Cover Story: Atlanta's chief angel
Lou Arcangeli made a legion of friends — and a few foes — by being a cop's cop
This is what a cop does. It was Jan. 15, 1990, and Lou Arcangeli, a lieutenant at the time, was on patrol at the Martin Luther King Day celebration. Claude Jackson, an aspiring crook, was also on patrol, staking out his competition — like-minded thieves working the crowd near the King Center.
Jackson's strategy for securing his turf was simple: Shoot the other guys. Which is what he attempted to do. He missed, and that was unfortunate for 15-year-old Jennee Mitchell, a College Park girl there for the parade. Jackson's errant bullet buried itself in the child's abdomen, and would eventually cost her a kidney.
The crowd panicked at the gunshot, and began scrambling for cover. While another police officer rushed to aid Mitchell — saving her life — Arcangeli scanned the crowd.
"There were 300 people running, and only one person looked back," Arcangeli says. "I said, 'That's him. Only the bad guy would be looking to see what the police were doing.'"
A heart-pounding, Hollywood-quality foot race began. Arcangeli recalls his gut-churning thoughts. "'He's still got a gun. He's going to shoot me. I can't return fire because of the crowd.' It was damn scary."
But the perp ran out of luck. He dropped his gun, and it got kicked away by fleeing bystanders. Three blocks from the starting line, the race ended with Arcangeli tackling Jackson.
"That was the day a 38-year-old cop chased down a 19-year-old shooter," grins Arcangeli. "I'm just a little proud of that. All in a day's work."
After 29 years with the Atlanta Police Department, Arcangeli retired a month ago with a lot of bragging rights, although boasting is not his style. He has lived in the same modest Inman Park bungalow since his early days on the force. He is self-deprecating. He cracks jokes about his wife having to lower her standards to marry him. When he had a chance to jump into international limelight — as point man for security during the 1996 Olympic Games — he let younger officers get the recognition.
"He's just a plain guy, what you see is what you get," says Arcangeli's longtime friend, J.J. Biello, a former cop who was paralyzed by a robber's bullet. "Lou's heart has always been with the officer on the street, not with the politicians," adds Biello, now a politician — a Cherokee County commissioner.
That fierce dedication to his fellow cops — plus good portions of brains and bravery, according to his peers — helped propel Arcangeli up the ranks to deputy chief, the No. 2 spot in the department.
And an equally fierce honesty helped to torpedo his career. It led Arcangeli to seek the public's attention — when he blew the whistle over police officials shaving crime statistics in order to make the city look safer than it was. Exposing what he calls "corruption at the top" cost Arcangeli his rank, and he faced a vicious smear campaign from the badly tarnished administration of ex-Mayor Bill Campbell.
"I've survived several incidents," quips Arcangeli, who finally won vindication from Atlanta's new police chief, Richard Pennington. "Some involve guns. Some involve my boss."
1974 Announcement: City of Atlanta Careers in Government. Police Patrolman. Salary Range: $722-$891. $754-$929 with two years of college. $786-$968 with four-year college degree.
Bureau of Police Services. Daily Bulletin. The following transfers and assignments are effective Oct. 21, 1974. To Foot Patrol: L.R. Arcangeli from Recruit School.
When Lou Arcangeli was growing up in Philadelphia, a policeman charged up the stairs of an apartment building in hot pursuit of some mafia numbers runners. The melee erupted through the door of the Arcangeli family home and spilled out onto the fire escape. The cop — Frank Rizzo, who later would rise to be the bare-knuckled police commissioner and mayor of the city — paused long enough to tell Lou's grandmother Mary, "Excuse me, ma'am."
"I wasn't there, but this was part of our family lore. I heard the story over and over. Rizzo wasn't a stranger to the neighborhood. He was part of it. He knew the people, good and bad. I knew then I wanted to be a cop, and I knew I wanted to walk a beat," says Arcangeli, who picked Atlanta in 1974 "because it was one of two cities in the South that had foot patrol."
Arcangeli was a little different from many officers in the still not quite 20th-century APD of 1974. A graduate of Jacksonville State University in Alabama, he later earned a master's degree from Georgia State. A lot of cops, he says, felt that "if you'd been to college, you were likely an FBI snitch."
More than education, attitude mattered. Early in his career, at a violent arrest, the culprit vowed to kill Arcangeli's partner. "We put the guy in a paddy wagon, and went to someplace where no one was around. The other officers told me, 'We thought you'd want a piece of him,'" offering Arcangeli the opportunity to engage in a little cathartic police brutality, common in the force at the time.
"I shook my head," Arcangeli remembers. "That defined my relationship" with many officers. "It was a watershed moment. We weren't like them."
Arcangeli got his wish to be a foot patrolman after graduating from the police academy. Most of his career has been spent in the heart of Atlanta, and his memories chart a cops-and-robbers walking tour of the city.
Arcangeli still drives his old patrol beats. People know him, and wave at him. At a traffic light on Auburn Avenue, A.V. Hayes, a female officer, comes up to Arcangeli's car, her face shining with an ever-so-big smile. "This is one great police officer," she tells me, and then to Arcangeli, "We sure miss you, captain." A group of pedestrians look at Arcangeli's mud-splattered-from-hunting-trips Nissan Pathfinder, point and wave; one shouts, "You doing OK, Officer Arcangeli?"
Twenty-nine years ago, it was a little different. There's no easy entry for a grunt cop. Arcangeli's first assignment was potentially a tough one for a white officer — an Auburn Avenue much different than today. "It was lined on both sides of the street with gambling houses, bars, prostitutes. I remember thinking, 'This is the smell of something big.' I saw predators and their prey. Here I was getting paid to go find trouble."
We're at the Supreme Fish Delight, 362 Auburn. Arcangeli stops in the middle of the street — no one is going to give him a ticket — and recounts, "We'd buy dinner here and then go climb on top of the SCLC building down the street. Criminals are like deer. They never look up to see who's watching. We'd watch the dopers and eat our dinner. Heck, even if the dopers weren't out, it's a great place to view a beautiful skyline."
On Auburn Avenue began the development of one of Arcangeli's most compelling traits. Although he's an expert at statistical analysis, Arcangeli sees his job in terms of relationships, not numbers.
"I didn't just arrest them," he recalls. "They came to me. The same people I'd take in one day would seek me out a week later and want my help."
The relationships spanned the social spectrum. "I got to know Daddy King, Martin Luther King Sr. He'd stop his car, very unpretentious, to talk. The first time, I asked him what he did, and he said he was a preacher at a little church. A little church!" Arcangeli laughs as he points to Ebenezer Baptist.
More relationships. Driving through Cabbagetown, Arcangeli tells of busting multiple generations of one drug-dealing clan from Appalachia. "I've arrested the mama. I've arrested the sister, the brother. The red-haired terrorists of Cabbagetown. I feel like I'm part of their family."
More relationships: Arcangeli met his wife, Janet Reese, in 1983. On one of their first dates, they were shopping at the Kmart at what is now Lindbergh Plaza. Reese recalls a woman coming up to Arcangeli, and a warm conversation ensuing about how each of their lives was progressing. "After the woman left, Lou tells me that he'd busted her for drugs, and that she had also served time for prostitution, pimping, even murder," Reese says. "After that, all of these people would come up and say hi to Lou, and I'd ask him, 'Friend or felon?'"
More relationships: In 1989, while walking his dog, Arcangeli came upon a thief breaking into a car. "He pulled a screwdriver on me. So I shot him. He was lucky. My aim was bad, and I hit him in the hand. A few years later, I ran into him. We had a good conversation. I hope he's doing well."
Really touching relationship: While working at home, Arcangeli spied a teenager breaking into the house next door. Reese says, "Lou twisted the kid's waistband on his baggy pants to hold him in place. The kid complained, 'Hey, mister, you're giving me a wedgie.' After that we'd call it the wedgie bust. But Lou went by the kid's home. They were really poor. And he saw the kid at his school, always wearing the same clothes. So Lou buys the kid some school clothes, and to pay for it, he brings the kid to his office and teaches him how to answer phones. He's done that with a lot of kids who need a little help, had them answer phones. That's just Lou."
Arcangeli knows the emotional downside of police work. "It's a hard, sad profession. No one calls 911 to say things are fine at home." But as bad as people are, for Arcangeli they're more than social detritus.
"When I hear people talk about neighborhood policing, I think, 'Beat cops have been doing neighborhood policing forever.' I was there. I knew the families. When something good happened, people told me about it. When someone did something wrong, they knew it was my job to arrest them."
We're passing an unremarkable storefront on Decatur Street, and Arcangeli again stops, points and exclaims, "There. That's where a guy who had just attacked someone on a MARTA bus took a punch at me. I'd run into him before. He said, 'You're on my territory, and you ain't got no gun.' I told him, 'You're wrong on both counts. Anywhere is my territory, and I do have a gun.'"
While waiting until other officers arrived, the man stomped on Arcangeli's foot. "That was the wrong thing to do," Arcangeli says. "In court, that guy said, 'Steppin' on that police's feet was like steppin' on Muhammad Ali's feet.'"
Bankers talk about deals, developers recall buildings, journalists brag of stories. For cops, it's the bust, sometimes with humor, often with tragedy. Violence is a common theme.
The old Redwood Lounge in Little Five Points was a redneck hangout in the 1970s. Arcangeli says his supervisor warned him that "if someone challenged me, I'd have to whip their ass right then, or else I'd have to whip 'em every night."
The first time he went into the Redwood, Arcangeli says a patron took a look at his bespectacled face and asked, "'Who's that four-eyed fuck?' So, I had to take him outside and hit him once or twice. The next night another guy said he was going to have to kick my ass. But the guy from the night before stood up and said, 'Don't do that. He's a good guy. He whipped my ass last night.'"
Other stories don't have so many chuckles, just the gritty reminders of a side of life most of us avoid. At Wall and Pryor streets, Arcangeli busted his first pickpocket. "I drove past and saw people waiting for a bus. An hour later, two of the men were still there. No one waits for a bus for an hour. So, I went up to the third level of a parking garage where I could watch the bus stop, and sure enough, I saw the crime. I ran down to get the victim off the bus. She didn't know she'd been robbed, and she broke down when I told her."
Here's Nassau Street, and Arcangeli is quiet. "Over there," he points, "I heard gunshots one night. 1977. An officer was dead in the street. That was Barry Melear. There used to be a plaque with his name on it, but the city removed it before the Olympics. Later, I was privileged to meet Officer Melear's daughter. She had grown up away from police work, but I was able to tell her about her father. I reconnected her to her roots."
It's hard to find someone in Atlanta who will say something bad about Arcangeli. To the cops on the street, the regulars at Manuel's Tavern, business people, his neighbors (one told me he remembered when Arcangeli made a half-dozen arrests in one month within a block of his house, a claim backed by news reports) — the retired cop has lived up to his nickname, chief angel.
His nemesis, former Police Chief Beverly Harvard, wouldn't talk to me. Arcangeli clearly had enemies among Harvard's and Bill Campbell's cronies. But they're either out and largely disgraced, or trying to avoid the scrutiny of the new chief, Pennington. Arcangeli, meanwhile, rates something close to reverence among officers.
"That's because he was always there for us," says Patricia Cocciolone. She talks in slow deliberate tones and has trouble remembering some things. In 1997, while answering a domestic disturbance call, Cocciolone's partner, John Sowa, was shot dead by a man who was holding his girlfriend hostage. The man then stood over the already-wounded Cocciolone and pointed his rifle at her.
"We were looking eye to eye," she recalls. "I knew what was going to happen. I turned my head."
That saved Cocciolone's life. She survived the gunshot to the head but is permanently disabled — and adding insult to injury, literally, city policy denies her what police feel is honorable pension.
"Lou was so wonderful," Cocciolone says. "He worked so hard to get things that should be right. He's the man I looked up to, the good one."
It doesn't really matter who you ask among police officers and their friends. The answers compete at hyperbole in describing Arcangeli's dedication to his fellow officers.
"Louis took care of his people," says former Chief Eldrin Bell. "No matter where he was, if an officer was injured, Louis was on his way."
"Twice in one night sometimes," Arcangeli's wife, Janet, adds.
Arcangeli says he learned that dedication from Bell. In 1978, while making what he calls a "very undramatic drug bust in a motel," Arcangeli was shot in the wrist. "I was sitting in a wheelchair at Grady, alone and feeling pretty depressed. It was really creepy. Then around the corner came my commander, Eldrin Bell, and everything suddenly looked a lot brighter."
Cherokee County Commissioner Biello, a former APD detective, explains: "When you're a detective, you get called to crime scenes by patrol officers. A lot of detectives act very superior. They'll say, 'You can't figure this out for yourself?' But not Lou. He was always out there, ready to help, educating younger officers."
Ultimately, officers got to vote their respect. While a deputy chief, Arcangeli was forbidden by Harvard from working on improvements in the police pension plan. After being demoted by Harvard in 1998 to captain, Arcangeli ran for the board and won by a landslide. Says ex-Chief Bell: "People knew he cared about them first and foremost."
This is the soft side of the tough-guy cop. On June 2, 1983, Arcangeli was working an off-duty security job at Houston's restaurant at Lenox Square. Closing time was 10 p.m. A woman arrived shortly after 10 and tried to flirt her way past the officer.
"I didn't get in," says the woman, Janet Reese, now Arcangeli's wife. "But I did get a phone call the next day. I mean there had been some major flirting the night before."
A decade later, the two were married. "I finally convinced her to lower her standards," Arcangeli says.
Reese comments: "He was thoughtful, playful, hard working. I thought there had to be a sinister, dark side, but there wasn't." The couple has no children. But, Reese says, "We work very hard at being the best aunt and uncle."
OK, name one fault this cop has. Reese: "At his retirement party, there were a lot of jokes about Lou being cheap."
"Thrifty," Arcangeli counters. "Like when I worked homicide, we'd always ruin suits chasing people over fences and stuff. So, I'd buy suits at the second-hand store for $5 and get them tailored. You could get a pretty good suit for less than $20."
Arcangeli's early career progressed swiftly but not spectacularly. Two years on foot patrol. Four years as a narcotics detective — a period when the very straight-arrow officer grew a curly beard and looked like an early version of Tommy Chong of Cheech & Chong. Two years in homicide.
Then in 1982, Eldrin Bell, deputy chief at the time, spied Arcangeli carting around a stack of computer cards. "This was a time when most of our computer terminals were turned to the wall," Bell says. "We did everything by hand. I tapped Louis to be my administrative sergeant, to work with computers, and things began changing. He worked on our first computer crime analysis. He would say that he was putting tools in the kits of police officers."
Arcangeli regrets some of that. "I wasn't making the arrests any longer. But because of what we were learning, I was able to send officers to where the crimes were happening."
Bell became chief and bumped up Lt. Arcangeli two grades to major, and then in 1993 to deputy chief.
Arcangeli's good nature does not preclude ambition. "He once told me, 'I don't want to win the lottery,'" Biello says. "'Because if I did, I might not want to work. I want to be chief.'"
That never happened, which Biello says "is the biggest loss to public safety in the city's history."
"Olympics hailed as city's economic impetus for '90s"
-- Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Feb. 20, 1990
Dear Chief Harvard: Deputy Chief C.B. Jackson, Lt. Terry Steele and several members of the Sex Crimes Squad are under-reporting crimes again — particularly rape and aggravated sodomy. This looks like the same sort of thing Deputy Chief Arcangeli put a stop to a few years ago.
-- Memo slipped under Lou Arcangeli's door, 2001
As Atlanta steamed toward the 1996 Olympic games, Mayor Bill Campbell had a problem. The crime rate pegged Atlanta as one of the least safe cities in the nation — usually between first and third among major urban areas. This was not likely to appeal to the would-be Olympic tourists, after whose cash the city (as well as criminals) lusted. And, the mayor needed cheerful crime stats as he moved into a 1998 re-election campaign.
So, Campbell and his police chief, Harvard, had several options to deal with this potential image disaster. They could, for example, put a lot more officers on the street to fill some of the city's 300 vacant cop jobs. That was expensive. Or, they could take a much, much cheaper route — playing with crime statistics.
After Lou Arcangeli retired in December, he moved a mountain of files and the memorabilia of almost three decades as a cop into his bungalow. A pack rat, but a meticulous one, Arcangeli has little trouble navigating the teetering stacks of papers, notebooks and file folders. It's a collection some folks — say, Campbell and Harvard — might like to see vanish.
"I'm a numbers guy," Arcangeli says, pulling a computer printout from one dangerously unsteady tower of paper. "And here's what I found."
The printout shows the monthly number of "unfounded" crimes — those discarded, supposedly because of insufficient evidence or some other serious reason. Between 1993 and early 1995, the numbers are pretty stable, generally less than 300 cases per month. Then as the report moves into 1996 — Olympics year — the lines start running off the page — 378 in March, 464 in April, 662 in May.
Arcangeli: "That just didn't make sense."
In 1997, Arcangeli began sending memos to Harvard, pointing the finger at two deputy chiefs, Bobby Rocker and Carter Jackson. The chief was, at best, cool to the suggestion that numbers were being cooked for public relations spin.
Then came the meeting. Arcangeli was organizing the police move to City Hall East, when he received a cell phone call from a very angry chief summoning him to an inquisition.
"I screwed up," Arcangeli says. "I really screwed up because I didn't think that Harvard was materially involved. I was wrong about that."
Arcangeli walked into the meeting and found Harvard flanked by Rocker and Jackson. The message was clear. "I took one look, and I knew she was part of it."
Harvard at first refused to let Arcangeli summon the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to probe the anomalies in crime reports. But after Arcangeli went public, the GBI waded in. The state agency absolved officials of criminal intent. Yet, the GBI found 498 robberies and 56 rapes had been omitted from the crime statistics. "That was in only three categories of crime," about 20 percent of all reports, Arcangeli sighs. "Who knows how many total crimes weren't reported?"
Harvard claimed the numbers cited by the GBI weren't statistically significant and publicly branded Arcangeli's claims as "clearly irresponsible allegations." Deputy Chief Jackson called Arcangeli's charges "a willful lie."
Harvard and Jackson were dissembling and defying logic, of course. By erasing crime reports, the city turned a 2 percent increase in rapes into an 11 percent decline. Robberies, if they had been truthfully tallied, would have shown a 1 percent increase, not the well-cooked 9 percent drop claimed by Harvard & Co.
"It's even worse if you look at the actual reports," Arcangeli says. "The rapes that were unfounded were always poor women, black women, prostitutes, people who wouldn't yell if the police ignored them. That's the worst sort of racial profiling, and it came from a black woman, Chief Harvard."
The Campbell-dominated City Council seemed more interested in attacking Arcangeli than in finding the truth. But Cathy Woolard, now the gutsy council president, recalls: Arcangeli "served the city very well. He put himself at risk. We can only be thankful he had the courage to do what he did."
The scandal simmered down. And then boiled again. In 2001, it was discovered that after the GBI investigation, innovative officials came up with a new stratagem, a secret file for rape cases they didn't want counted. The official tally of buried cases is 34. Arcangeli figures it's a lot more. One anonymous letter from an officer that was given to Arcangeli and the press estimates the number at 200.
"I found out about the cases because the officers would slip a copy of the crime reports under my door," Arcangeli says. "The supervisors would take the reports and just not give them case numbers. They'd hide them. That's better than unfounding a case because it leaves no paper trail."
There's a darker dimension to the skullduggery. When the rape cases were unfounded or, more recently, buried, evidence including DNA was discarded. "Who knows what criminals we didn't catch because we didn't have the match with that DNA?" Arcangeli muses. "Who knows if we'd have caught the rapist at Georgia State sooner? Who knows?"
The lieutenant in charge of sex crimes, Terrence Steele, was promoted to head the Atlanta Police Department's internal affairs unit shortly after Pennington became chief. After the new rape reporting debacle surfaced, Steele in December was taken off investigating police corruption cases.
Arcangeli: "There was destruction of evidence. Someone committed a crime."
Meanwhile, Harvard has remained true to character — she got caught trying to pad her paycheck and those of her top aides with "overtime" following the 9-11 terrorist attack. ("Deplorable," says Arcangeli.) Campbell left office amid a gale of federal investigations. The new mayor, Shirley Franklin, looked at Harvard and said, no thanks; Harvard ended up with an oh-so-Atlanta sinecure at Hartsfield International Airport.
The new police chief, Pennington, rescued Arcangeli from obscurity in the records department and promoted him to commander of Zone 5, back in the central city where he began his career. That was last October. Two months later, Arcangeli surprised his fans — and probably his foes — by resigning.
"He's 52, and he knows he won't ever be chief," Biello says.
Arcangeli speaks often of the "officers who didn't make it to the finish line," cops such as his former partner, Bob Buffington, and Biello, both injured by criminals' bullets.
"I'm one of the lucky ones," Arcangeli says. "I made it. Retiring now, it was just the right thing to do."