Shooting aftermath reaches City Hall

Council committee bucks mayor; Pennington under fire from within police department

There’s more at stake in the aftermath of the killing last year of an elderly Atlanta woman than the careers of three police officers. When the fallout settles, some of the biggest losers could be the reputations of police Chief Richard Pennington and Mayor Shirley Franklin.

The demand by some City Council members to create an independent review board to investigate allegations of police misconduct is focusing attention on the mayor and her top cop.

The outcry for a citizens’ panel followed the Nov. 21 police slaying of Kathryn Johnston in her west Atlanta home. A no-knock warrant obtained for the raid was allegedly based on false information from three officers, CL has reported, based on statements by law enforcement officials and lawyers involved in the case. A federal investigation has allegedly turned up evidence of many other instances of illegal police “short cuts.”

Outraged at Johnston’s death, Councilman H. Lamar Willis last month proposed creating a board with broad powers – including the use of subpoenas – to investigate police misconduct. The panel would be comprised of members appointed by the mayor, the City Council, the police union and citizens.

On Feb. 20, Joe Morris – the mayor’s deputy chief of staff – asked the council’s Public Safety Committee to table Willis’ proposal. Morris said the mayor wants to explore the possibility of creating a Human Rights Commission, which would hear both complaints of discrimination and police misconduct. The commission would be a hybrid of the current Human Rights Commission and the Civilian Review Board, both of whose members are appointed by the mayor.

The idea came only a week after Pennington penned an op-ed piece that proposed such a commission in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Willis, however, refused to table his measure for an independent board. “It was probably one of the worst attempts at stalling legislation that I’ve seen in the five years I’ve been on council,” he said. Willis hopes his plan will come up for a committee vote in early March.

Critics of the mayor’s counterplan say it would be toothless. A key to that commission would be the mayor’s control over the new panel – as opposed to the independence of Willis’ concept.

More than 10 police officers – and two judges – who have talked to CL say what’s really at stake is the mayor’s desire to keep scrutiny off of Pennington’s controversial management of the cop shop.

“He’s corporatized the department,” says one high-ranking officer. “If there’s good news, Pennington is out in front of the cameras. If it’s bad news, he’s not in town, and of course, he’s not in town running the department that often anyway. If it’s in between, he has a deputy chief talk to the press.”

An independent panel likely would look at some of the controversial policies under Pennington’s regime. These include the alleged use of quotas in order for raise-starved officers to earn bonuses called “Q-Pay.” City officials deny employing quotas, but officers are adamant they exist. Several, for example, cite personal knowledge that the squad involved in Johnston’s killing had a quota to serve 28 warrants a month.

“They act like they’re keeping us honest” with the quotas, says one veteran sergeant. “It’s the craziest thing. You have to make so many tickets or so many ‘drop-ins’ [visits to businesses] in order to get a bonus. But what happens is that people work to make the numbers that make Pennington look good, but they’ve lost the art of patrolling and crime-fighting.”

The police also castigate what are called “COBRA meetings” at which they say Pennington berates middle management for not producing numbers. “I know from personal experience that many of us make up statistics that Pennington wants to hear, just to avoid being humiliated,” one officer says. “Do those numbers show we’re fighting crime? The chief wants the public to think so, but they don’t.”

Behind all of this is Franklin’s role in protecting Pennington. After Johnston’s shooting, Franklin reiterated her confidence in the chief.

Prior to Pennington’s selection in May 2002 – ostensibly after an independent committee vetted candidates – word leaked out that Franklin had preselected the former New Orleans police chief. She denied that to the AJC.

Political consultants in Atlanta say that one of Pennington’s advocates was David Franklin, the mayor’s ex-husband. One police officer says he was in the Highland Tap bar prior to Pennington’s appointment when political insider Tom Houck announced that Pennington would be the new police chief. Houck, according to the officer, said David Franklin had aided Pennington in his unsuccessful bid to become mayor of New Orleans.

Houck declined to comment, other than to confirm, “Yeah, David helped out Pennington.”

Shirley Franklin, David Franklin and Pennington did not respond to requests for interviews.

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