Avondale Estates police chief retires after botched accreditation bid

The  Estates Police Department is set to participate in the National Prescription Drug Take Back Day.

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The Estates Police Department is set to participate in the National Prescription Drug Take Back Day.

Review team found ‘overwhelming lack of documentation’

The police chief for the small DeKalb County town of Avondale Estates has retired after his department botched its attempt at earning state accreditation, city officials announced late Monday.

The quest for accreditation through the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police was part of a larger effort by the city to change its reputation for being unwelcoming and, in some cases, racist.

The voluntary process certifies that local police agencies have well-documented, state-approved policies and procedures, and that they train their officers according to those standards.

City leaders were informed late last week that now-former chief Lynn Thomas and his 15-member department did not pass muster.

ExploreAvondale Estates reckons with history, eyes a more welcoming future

The GACP review team cited “an overwhelming lack of documentation” and other compliance issues related to evidence storage and training. More than one-third of the department’s 139 documented standards were deemed non-compliant.

The evaluation was called off on the afternoon of the second day.

“I would feel irresponsible recommending certification for the agency, based on the number of compliance issues and the amount of work still needing to be done to bring the agency’s policies up to standard,” Valerie M. Johnson, the review team’s leader, wrote in her report.

»See the full report at the bottom of this story.

The department’s accreditation manager, Lt. Duanne Thompson, resigned following the failed review, city officials said. Johnson described him as having an “apathetic attitude” during the process.

Capt. Paul Conroy, who was described as a long-time veteran of Avondale police, will take over as acting chief following Thomas’ retirement.

“The city remains steadfast in its commitment to the community’s well-being and safety and will continue to pursue accreditation,” city officials said in a news release. “Additionally, the city will explore enlisting a third-party expert to review all police standard operating procedures.”

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With family and friends looking on Lynn Thomas is sworn in as new Avondale Estates police chief. (Courtesy of Nick Rasay)

With family and friends looking on Lynn Thomas is sworn in as new Avondale Estates police chief. (Courtesy of Nick Rasay)

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With family and friends looking on Lynn Thomas is sworn in as new Avondale Estates police chief. (Courtesy of Nick Rasay)

Thomas joined the department as a patrol officer in 2002 and worked his way up through the ranks. He was promoted to chief in 2016, just a few months after then-DeKalb County District Attorney Robert James declined to charge him for shooting and killing an unarmed Black man.

A civil grand jury had “strongly recommended” Thomas be charged in the 2013 shooting that left 20-year-old Jayvis Benjamin dead.

Even with the now-former chief’s history set aside, the Avondale Estates Police Department has a long-held reputation for being overly aggressive — particularly with Black motorists.

In 2019, the small department issued nearly 4,000 traffic citations and collected more than $630,000 in fines and forfeitures. That total accounted for more than 11% of the city’s total revenue.

The city’s residents are about 90% white, but City Manager Patrick Bryant has said that around 75% of drivers cited in any given year are Black.

The issue is complicated, with a major highway running through the city and most of the surrounding communities boasting large Black populations. But it garnered new attention from some residents last summer, as a string of high-profile police shootings renewed the national conversation about systemic racism and law enforcement.

A resident-led group called the Avondale Alliance for Racial Justice has, among other things, pushed city commissioners to initiate a third-party review of the police department. It renewed that call in a statement released late Tuesday, saying “law enforcement practices, applications of our policies, and the impact of Avondale’s policing practices on the broad community” all need to be reviewed — not just compliance issues.

It stressed the need to “assess for any racial bias” and other ways the police department’s actions may impact people of color who live in, work in, visit or travel through the city.

City leaders, meanwhile, have taken other small strides to try and shake off the stigma of insularity and exclusion that was baked into its founding as a whites-only enclave in the early 1900s.

A lock on the gate that separates the nearby neighborhood of Forrest Hills from Avondale’s Willis Park has been removed. Signs warning non-residents away from Avondale Lake were reworded a few years ago.

Officials hope a new town green that’s currently under construction will become a welcoming space for the city’s 3,000 or so residents — and visitors too.


FULL STATEMENT FROM THE AVONDALE ALLIANCE FOR RACIAL JUSTICE

Avondale Alliance for Racial Justice (AARJ) urges the City of Avondale Estates to move quickly to follow-through in hiring a third party Consultant to not only review procedural and compliance issues, but to evaluate law enforcement practices, application of our policies, and the impact of Avondale’s policing practices on the broader community.  We stress the need to assess for any racial bias that may be evident and the impact our policing is having on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) residing in, working in, visiting or traveling through Avondale Estates.

AARJ appreciates that Avondale Estates leadership has been willing to listen to our concerns and that they undertook the State Accreditation process to evaluate the police department’s policies, procedures and compliance.  The failure of the Avondale Estates Police Department (AEPD) to achieve accreditation and the feedback they received during the process was very concerning.  We believe, however, the subsequent changes in leadership will allow Avondale Estates to reshape the police department’s culture and bring in a new mindset under fresh leadership.  We urge the Avondale Estates leadership team to direct the AEPD to move towards a Community Policing model with an emphasis on transparency, problem-solving, accountability and community-building.  More information about our concerns and anti-racism activities can be found at AA-RJ.org.