If there's one thing the Atlanta Police Department could use right now to offset a recent history plagued by an elderly woman's tragic death and an egregious affront to the LGBT community, it's the public's good will. That's what makes the APD's attitude toward the city's citizen-staffed police oversight board so confusing.
Over the course of less than three years, the APD was confronted with two high-profile misconduct scandals — the 2006 police shooting of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston in her English Avenue home, then the 2009 illegal and, by many accounts, immoral raid of Midtown gay bar the Atlanta Eagle.
There's no way to emerge unscathed from the gunning down of an elderly woman while serving an illegally obtained warrant (never mind that the officers proceeded to plant drugs in her house), or the unconstitutional search and seizure of bar patrons who weren't found to be committing any crimes — but were subjected to anti-gay slurs. The incidents damaged the public's trust in the police department, and revealed malfeasance that ran much deeper than a few rogue rank-and-file cops.
In response to Johnston's death — and to have a body in place to respond to subsequent PR fiascos — city leaders decided in 2007 that something had to be done to combat the public's rapidly dwindling faith in the APD. To help restore the APD's reputation and, at least ostensibly, give the public more of a voice in probes of suspected police misconduct, the department had to address the growing disconnect between the people and the police. Its solution was the Atlanta Citizen Review Board.
Comprised of civilians selected by City Council, the mayor, the city's 25 Neighborhood Planning Units and a variety of civic groups, the 11-member board fields and investigates citizen complaints, and does so independent of the APD's own investigations.
When it was created, the board's process was meant to be straightforward. Citizens would lodge a complaint, and the board's staff would conduct an in-house investigation, decide whether the complaint had merit and submit recommendations for officer discipline — if discipline is in order — to the chief of police. Ultimately, it would be up to the chief to decide whether the board's recommendations should be followed.
That's where it gets complicated. Or, as board chair Joy Morrissey, puts it: "We've hit a wall."
Without fail, when the board has decided an officer was not at fault in an incident, the chief has agreed with those findings. But — and here's where the wall comes in — when the board has decided an officer was in the wrong, the chief has rejected the board's word. Every single time.
During 2009 and 2010, the Citizen Review Board handled 25 complaints of police misconduct (not including the dozen or so related to the 2009 raid of the Atlanta Eagle). In 10 of those 25 cases, the board ruled that the citizen's complaint was legitimate. Aside from one case that Police Chief George Turner has yet to respond to, there's little to show for the board's work.
APD spokesman Carlos Campos describes the disconnect between the board and the police chief as differences of opinion that "sometimes yield different conclusions."
"Internal investigations can be very subjective," Campos says. "While everyone may see there is a problem with the officer's conduct, everyone may not agree on the specific work rule with which the officer should be charged. The most critical issue to keep in mind is that the officer's misconduct is discovered and the appropriate discipline is given to deter future misconduct."
Still, the fact remains that discipline has never been meted out when the board has said it should.
Owen Montague, who recently resigned from the board after four years of service, says he doesn't think police value the board's work or opinions — and it's become irritating. "That's the number one frustration that the board has," Montague says. "Everyone is doing their job — the, board, the staff and the citizens — and the police could care less."
The Citizen Review Board doesn't typically handle cases that are as outrageous as the Johnston or Eagle cases. Instead, they reveal the daily, garden-variety reality of the public's interaction with police.
Among the allegations heard over the past two years by the board: a woman who claims unnecessary force was used when she was arrested in her home, a man who says he was shaken down after being mistaken for a robbery suspect, and a pedestrian who says she was cuffed for hanging out on a sidewalk.
Last year, the CRB upheld the complaint of DeBorah "Sister" Williams, the founder of a local outreach ministry. Williams was arrested in December 2009 for disorderly conduct after an argument with a mentally unstable live-in houseguest. Officer Byron Martin responded to Williams' West End home and told her that if she wanted the woman removed, she'd have to go through the formal eviction process. Williams later told board investigators that before Martin left, he made clear he didn't want to have to return. But when her guest continued acting erratically — screaming and accusing Williams of beating her — Williams called the cops again.