APD busted salary cap for retired officer hired for mayors’ protection

Rank and file officers ‘are going to be livid,’ says police union chief.

Atlanta Police Officer Craig Cooper retired in 2015, but he didn’t stay away from the police force for long.

Cooper almost immediately returned to the department under its recapture program, which is meant to keep APD stacked with experienced officers by paying retirees full salary, while saving taxpayers money by not funding their benefits.

Cooper was brought back to serve on former Mayor Kasim Reed's Executive Protection Unit and has continued in that role this year under Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. He's contractually limited by the program to a maximum salary of $62,582.62 per year.

But that limitation has been routinely ignored in each of Cooper’s three years, according to payroll records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Cooper made $92,000 in 2016 and $91,000 in 2017 while protecting Reed. His earnings soared to $120,000 through October of this year while on Bottoms’ protection unit.

Ken Allen, president of the Atlanta police union, called the recapture program a “morale killer” that has hindered young officers from advancing in the department.

“People are going to be livid when they find out what (Cooper) has made,” Allen said. “He’s been allowed to do that because he was close to Reed. This whole thing has turned out to be a friends and family type program.”

The records show Cooper would have been under his contractual limit in each of the last two years, except for overtime — $40,893.58 in 2017; and $66,682.97 so far this year, which by itself is more than his contract allows him to earn.

Cooper did not respond to questions submitted by the AJC through the police department’s public information officer. But APD spokesman Carlos Campos defended the contract violations by saying that protecting the mayor is more important. Campos also said new legislation is being considered by Atlanta City Council that would allow the police department to pay as much overtime as the chief deems necessary to officers in the recapture program.

“The fact is that, due to the 24/7/365 nature of any mayor’s schedule, overtime is often required to be paid to members of Executive Protection,” Campos said in an email. “Additionally, the unit is currently down two officers, making overtime even more essential to the proper carrying out of its duties.

“Investigator Cooper has been a valued member of the Executive Protection Unit for a total of 15 years, and routinely earned overtime under the previous mayor and chief of police.”

A spokesman for Bottoms said Cooper’s contract was not signed by her, “and as such, this contract did not cross her desk.”

“The Executive Protection unit has been short members most of the year,” the mayoral spokesman said. “Due to the nature of their work, personnel are not easily replaced when the unit is short. Legislation is being introduced to address this issue.”

Legislation is being introduced because the the program expired in June, at the end of the city’s fiscal year.

City Council President Felicia Moore, who did not support the program when it first went to council three years ago, said council needs to carefully consider the program when it comes back to them for a vote — that includes regular reporting on who is in the program, which units in which they are working, whether contractual obligations are being followed, and how much the officers are making.

“The council needs to have a full reporting on the program,” Moore said.

Cooper held key role for Reed

Cooper has been a controversial figure even before the AJC learned of his earnings in the recapture program.

As the AJC and Channel 2 Action News reported in May, Cooper used his city-issued credit card in August 2017 to pay $5,949 for three Delta airline tickets to Las Vegas, the day before a marquee boxing match between Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather. Reed used his own city-issued card to buy a $1,700 Delta flight to Vegas that same weekend.

Cooper then used his card in T-Mobile Arena on Aug. 26 — placing him in the venue on the day of the fight. And Reed can be seen walking with a group of people through a FOX Sports live stand-up shot inside the arena.

Cooper, who had a brief stint providing protection for boxer Mike Tyson, and the other bodyguards also used their cards for relatively small taxi and restaurant expenses that weekend.

The AJC and Channel 2 found Cooper and other officers in the Executive Protection Unit routinely used city-issued credit cards to pick up thousands of dollars in fast food and dry cleaning for Reed and his family members, despite clear policy forbidding any use of the cards for personal purchases.

In all, Executive Protection Unit officers used taxpayer-backed credit cards to cover more than $90,000 in charges from 2015 through 2017, the AJC/Channel 2 investigation found.

How we got the story

To report this story, Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigative reporter Dan Klepal requested three years of payroll records for members of the Atlanta Police Department's executive protection unit, the team that provides security for the mayor. Klepal researched the provisions and limitations of the police department's recapture program, which allows the agency to contract with retired officers. Klepal also obtained the contract for retired officer Craig Cooper and determined that he had earned more than contractually allowed by the program. Klepal also sought interviews with Cooper, Police Chief Erika Sheilds, police union and city council officials. Cooper and Sheilds declined to be interviewed, instead relying on a statement from the police department's spokesman.