The security detail that drives Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed around metro Atlanta regularly uses blue lights and sirens to speed the mayor to speaking engagements, ribbon cuttings and other routine appointments, a Channel 2 Action News investigation has found.
State law says vehicles equipped with emergency sirens can only use them in emergencies, but Reed says his city attorneys “have a different interpretation of the law.” Reed was roundly criticized during the snow storm of 2014 for using emergency signals to circumvent gridlock on the downtown connector and make an interview on the Weather Channel.
“It’s right and it’s legal,” Mayor Reed told Channel 2, referring a reporter to city attorneys, who declined comment.
Over five-weeks, Channel 2 reporters observed the black GMC Tahoe carrying Reed deploy blue lights and sirens ten different times. One time, the mayor was on his way to a presidential debate watching party in northwest Atlanta. Another time, he was headed to Ponce City Market for a launch party for Google fiber.
On a different day, Channel 2 cameras captured the mayor leave City Hall with lights and sirens blaring, stop in the middle of Central Avenue while he talked to a person on the street, then resume travel — forcing another vehicle to move so the Tahoe could run a red light.
Reed’s entourage kept on the emergency signals along the Downtown Connector, up Ga. 400 and to his destination on East Paces Ferry Road for a speaking engagement. Reed arrived 30 minutes past the start time of the event.
“To use the lights and sirens the way he’s using them, to clear the intersections to get through is not legal in the state of Georgia by statute,” said Vincent Champion, southeast regional director for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers.
Champion says other members of the Atlanta Police Department have been suspended for improper use of lights and sirens. Improper use of emergency sirens is a misdemeanor under state law.
“It just appears he’s picking and choosing when he wants to be in a hurry and when he doesn’t,” said Champion. “The reality is they’re violating a policy. Not only a policy but a Georgia state statute, a law.”
Mayor offers multiple explanations
The mayor declined Channel 2’s request for a sit-down interview. Questioned outside a debate watching party last month, Reed offered several explanations for why he believes he is entitled to use emergency lights and signals to navigate the streets of Atlanta.
“What I’ve done is to use a technique that many people in my job have used to go to multiple events during a small frame of time. But the bottom line is you don’t know what I’m doing. You don’t know what emergency it is,” Reed told Channel 2.
“Let me tell you something. My security team moves me through the city of Atlanta at multiple events at one time as you well know. There are some times in the evenings when I will have two, three four events within 30-40 minutes of one another,” Reed said.
The mayor’s spokeswoman, Anne Torres, later suggested that there were valid security concerns that dictated the use of emergency equipment to transport the mayor.
“The Atlanta Police Department’s (APD) Executive Protection Unit is responsible for ensuring and monitoring the safety of Mayor Kasim Reed,” Torres said. “APD must evaluate threats to the Mayor’s safety based on the information presented, and make strategic decisions to guarantee the security of the Mayor, including measures to facilitate his safe transport as he conducts business on behalf of the City of Atlanta. When necessary, state law authorizes APD to use blue lights and/or sirens, in its discretion, as a security tactic to help keep the Mayor and the citizens of Atlanta safe.”
Capt. Mark Perry with the Georgia State Patrol said officers cannot turn on lights and sirens unless there’s a specific security concern or emergency.
“No police officer or public safety official has an exemption in law to use lights and siren to drive code or above the speed limit just to make up time or just to make an appointment,” said Perry.
Reed declined to discuss threats to his safety, but Atlanta Police Chief George Turner said the mayor has received thousands of threats since taking office in 2010.
Turner declined to give specifics about threats to Reed but said he was confident officers driving the mayor were behaving appropriately.
“I believe that our officers have the discretion that they need to move our mayor the way that they need to move him in and out of traffic,” Turner said.
“The fact is we are not doing anything different than other administrations around this country,” added Turner, noting that the president and vice president of the United States use blue lights and sirens.
Said Reed: “Multiple mayors have used blue lights to move throughout the city of Atlanta.”
Former Mayor Shirley Franklin, Reed’s predecessor, told Channel 2 she couldn’t remember a time, if ever, she used blue lights and sirens during her eight-year tenure.
DeKalb County Public Safety Director Cedric Alexander told Channel 2 he rarely uses blue lights and sirens, even when heading to crime scenes.
“It’s just the right thing to do, right?” said Alexander. “To follow the law and to follow policy. Because if I can’t do that, then how can I ask my men and women inside the police department to do that?”
Mayor, governor take different routes to same event
In late September, Gov. Nathan Deal and Mayor Reed both attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Mercedes Benz headquarters in Sandy Springs. Deal arrived with no lights or sirens, and stopped at a red light. Reed arrived 18 minutes later — with blue lights and sirens and five minutes after the start of the 10 a.m. event.
Deal said he does not use emergency signals to get to his appointments.
“We rarely ever have to use our lights,” Deal said. “I can’t remember when we last used it.”
Lt. Col. David Herring with the Georgia State Patrol, the head of Deal’s security detail, said he would only turn on emergency lights or sirens in the case of a natural disaster, riot or other emergency.
“It is not our protocol to do that,” said Herring. “There is no special privilege to utilize the emergency vehicles to get from meeting to meeting. It would have to be an emergency.”
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Lori Geary is a political reporter for Channel 2 Action News. Josh Wade is an investigative producer at Channel 2.