- Associated Press - Thursday, April 2, 2015

ATLANTA (AP) - Supervisors for an Atlanta area police officer who fatally shot a man last month outside a tire store have consistently evaluated him as a top performer who handled stressful situations well.

Smyrna police Sgt. Kenneth Owens shot 23-year-old Nicholas Taft Thomas on March 25 at the Goodyear store where Thomas worked while officers were trying to serve him with a warrant for a felony probation violation, according to law officials.

Police say Thomas was driving a customer’s Maserati toward officers and Owens fired because he feared for his life. But some witnesses have disputed that account, telling local media police had blocked the car in and that it was not moving when Owens fired.

Owens, who has worked for Smyrna police since September 2001, has been placed on administrative leave, per department policy.

Smyrna police originally said Cobb County Police would investigate the shooting because it fell within that department’s jurisdiction in an unincorporated part of the county. But several Cobb police officers were serving as backup at the time of the shooting and Thomas’ family and others publicly called for an independent investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds announced Thursday that he and Cobb County police Chief John Houser had decided to ask the GBI to investigate in “the spirit of transparency and openness.” The GBI will turn over results of its investigation to Reynolds’ office.

Mawuli Mel Davis, a lawyer for the Thomas family, called the decision to call in the GBI “a first step towards justice” for Thomas.

Through an open records request, The Associated Press obtained Owens’ personnel and disciplinary records, as well as public complaints against him, during his time with the department. They overwhelmingly paint a picture of a hard-working, dedicated officer who leads by example and is appreciated by his supervisors and the public alike.

“He works well under pressure and operates under stressful conditions as if he’s behind his desk drinking coffee,” a supervisor wrote in his most recent appraisal in July.

There are numerous written commendations, mostly for his role in helping to catch burglary or robbery suspects, and the few written reprimands have to do with minor car accidents that caused some damage to his patrol car. The handful of citizen complaints in his file were mostly determined to be unfounded and are outnumbered by citizen notes thanking Owens for his help and compassion.

Records from the Peace Officer Standards and Training Council show that he has completed hundreds of hours of training during his career, including some training on the use of deadly force every year since at least 2006.

The council did put his law enforcement officer certification on probation for a period of two years after domestic violence incident with his wife in March 1999 that ultimately resulted in his pleading guilty to a disorderly conduct charge and agreeing to serve probation and enroll in an anger management course. The incident also cost him his job with the Cobb County Police Department, where he had been an officer for nearly five years at the time.

Before he was killed last week, Thomas had a string of arrests around the metro Atlanta area and pleaded guilty last May in Cobb County to charges that included aggravated assault on a peace officer and two counts of attempting to elude officers, according to court records. He was sentenced to serve nearly two months in jail with the remainder of a seven-year sentence to be served on probation.

The indictment in that case does not provide many details but says Thomas accelerated as he drove a vehicle toward a Kennesaw State University police officer in March 2013. It also says he drove above the speed limit and failed to stop when given visual and audible signals by two other uniformed university police officers in marked police vehicles. Kennesaw State is about 25 miles northwest of Atlanta.

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