A measure to create an independent board that would have full subpoena power to investigate allegations of police misconduct is now before the Atlanta City Council.
The proposal for the board comes almost two months after the home-invasion killing by Atlanta police of 88-year-old Kathryn Johnston. The shooting spawned criticism of police procedures that led to her death, such as no-knock warrants.
Although the city currently has a Civilian Review Board in place, Councilman H. Lamar Willis says it hasn't met since 2002 and doesn't routinely investigate complaints against officers. "After the Kathryn Johnston matter occurred, I kept hearing everyone say we need a Citizen's Review Board," Willis says. "Once I did more research, I realized the one we have is very weak."
The proposed Citizen's Review Board would be comprised of seven members appointed by the mayor and council, along with a member selected by the police department and another by the International Fraternal Order of Police. Willis also says he wants to add two additional members appointed by citizen advocacy groups.
The new board, proposed by Willis and two other councilmen, would be required to meet monthly and could investigate cases tied up in litigation. It also could review investigations conducted by the police department's internal affairs unit, which Willis says has an 18-month backlog. The board would present a report and recommendations to the mayor and police chief. Their report would also be made public.
"This is another opportunity to ensure checks and balances when it comes to providing due process," says Councilman Ivory Lee Young, a co-sponsor of the ordinance. "This doesn't do anything egregious to the police force. It holds city government accountable."
It's unclear whether Mayor Shirley Franklin or Atlanta police Chief Richard Pennington will support the proposal.
Franklin says she hasn't read the measure yet. "Our typical approach is to take the proposals and do an analysis through the relevant departments," Franklin says. "Our staff is already working on it."
Police officials didn't respond to CL's phone calls or e-mails.
Willis says it would be hard to oppose the proposal publicly considering the public's lack of confidence in the department right now. The ordinance, he argues, would re-establish rapport with citizens. The councilmen looked at the structures of active review boards in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Los Angeles to write their ordinance.
But if the city's past proves any indication, the councilmen face an uphill battle.
In 1996, Mayor Bill Campbell scrambled to assemble a board because of public outrage over a shoot-out involving undercover officers at a downtown motorcycle shop that ended with the death of a customer.
Civil-rights leader Joseph Lowery called Campbell's executive order a "mere paper tiger" because it didn't allow the board to review the incident until after police wrapped up their own investigation.
"It was more or less an olive branch but didn't substantially provide due process for citizens," Young adds.
In DeKalb County, CEO Vernon Jones has waved off calls for an independent review board after the fatal police shootings of a dozen people in the county last year. Gerald Rose, founder of the human-rights group New Order that has been very outspoken in DeKalb, says he thinks officials in the county are resistant to a review board because it often sheds light on misconduct.
"Policies have been violated and a review board would prove that," Rose says. "Of course [police] don't want to admit that."
Willis isn't sure whether his proposal for Atlanta will meet resistance, and says it will be at least two months before it comes to a vote. The proposed board would be funded by the city and staffed with an administrator and an investigator. He said he is unsure how much it would cost.
But he says such recent events as the Johnston killing create a window of opportunity for a review board with teeth. "If the council doesn't have the will to do it now," Willis says, "when will we ever have it?"