Photo: Curtis Compton/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: Curtis Compton/The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

APD chief reassigns commander who forced gay bars to close

Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields has reassigned a morning watch commander who invited accusations of racism and homophobia Monday after forcing several Midtown bars to close early. 

“While I do not believe the commander purposely set out to act in a discriminatory manner, his actions certainly gave that perception to bar owners, managers and patrons,” Shields said in a statement released late Wednesday afternoon. 

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Police had sought to clear the sidewalks and parking lots surrounding the bars -- Blake's, Ten, G's and 10th & Piedmont -- at 12:30 a.m., typical closing time on a Sunday night/Monday morning. But the the Atlanta City Council had passed an exemption allowing the establishments to stay open until 2:30 a.m. to accommodate the large crowd in town for the annual Black Gay Pride celebration.

On Tuesday, APD spokesman Carlos Campos apologized for what he characterized as “an honest mistake based on a communication failure.”

“The bars came to the attention of the morning watch commander — an openly gay male — because crowds in the area were spilling out onto the streets, causing potential public safety hazards,” Campos said in statement.

But the controversy festered. Mayoral candidates Mary Norwood and Cathy Woolard were among those who questioned the official explanation. 

“It is clear that the officers failed to exercise sound judgement by choosing to ignore the city ordinance extending the allowable hours of operation on Labor Day and dismissed the objections of business owners who carried physical copies of the ordinance in their hand,” Woolard, a former Atlanta City Council president and the state’s first openly gay elected official, said in a statement. 

Shields said the morning watch commander, whose identity was not immediately available, should have tried to confirm the bar owners’ claim that they had permission to remain open late. 

“Our commanders and officers simply must show more sensitivity to the concerns of our diverse communities,” she said. “We also must ensure that vital communications about matters such as extended bar hours are properly relayed to zone supervisors expected to enforce such ordinances.”

Relations between APD and the gay community have improved since the 2009 Atlanta Eagle fiasco. Police, including some from the since-disbanded Red Dog unit, descended on the Ponce de Leon gay bar to make arrests for alleged illicit sex activities and drug use. 

Despite finding nothing, officers harassed and bulled the bar’s patrons and employees, forcing them to the floor, searching them and running their names for warrants. It led to a lawsuit that the city eventually settled for $1.5 million. 

“The diversity of its people is one of the City of Atlanta’s greatest strengths,” Shields said in her statement. “Any perception that the Atlanta Police Department does not respect, and celebrate, that diversity must be dealt with swiftly.”

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