a steady supply of hearsay and vague generalities about ‘domestic terrorists’ before entering the forest. It is clear that all law enforcement regarded any person in the forest as guilty of being a domestic terrorist.”
Through their lawyers, the family said: “The officer narratives released today by the department of public safety were drafted weeks or, in some cases, months after the incident. When officers drafted these statements, each had the opportunity to review the publicly available video and the press releases issued by the GBI [Georgia bureau of investigation]. As the GBI has acknowledged, ‘memory and perception are fragile’, and outside factors can influence witness statements.” Brian Spears, a lawyer for the family, said the records show the officers prepared their narratives in February and March, long after the shooting.
“We are withholding judgement on how much stock can be placed in the reports because of the continued refusal on the part of the Georgia bureau of investigation to release their investigation,” Spears said. He added that the bureau interviewed the involved officers right after the shooting, but had not released those interviews, or ballistics reports, and records describing the condition of Terán’s tent.
Lead-up to the shooting
Officers wrote that the bureau had conducted an investigation ahead of the operation, and briefed them before they entered the forest.
According to the written narrative of an officer who held the title of tactical commander on the Swat team, the bureau gave officers an operational order packet that detailed the organizational structure of Defend the Atlanta Forest, that alleged the group had nationwide reach, citing solidarity actions in Portland in late 2022, and had committed crimes that fell under domestic terrorism.
The bureau told them of various weapons the demonstrators might possess and tactics they could use. The Georgia bureau said the protesters were armed with rifles, pistols, improvised explosive devices and molotov cocktails. It said protesters had set “booby traps” in the forest, including trip wires and sharp nails and stakes that officers might step on, that “were designed and employed to seriously injure or kill them”. One officer wrote in his report: “I remember thinking that this group was organized and very dangerous.”
The bureau also said that protesters in the trees might throw feces and urine on officers, and “it was known that some trespassers carried STDs” and this tactic might infect officers with STDs.
The bureau said the strategy that day was “to remove the criminal trespassers from Cop City”, according to the Swat team tactical commander. When they encountered a demonstrator who identified themselves and cooperated, the bureau instructed them to order them to leave, and they would be allowed to leave without arrest.
Swat team encounters Paez Terán
According to body cam footage previously released by the Atlanta police department, the clearing operation began before 9am on 18 January.
There were three search teams of officers deployed into the forest, the incident report says. Team 2 was a Swat team that included bureau agents, officers from Atlanta police department, and rangers from the department of natural resources who had police dogs.
Team 2 planned to enter their “area of operation” from Constitution Road, moving from south to north on the west side of the forested property. The Swat team adopted a line formation to move through the forest.
The officers encountered several demonstrators in tents, but said they were not aggressive.
They then approached a larger encampment. As they approached one tent from behind, one officer said he could see movement inside the tent. The door flap to the tent was closed.
Officers said they identified themselves as police and ordered Paez Terán to exit the tent, but they stayed put. One officer said he told Paez Terán they did not want to cause Paez Terán harm and would guarantee Terán’s safety if they complied.
The officer narratives conflict on exactly what happened before the pepperball gun was deployed.
One officer wrote that officers told Paez Terán they were under arrest for criminal trespass, and Paez Terán told them, “No, I want you to leave.” Then officers told Paez Terán that chemical weapons would be deployed, and Paez Terán asked what they were being arrested for. Officers said Paez Terán was trespassing, then Paez Terán unzipped a small section of the tent door, looked out, and zipped the tent up again. The officer wrote that Paez Terán looked “angry”. When Paez Terán zipped up the tent, the officer said he gave the order to fire the pepperball gun.
Another officer wrote that Paez Terán responded to orders by zipping up the tent completely, indicating that Paez Terán was “resisting orders”. After Paez Terán zipped up the tent, this officer said he requested by radio that he needed a teammate with a pepperball gun “for a suspect refusing to comply”. Then the officer said he told Paez Terán they were under arrest for criminal trespass. The officer said they would deploy chemical agents if Paez Terán did not comply. Then Paez Terán partly unzipped the tent and looked out. Officers repeated that Paez Terán was under arrest and chemical agents would be deployed, and then Paez Terán responded, “No, I want you to leave.” The officer said he told Paez Terán they were not leaving. When Paez Terán did not comply, an officer shot a volley of pepperballs into the tent.
The officer reports agree that after the pepperball gun was fired, the gunfire started. They believed the shots were coming from inside the tent. Officers could hear the rounds “cracking” as they passed.
One officer pulled another out of the way, causing the other to lose his balance and fall to the ground. Another officer wrote that he believed the fallen officer had been shot.
The officers returned fire into the tent, the report says. Officers wrote that they feared Paez Terán was trying to injure or kill them.
Officers said they heard a bang and saw a white cloud of smoke, which they believed to be an explosive device detonated by Paez Terán. They believed Paez Terán “was still an active threat”.
One officer wrote that when they believed they were no longer in danger, they stopped shooting into the tent. Another officer wrote that he heard a voice call “cease fire, cease fire” and then heard a voice from his left side say, “I’m hit, I’m hit.”
Another officer wrote that he heard an officer call out that he was shot. Officers wrote that they believed Paez Terán shot the officer.
Officers and medics immediately provided medical care to the injured officer, but medical care was not immediately provided to Paez Terán, the records state.
The team notified medical personnel and used a ballistic shield and deployed a diversionary device as they opened Paez Terán’s tent, the records show. “Inside, Terán was located suffering from multiple gunshot wounds and was unquestionably deceased from [their] wounds,” an officer wrote.
An independent autopsy released by Paez Terán’s family showed they were shot at least 13 times.
At 9.01am, officers at a different location in the forest heard shots in the distance, according to body cam footage previously released by the Atlanta police department and reviewed by the Guardian. Four shots rang out followed by a flurry of shots. The shooting lasted about 11 seconds. At 9.02am, officers heard on their radios: “Officer down.”
Police body cam footage also shows officers discussing the shooting minutes later, with one officer asking, “Did they shoot their own man?” In response to the video, the bureau said the officer was speculating that the officer was shot by another officer in crossfire. “Speculation is not evidence,” the bureau said. “Our investigation does not support that statement.”
Aftermath of the shooting
According to the report, officers involved in the shooting were escorted out of the woods by a bureau agent, and then met with investigators from the Georgia state patrol’s office of professional standards and investigating agents from the bureau.
Paez Terán’s family said the records “reveal that the Georgia bureau of investigation conceived of, planned, and led the operation that resulted in the death of Manuel Paez Terán. The GBI is investigating its own tragic operation. The family calls upon the GBI to explain what steps it has taken to preserve the integrity of its investigation of its own operation.
“… The family calls on all law enforcement agencies to produce the evidence relied upon to broadly designate those who oppose Cop City as domestic terrorists. The public must be reassured that the designation of domestic terrorist is not being abused as a means of stifling dissent and chilling protected speech.”