Legal logjam lets troubled cops keep their badges

Police officers punished for serious misconduct by the state may continue to draw their pay and even carry a badge for years if they appeal the sanctions, according to an analysis of state data by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Some appeals languish for more than a decade after arriving at the state attorney general’s office, which represents the state in such appeals. Cases currently pending have been on file for an average of five years, the newspaper’s investigation found.

Rank and file officers and even chiefs of police have continued to work — for their original agency or a different one — after being sanctioned for violations as serious as killing a recruit during training, waving a gun at random in a bar, falsifying official records and DUI. Some officers were accused of new offenses while they appealed their first cases.

In addition to putting the public at risk and consuming tax dollars, the delays may create an undue burden for officers who are eventually cleared by the courts. In the meantime, they labor under a cloud of suspicion. That suspicion may weaken their credibility as witnesses in other cases they handled.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News reviewed nearly 2,200 cases from 1997 to present using data obtained through open records requests. At least one case had been pending for 15 years, the analysis found.

State officials acknowledge the problem but insist things are getting better.

“In January of 2011, the appeals process … was overhauled to prevent future backlogs and make the system more efficient,” Attorney General Sam Olens’ spokeswoman Lauren Kane said in a statement. Kane said Olens’ office is working to address a massive backlog he inherited.

Former Attorney General Thurbert Baker, who led the office from 1997 to 2010, could not be reached for comment.

Police officers who get into trouble typically first face action from within their own department. If the wrongdoing is severe enough, it’s reported to the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council, commonly known as POST.

The council can recommend a punishment ranging from probation to the loss of police certification. If the officer disputes the sanction, he or she may appeal and the case is placed on hold until an administrative law judge can make a determination. The appeal triggers the involvement of the state attorney general’s office, which acts as POST’s lawyer as the case moves through the court process.

The attorney general’s office has one paralegal and one lawyer assigned to police disciplinary appeals. The lawyer splits his time with other duties, officials say. Records show that, on average, the office receives 136 appeals a year from POST.

Some officers have continued to work while their appeals dragged on only to find themselves in trouble again.

Take the case of Jeffrey C. Baker, the ex-chief of police in Morrow. In 2008, POST accused him of falsifying firearm training documents and recommended that his law enforcement certification be revoked.

He appealed and continued working. In November 2011, a Morrow police officer found his own chief asleep at the wheel of his police cruiser at a stop light. Authorities say the backseat was filled with half-empty beer cans. Baker was charged with DUI; he soon resigned and relinquished his POST certification.

In other cases, officers who left one agency as a result of questionable conduct were able to find work with other police forces.

Washington Varnum resigned from DeKalb Marshals service in April 2010 during an investigation in to charges he intercepted his own eviction notice to keep from getting tossed from his home. POST recommended that his certification be revoked. He appealed.

While that appeal was pending he was hired as a reserve officer in Lithonia and eventually became acting chief. Lithonia’s acting city administrator, Tias Greenwell, would not discuss why city officials overlooked Varnum’s pending POST revocation when he was hired. She said “he was relieved of his duties” earlier this year when he lost the appeal.

Although he was found culpable, Varnum still complains about the delay in his appeal.

“I applied for lots of jobs, but that appeal was always there,” he said. “It was like walking and looking over your shoulder … just waiting for them to drop the hammer.”

POST executive director Ken Vance said those other police departments were doing exactly what they should: thoroughly investigate the background of potential hires. He noted that POST’s website now tracks the standing of every certified officer, including those with pending sanctions from his agency.

“Many (departments) in the last five years have finally gotten the message,” he said. Nevertheless, he said, he worries that some small departments, desperate to of fill vacancies, are willing to take a risk on an officer with a troubled record.

“If you’ve got to hire someone to work that overnight weekend shift you can’t seem to fill, you might hire him,” Vance lamented. “Why aren’t you checking on these people? Some still don’t.”

In Cobb County, Sheriffs’ Deputy Albert Jackson was placed on probation after he accidentally shot and killed a recruit in 2005 during a firearms training exercise gone awry. Investigators found Jackson was using what officials called an “advanced, questionable and unsafe” practical firing drill.

Nonetheless, Jackson was paid until 2008 when he retired from the Cobb department. In 2010 he went to work for the Holly Springs Police Department, but he left less than two months later, records show. Neither Jackson nor Holly Springs officials could be reached for comment.

Some officers sanctioned by POST don’t have to switch agencies to resume their law enforcement careers. Some are rehired by the very department they left as a result of alleged misdoing.

Former Atlanta Police officer Lamar K. Gavin was such a case.

The Atlanta Police Department fired Gavin in 2006 after he walked into a pub, handgun drawn, shouting “this is a stick-up.” POST recommended in 2007 that his certification be revoked. He appealed.

Records show the attorney general’s office did not complete his case until 2012, five years after the incident took place.

In the meantime, Gavin appealed to Atlanta’s Civil Service Board which reinstated him with back pay. Soon after rejoining the payroll, Gavin was arrested for allegations that he broke into a woman’s home and filmed himself having sex with her while she was not fully conscious. He then allegedly forged another officer’s signature in a scheme to cover his tracks.

Fulton County prosecutors dropped Gavin’s rape and burglary charges last year; he pleaded guilty to second-degree forgery, violating his oath of office and unlawful eavesdropping. He is serving five years probation.

Defense lawyer Bill Thomas, Jr., a former police officer and prosecutor who now counts cops among his clients, said some officers might be in no hurry to see their appeals resolved.

“If an officer did what he is accused of doing, then he might have a vested interest in making that (appeal) take as long as possible,” Thomas said.

But what benefits the officer often works against the colleagues who are left to prosecute the cases he worked.

“There are credibility issues that the prosecutor will have to address,” Thomas said.