Cover Story: APD oversight on the skids
Policing the police has been a futile - and frustrating - task for Atlanta's Citizen Review Board
If there's one thing the Atlanta Police Department could use right now to offset a recent history plagued by an elderly woman's tragic death and an egregious affront to the LGBT community, it's the public's good will. That's what makes the APD's attitude toward the city's citizen-staffed police oversight board so confusing.
Over the course of less than three years, the APD was confronted with two high-profile misconduct scandals — the 2006 police shooting of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston in her English Avenue home, then the 2009 illegal and, by many accounts, immoral raid of Midtown gay bar the Atlanta Eagle.
There's no way to emerge unscathed from the gunning down of an elderly woman while serving an illegally obtained warrant (never mind that the officers proceeded to plant drugs in her house), or the unconstitutional search and seizure of bar patrons who weren't found to be committing any crimes — but were subjected to anti-gay slurs. The incidents damaged the public's trust in the police department, and revealed malfeasance that ran much deeper than a few rogue rank-and-file cops.
In response to Johnston's death — and to have a body in place to respond to subsequent PR fiascos — city leaders decided in 2007 that something had to be done to combat the public's rapidly dwindling faith in the APD. To help restore the APD's reputation and, at least ostensibly, give the public more of a voice in probes of suspected police misconduct, the department had to address the growing disconnect between the people and the police. Its solution was the Atlanta Citizen Review Board.
Comprised of civilians selected by City Council, the mayor, the city's 25 Neighborhood Planning Units and a variety of civic groups, the 11-member board fields and investigates citizen complaints, and does so independent of the APD's own investigations.
When it was created, the board's process was meant to be straightforward. Citizens would lodge a complaint, and the board's staff would conduct an in-house investigation, decide whether the complaint had merit and submit recommendations for officer discipline — if discipline is in order — to the chief of police. Ultimately, it would be up to the chief to decide whether the board's recommendations should be followed.
That's where it gets complicated. Or, as board chair Joy Morrissey, puts it: "We've hit a wall."
Without fail, when the board has decided an officer was not at fault in an incident, the chief has agreed with those findings. But — and here's where the wall comes in — when the board has decided an officer was in the wrong, the chief has rejected the board's word. Every single time.
During 2009 and 2010, the Citizen Review Board handled 25 complaints of police misconduct (not including the dozen or so related to the 2009 raid of the Atlanta Eagle). In 10 of those 25 cases, the board ruled that the citizen's complaint was legitimate. Aside from one case that Police Chief George Turner has yet to respond to, there's little to show for the board's work.
APD spokesman Carlos Campos describes the disconnect between the board and the police chief as differences of opinion that "sometimes yield different conclusions."
"Internal investigations can be very subjective," Campos says. "While everyone may see there is a problem with the officer's conduct, everyone may not agree on the specific work rule with which the officer should be charged. The most critical issue to keep in mind is that the officer's misconduct is discovered and the appropriate discipline is given to deter future misconduct."
Still, the fact remains that discipline has never been meted out when the board has said it should.
Owen Montague, who recently resigned from the board after four years of service, says he doesn't think police value the board's work or opinions — and it's become irritating. "That's the number one frustration that the board has," Montague says. "Everyone is doing their job — the, board, the staff and the citizens — and the police could care less."
The Citizen Review Board doesn't typically handle cases that are as outrageous as the Johnston or Eagle cases. Instead, they reveal the daily, garden-variety reality of the public's interaction with police.
Among the allegations heard over the past two years by the board: a woman who claims unnecessary force was used when she was arrested in her home, a man who says he was shaken down after being mistaken for a robbery suspect, and a pedestrian who says she was cuffed for hanging out on a sidewalk.
Last year, the CRB upheld the complaint of DeBorah "Sister" Williams, the founder of a local outreach ministry. Williams was arrested in December 2009 for disorderly conduct after an argument with a mentally unstable live-in houseguest. Officer Byron Martin responded to Williams' West End home and told her that if she wanted the woman removed, she'd have to go through the formal eviction process. Williams later told board investigators that before Martin left, he made clear he didn't want to have to return. But when her guest continued acting erratically — screaming and accusing Williams of beating her — Williams called the cops again.
According to Williams, Officer Martin returned to her home, and without a word, took her to the ground, jammed his knee into her back and cuffed her. The board's investigation revealed that Martin had preemptively summoned a jail transport vehicle to William's home before he arrived the second time — meaning before he was able to assess the situation.
The previous January, Airric Stewart was walking to a Peachtree Road gym when he was stopped by two police officers. Unbeknownst to Stewart, his gym attire — a grey hoodie and sweatpants — matched the description of a bank robbery suspect. Stewart claims that officers Michael Skillman and Carl Wilson tried to search his backpack by force. He would later say that when he tried to stop them from "snatching" his backpack off his shoulder, Officer Wilson said, "Let's just take him down." After he was taken to the ground and handcuffed, his bag was searched and nothing robbery-related was found. Stewart was sent on his way.
That same year, Minnie Carey was talking with a group of people on a sidewalk outside a Boulevard convenience store when a police car pulled up. One of the officers, Brandy Dolson, instructed the group to "move it," Carey recalls. Carey says the group dispersed for the most part, but she protested, and asked why they had to leave. It was only 2:45 p.m., they weren't blocking pedestrian traffic and they'd only been there for a couple of minutes. Dolson's explanation, according to Carey: "Because I said so." Carey held her ground and was arrested for disorderly conduct.
"I feel like my rights were definitely violated," Carey told CL during a recent interview. "I was just standing on the sidewalk. Each time I think about it, I get angry. That they feel they have that kind of power over citizens. People get treated like dirt."
The board sustained accusations of excessive force in Williams' and Stewart's cases, and false imprisonment in Carey's. The board's recommended actions weren't unreasonable; in Stewart's case, the board simply asked that copies of a letter stating their opinions be put in each of the officers' files. But their recommendations were refused.
Historically, there aren't many fans in law enforcement of civilian review. The contention is that the material is too complicated for laypeople without training in police procedure. (Of course, an easy counter to that argument is that courtroom juries do it every day.)
Chief Turner has, on several occasions, said he's an advocate of civilian review, in part because he believes the board has vindicated his department in some respects. "Do I believe we need to have citizen oversight?" Turner asked, rhetorically, in a July interview with CL. "Absolutely. Do I think there's a consistent pattern of officers violating folks' rights? I do not think that's the case in this police department. If you look at the results of what the Citizen Review Board have come back with in their findings, they don't find that, either. It's good that an outside source tell that story as opposed to us telling that story."
Even if it hasn't revealed a culture of misconduct in the APD, the board has shone a light on what might be considered lax standards.
Martin, the officer the Citizen Review Board determined used excessive force when he arrested Williams in her home, had 16 complaints — citizen and internal — lodged against him in five years. And the CRB's investigation into the complaint filed by Carey that she was arrested merely for standing on a sidewalk found that Officer Dolson had also racked up 16 complaints, his between 2003 and 2009.
Prior to Carey's arrest, Dolson had been accused on several occasions of using excessive force and being involved in car accidents. The accidents are the only charges APD's internal Office of Professional Standards sustained. Less than a month after Carey's arrest, Dolson was charged with DUI when he struck a Bobcat and flipped his SUV. Able to use Dolson's disciplinary history in her favor, Carey successfully sued the city and won a $20,000 settlement. Prior to that, the board determined that several active complaints against Dolson were "quite troubling," and recommended that he be suspended for 15 days without pay and undergo a psychological evaluation.
Most people in law enforcement circles believe officer discipline is best left to a department's own internal affairs department. Arguing against City Council's decision to give the CRB subpoena power, Lt. Scott Kreher, then-president of the local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, told the AJC in 2010, "We are the only profession in the city that can be investigated by internal affairs, the district attorney, the FBI, Secret Service, the Justice Department. You are talking about adding another layer to layers and layers of bureaucracy. They are just throwing money at another level of bureaucracy."
Sitting at her desk in her ninth floor office at City Hall Tower, CRB Executive Director Cristina Beamud speaks enthusiastically about the board and its work. But, being the engine behind a machine that's been spinning its wheels for years and getting nowhere has obviously exhausted her.
Policing the police is an age-old conundrum. What's to be done — and who's to do it — when the people charged with enforcing the law break it? Civilian oversight has existed as a method of keeping an eye on the cops for decades, but has always been plagued with problems. A New York Times article about civilian oversight that was published in 1992 describes the mechanism's inherent issues — and they're stunningly similar to those Atlanta grapples with two decades later, including an "inability to make their recommendations stick."
The article says, "Even if those problems are solved, experts in criminal law and police relations add, a review board can only point out a police department's mistakes; it cannot bring real change."
Beamud has an impressive background that combines both law enforcement and legal experience. A police officer in Rochester, N.Y., for 12 years, Beamud left the force to attend law school and spent several years as a prosecutor, then as a legal advisor to the Cambridge Police Department. Most recently, she oversaw the Eugene, Ore., Citizen Review Board. "I've been doing complaint oversight for a long time," Beaumud says. "Sometimes the complainant just isn't right. What you want to do is make intelligent and constructive recommendations."
The current board represents Atlanta's third go at civilian oversight. In 1987, Mayor Andrew Young established a 27-member board that essentially evaporated once Young was out of office. Less than a decade later, in 1996, Mayor Bill Campbell created a similar body after the police-involved shooting death of an unarmed man named Jerry Jackson. The effort was disorganized at best — no meeting minutes were kept, and members reportedly didn't know who their chairperson or other members were — and they were only permitted to review cases that had been vetted in advance by the APD's Office of Professional Standards.
When Beamud arrived in 2008 to head the newly re-established CRB, her tenure got off to a rocky start, thanks in no small part to then-APD Chief Richard Pennington. Citing state law, Pennington consistently refused to provide the board with the documents they requested, even though the ordinance that established the CRB makes clear that they're entitled to the information. And he didn't require officers to participate in the board's investigations. Most of the time, the officers would show up to their hearings with a union representative, but simply refuse to testify. Beamud says of Pennington, "He let them do whatever they wanted, and didn't discipline them."
She admits that Pennington's refusal to cooperate forced the board to make recommendations based on investigations that were basically incomplete. "There were a group of cases that were just sitting there, waiting for officers to be compelled to give us statements," she says. "Some of them we just went forward with an adverse inference against the officer, but I don't think that's a good way to go about it, to let the complainant win by default. We only had half the story."
When Pennington's reign as chief ended, he was replaced — first temporarily, then permanently — by APD veteran Turner. At first, officers continued refusing to testify, and without consequence. But the game changed in May 2010 when City Council granted the board power to subpoena officer testimony. Finally, officers were required to participate in the CRB's investigations, but problems persisted when Turner consistently failed to respond to the board's findings within the 30 days the ordinance provides for. (Turner met with the board in December and ensured he'd do his best to comply with the ordinance in the future.)
For the most part, Beamud says, Turner has already been more cooperative than his predecessor. Of course, Turner, like Pennington before him, has always rejected the board's findings when it's ruled against an officer.
"I've generally been pleased" with Chief Turner, Beamud says. "Not necessarily with the results, but with a more open attitude on civilian oversight. The results have not changed, but sometimes change like this is a process."
At least one person is happy with the way the board is currently operating. Councilman C.T. Martin, who along with Ivory Lee Young and H. Lamar Willis introduced the legislation that created the board, told CL, "It's doing what we want it to do. It gives the citizens an opportunity to have a voice and input. They don't always get what they want, but their complaints are investigated.
"Let's put it this way," he adds, "It's operating the best that a Citizen Review Board can operate."
But the current model — which, arguably, gives the board more power than other city's Citizen Review Boards — isn't the problem. The problem is that given the choice between siding with a Citizen Review Board or his officers, the chief is usually going to choose the latter.
As CRB member Montague says: "It's like saying the engines on the Titanic are working fine."
It's hard to float a solution to the CRB's predicament. One option is to rely on a weapon even stronger than subpoena power: liberally applied public pressure. Considering the amount of scrutiny surrounding the Eagle case, the board's relevance — and its viability going forward — could very well come down to whether the department accepts the board's recommendations in relation to that botched raid.
Last September, the board sustained allegations that 24 officers who participated in the 2009 raid (which was carried out with the intent to discover men using drugs and having sex in a gay bar) had unlawfully detained and used abusive language toward the Eagle's patrons. But the board held off on recommending punishment until its investigators could conduct a study to determine to what extent supervising officers were culpable.
During a nearly two-hour meeting in January, the board came up with the following suggestions for how the department should handle the Eagle raid: three-day suspensions for rank-and-file officers, and written reprimands and additional Fourth Amendment training for most of the supervisors. The board decided that one of those supervisors, Sgt. Kelly Collier, who they ruled had essentially lied by repeatedly telling investigators he "couldn't remember" basic details of the raid, should receive a 30-day suspension without pay.
Montague had attempted to take a harder line than his cohorts. "I move that he be terminated," he said at the meeting. No one seconded the motion, even though the disciplinary chart the board uses as a reference (the same one used by APD's Office of Professional Standards) recommends termination for dishonesty.
Because a federal court order has required that the APD reinvestigate officer conduct in the Eagle case, Chief Turner has said he'll hold off on responding to the board's recommendations until that investigation is complete. In the past, Beamud says, Turner simply rejected the board's recommendations if his department was still investigating an incident, so his lack of response might be considered a sign of progress.
In any case, the board, the public and the Eagle patrons who lodged complaints are waiting to see what Turner will do, and whether the punishment he metes out — if punishment is meted out at all — reflects the board's decisions.
If it doesn't, the board might have to come to terms with the fact that, as Councilman Martin unwittingly implied, it has been reduced by the cops to little more than a sounding board — a forum in which citizens can air their grievances and hope the catharsis of the process is enough to appease them.