Eagle raid investigation reveals Atlanta Police Department’s ‘unconstitutional policies’

Settlement agreement requires APD to amend certain procedures

It took 15 months — and untold amounts of money in legal fees — for the City of Atlanta and the Atlanta Police Department to acknowledge what the simple act of reviewing three pieces of case law would have made abundantly clear: The Sept. 10, 2009, raid of the Atlanta Eagle was unlawful.

At this point, the details of what occurred that night have been trotted out so many times they’ve practically ceased to elicit a reaction. Working off a tip alleging illicit sex and drug use at the establishment, officers with the department’s Red Dog Unit, decked out in full paramilitary gear, stormed the Ponce de Leon Avenue gay bar. For as long as two hours, patrons were forced to lie face-down on the barroom floor, enduring what they alleged was verbal and physical abuse, while officers searched them and ran each person’s ID through a computer system. None of the bar’s 60-odd patrons had anything incriminating on his person and none turned out to be wanted (although eight bar employees were initially cited for dancing nude without a permit). Perhaps most egregious was that the raid was conducted without a search warrant.

Because it happened in a gay bar and because patrons reported that officers used such slurs as “faggot” during the raid, the Eagle incident was widely regarded as being something to be worked out between the police and Atlanta’s LGBT population. But, according to Dan Grossman, lead attorney in the Eagle patrons’ civil case against the City of Atlanta, it’s far from being an isolated incident or one that effects only the gay community.

“If the APD had just done this at the Eagle, it would be a different story,” Grossman says. “It’s not the only one.” During the course of their investigation, Grossman said he and his co-counselors found “dozens” of cases in which nightclubs, strip clubs and even barber shops had been raided in a similar fashion by the APD, acting in accordance with written standard operating procedures that flout the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure. At that point, it wasn’t just a gay issue any more; it was a human rights issue. As acknowledged in its Dec. 8 federal court settlement, the APD had relied on policies that were broadly unconstitutional.

Seated on the panel at a Dec. 20 town hall meeting at the Philip Rush Center on DeKalb Avenue, Gerry Weber of the Southern Center for Human Rights — who also represented the Eagle patrons in their suit against the city — cites three cases involving illegal search and seizure by police, all remarkably similar to the Eagle raid. One of them, a case from Illinois that made it to the Supreme Court, dates all the way back to 1979. “These cases show how very clear the case law was, though the city fought and fought this,” Weber says. “The APD knew or should have, the city knew or should have, just by reading these three cases that what they did was unconstitutional and they needed to change it.”

On Dec. 8, well over a year after the raid took place, the two parties finally settled. US District Judge Timothy C. Batten, Sr. signed an order entitling the plaintiffs to $1,025,000 and mandating changes to APD procedure.

After the 180 days the city has been provided to institute the changes, APD officers will be required to do a number of things they probably should have been doing anyway: they’ll have to wear visible nametags and identify themselves during encounters with civilians; they’ll be prohibited from interfering with civilians attempting to document — whether by audio, video or photographic recording — instances of police misconduct; and they’ll be required to keep a record of warrantless seizures or ID checks. Then there’s the mandate that requires the city to revoke or amend all “unconstitutional policies,” including but not limited to, standard operating procedures regarding warrantless searches, arrests, and detentions and frisks that are performed without “reasonable, articulable suspicion.” Grossman calls the contents of these SOPs —Â and, in some cases, their glaring omission —Â “nothing less than shocking.” The existing police SOP concerning warrantless searches recognizes that there’s a “constitutional preference” that searches be conducted after a warrant has been obtained. But, as Grossman points out, nowhere in the policy is “probable cause” mentioned. “There’s no such thing as a legal search without probable cause,” he says.

Similarly, the SOP concerning “Terry Stops” —Â also known as “stop and frisks” — fails to specify that there has to be “reasonable, articulable suspicion” that a person committed a crime in order to stop them in the first place. That omission basically allows police to detain people for looking suspicious, which — unless you’re in Arizona — isn’t a crime. Just as shocking as the SOPs, says Grossman, was the APD’s initial reluctance to modify the questionable policies. “Atlanta is by far an outlier among major urban police departments. The kinds of things we asked for are things other departments have done voluntarily for decades,” says Grossman. “The fact that they refused to change these policies even after they were to their attention, that is not typical of major police departments.”

No one from APD was present at the recent town hall meeting, which was attended by roughly 30 people, including plaintiffs in the Eagle case, representatives from various LGBT organizations and several citizens on the police department’s LGBT Advisory Board. Notably absent were the department’s LGBT liaisons, officers Patricia Powell and Brian Sharp.
APD spokesman Carlos Campos says their absence shouldn’t be interpreted as a lack of interest or a reluctance to cooperate with the order. “They didn’t ask us to be a part of this meeting, so it felt to some degree like we would have been crashing it,” he says. “I think there will probably come a time when APD will be communicative about what it’s doing, but right now we’re just examining the settlement. We absolutely want to do the right thing, no question about it. We’re just not ready right now to roll out the specifics. We need some patience on that.”