2 investigates: Troubled DeKalb officers

Who polices the DeKalb police?

At least 16 DeKalb County police officers have landed in handcuffs in the past 18 months, an embarrassing record that has eroded public trust in the force. In nearly every case, the officers’ previous records were littered with citizen complaints — signals that experts said should have prompted sterner responses by department officials.

In the wake of the arrests, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained detailed internal affairs data on the department through open records requests. Those records reveal weaknesses in both DeKalb’s internal affairs unit, which investigates complaints against officers, and its early warning system, designed to keep problem officers from getting out of hand.

Among them, the arrested officers were the subject of 32 internal affairs investigations in the past five years. Those probes encompassed 41 different complaints; 24 of them were found to be valid.

“We would call that a clue,” said Ryan Powell, director of operations at Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council, which grants and revokes law officer certification. “Maybe someone is just constantly complaining, but it’s something that needs looking at.”

Even the best cops attract complaints, sometimes from savvy criminals hoping to raise questions about their arrests or citizens irritated over getting a traffic ticket. But law enforcement experts say multiple complaints and sustained complaints – those where the investigation proved the allegations – should be a warning sign that helps get bad cops off the streets.

Yet DeKalb recently cut the number of internal affairs investigators from 14 sworn officers to 10.

Chief Cedric Alexander, who took over the department on April 1, said the move was a way to put more officers on the streets. Alexander said he already installed a new commander in charge of internal affairs and will soon ask to buy computer software designed to better track warning signs such as multiple complaints.

Alexander would not address specific cases but said the department’s tone will change.

“For me, it’s important that we investigate ourselves with a great deal of scrutiny,” he said. “People need to know they can trust us because something is going to happen. This chief is not going to cover up a thing.”

Officer crime as a conspiracy

Police misconduct is the latest black eye for DeKalb, already reeling from a corruption probe that has ensnared the county’s top elected official as well as the governor’s decision to replace most members of the county school board.

Two DeKalb officers were among 10 throughout the metro area arrested this spring on federal charges of selling protection to drug dealers. Other DeKalb officers face trial on charges ranging from pocketing a missing man’s wallet to conspiring to beat handcuffed teenagers.

Critics say the department has created a culture that tolerates wrongdoing by officers and allows bad behavior to escalate.

Overall, more than 25 percent of the department’s 900-plus officers have been hit with at least three internal affairs complaints in the past five years, the AJC’s analysis found.

But even against that backdrop, Sgt. Anthony Remone Robinson’s record stands out. Robinson, accused of directing attacks on four teens who were in custody, has at least 11 sustained complaints dating back to 1998, records show.

The offenses range from being AWOL for his shift three times to lying and calling in sick to work a second job. Robinson also was found to have once pulled over a female motorist at 4 a.m. on Covington Highway and, without notifying command of the stop, directing her to a “secluded” spot where he handed out his private contact information.

His total punishment for all misconduct: six written reprimands and 10 days’ suspension.

In the past five years, Robinson and the two other officers charged with assaulting the teens, Blake Norwood and Arthur Parker III, had 14 complaints, six of them sustained.

Now they face 15 criminal counts, including aggravated assault, violating their oaths as officers, making false statements and racketeering.

“Black, gray, blue, they are just another gang,” said Travarrius Williams, who was 18 and in handcuffs when Norwood and Parker allegedly beat him under Robinson’s direction.

Public backlash

Some citizens have begun to openly question the integrity of DeKalb police.

“I think I’d call on family if I were in trouble, not them,” said Toco Hills resident Lydia Tekeste, who finds DeKalb’s force less professional than the officers she encountered when she lived in Seattle. “I feel like it’s too easy to become a cop here. You never know what you’re going to get.”

John Kleinig, who teaches professional ethics at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said leaders’ failure to crack down on bad behavior can infect an entire force with what he calls “contempt of cop.”

When that happens, he said, officers begin to regard as a criminal any citizen they perceive as disrespectful.

That’s what appears to have happened with Officer Tarik “T.J.” Crumpton. He’s currently DeKalb police’s worst offender, with 14 complaints in the past five years, half of them sustained.

In 2010, Crumpton was working off-duty as a security guard when he confronted Brian Peterson for saying goodnight to a woman at a Stone Mountain sports bar.

The internal investigation concluded that Crumpton followed Peterson outside, handcuffed him and threw him around. He then booked Peterson on charges that included a felony for damaging the patrol car when Crumpton tossed him into it.

Peterson lost his job as an insurance broker because of the felony arrest. Prosecutors later dropped it and all other charges, which have since been expunged from his record.

DeKalb’s punishment for Crumpton’s excessive force and trumping up charges: a one-day suspension.

A spokesman for District Attorney Robert James confirmed that Crumpton is now under criminal investigation. Still, he remains a DeKalb officer.

“I knew I wasn’t the first, but I was hoping I would be the last,” Peterson said. “When you have a pattern (like his), at what point does it become the department’s problem and not just the officer’s problem?”

Early warning

The department’s current “early warning system” does little more than produce meetings between flagged officers and their superiors, records show.

Take the case of Officer Stephanie Harvey. In 2010 the department had flagged her for four sustained complaints in six months, ranging from not showing up for training to refusing to file paperwork on a crime reported to her by a victim.

A memo from her session with command staff shows Harvey was merely reminded to follow correct procedures. She went on to amass five more sustained complaints in the following year.

Her punishment was one written warning, 10 days’ suspension and a second notice from the early warning system. The file released by DeKalb police contained no evidence of another face-to-face with supervisors. Harvey voluntarily stepped down from the force last year.

“They call it an early warning, but it’s more like a snooze button,” said Mark Bullman, an Atlanta attorney who has brought several misconduct cases against the department.

Some observers suggest that DeKalb goes easy on problem cops because it struggles to retain officers.

Dozens have left the force in recent years for less stressful posts. More are expected to depart once Brookhaven sets up its own force.

As president of DeKalb’s Fraternal Order of Police, Jeff Wiggs has spent years lobbying for better pay and benefits.

“When we don’t invest in hiring and keeping the right officers, we lose the public trust. We will lose money in lawsuits. We all lose,” said Wiggs, a sergeant with 26 years on the force.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.
AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.

Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.
AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.

With the largest team in the state, the AJC reports what’s really going on with your tax dollars and your elected officials. Subscribe today. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.

Your subscription to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.

Data specialist Kelly Guckian and staff writer Marcus Garner contributed to this report.