'Atlanta unprotected'

City's police union releases video documentary alleging dismal conditions

A video documentary titled "Atlanta Unprotected" that was commissioned by one of the city's police unions is the latest salvo against a department that has been beleaguered since the shooting death of a 92-year-old woman during a narcotics raid last year.

The local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers has posted the 10-minute video on its website. The video documents some of the perceived ills of the department, including the steep attrition rate, the lack of experienced police officers and the freeze on annual pay increments.

"We've put together a compelling argument and it's really started to catch on," says Sgt. Scott Kreher, head of the local union. He says he hopes the video allows citizens to know that the reality of being a police officer in Atlanta isn't always how the top brass portrays it. To that end, the union got the national office of the IBPO to help produce the video.

"We know everyone's doing the best they can under difficult circumstance there," says Lisa Smith, senior communications officer at the National Association of Government Employees. "I hope the video helps the city find a way to stop the attrition rate."

The video hammers home the point about staffing issues with a police radio transmission from a brand-new officer who needed backup in February – it took almost nine minutes for other offers to arrive to help him.

According to the video, the officer followed a suspect who ran into the woods off Conley Road near I-285 in southeast Atlanta. The officer radioed, "I can't handcuff him ... code 63." A code 63, Kreher says, is an "all-out help given citywide on all frequencies and all channels."

The incident is used to personify stark numbers displayed in the video. At the end of last year, there were 1,601 officers in the department, though the authorized staffing level was 1,786. What's more, while the department hired 837 officers between 2000 and 2006, 659 officers left. Police Chief Richard Pennington acknowledged the department's inexperience at a press conference last week. "Two-thirds of our department ... probably has less than five years on the job," he said.

According to Kreher, much of what's ailing the department could be fixed if the city reinstated annual increments. The video cites an internal memo written in 2005 by an official who is unnamed that says, "While it is true that modest across-the-board pay raises have been given over the last several years, the pay steps have been frozen, giving officers the perception that there is no hope of ever reaching the top salary for their pay grade."

And that, the union argues, is why so many officers have left the force. Pennington, again, confirmed that logic earlier this month at a press conference when he said, "That has been our biggest problem ... officers leave to go for better pay, they go for better working conditions."

Kreher says the video may have already had an impact at City Hall. "I've heard there's some stuff going on behind the doors at City Hall to try and reinstate the [pay increments]," he says.

In addition to pay increments, he says a deferred retirement program would allow the city to keep experienced officers on the force. The veteran officers would still be paid, but would not have to contribute part of their pay to their pension fund. Instead, that money would be put in a retirement account with a fixed interest rate. After an additional three to five years on the force, an officer would receive the money in his or her account in a lump sum.

The union gave copies of the video to both Mayor Shirley Franklin and Chief Richard Pennington. Kreher says Franklin said she would try to find the money to reinstate annual pay increments in the 2008 budget. Neither Franklin nor Pennington have commented. Calls to the mayor's office and the chief's office weren't immediately returned.

To watch the local union's video, visit www.ibpolocal623.com.