Atlanta Citizen Review Board under scrutiny

Police resistance, internal politics put effectiveness in doubt

Outrage over a botched raid built on lies from informants followed by cover-ups by cops who killed a frightened, innocent 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston in her home — and then planted drugs in the house — led to the birth the Atlanta Citizen Review Board.

The board was given investigators, subpoena power and a mandate to provide a credible, independent and “safe and welcoming place” to bring complaints and accusations of misconduct and abuse by public safety officials.

More than five years later, the oversight board’s existence is threatened by resistance from the police force, an apparent lack of interest from city government, internal board politics and a damaged public image.

The board is supposed to have 11 members appointed by neighborhood planning units, lawyers’ groups, the City Council and the mayor. But it’s been operating with only 10 members for the past seven months, awaiting a new appointee by the mayor.

The citizen watchdog panel is at a critical place in its so-far rocky existence, and the strain on the members is showing more and more in meetings that sometimes disintegrate into name calling, the decision to hire and then not hire a former federal prosecutor as the ACRB’s second executive director, and public complaints that the board seems too concerned with placating the police department and is sacrificing transparency.

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“It had the capability of having effectiveness but the city of Atlanta is a huge political machine and I don’t think it was ever strong enough to be effective,” said Joy Morrissey, who had been on the board since its inception until May 10, when her replacement was announced. “I don’t know if anyone is going to allow it to be effective.”

A lot depends on who is chosen to take the job that former ACRB executive director Cristina Beamud left in November in frustration with city government, some board members and her staff.

“I think it’s in crisis at the moment,” Morrissey said. “If a strong person doesn’t come in then I question the effectiveness of the board from here on out.”

The first pool of applicants numbered 150. When it was reopened last month, 247 applied for the $100,000-a-year job. That pool has been reduced to 13 candidates, five of whom will be interviewed by the entire board. The goal is to make a choice within a month.

APD has never embraced the board, though the department says it does not oppose oversight. But the argument has been that, except in the most egregious cases, there is no need for an independent investigation of what APD’s Office of Professional Standards would do with its internal investigations. APD, the police union and the Atlanta Police Foundation, which provides private funds for some police programs, agree there should be oversight but that it should come in the form of reviewing, or auditing, findings of completed internal investigations.

“The Atlanta Police Department does not oppose accountability to the citizens it serves,” said APD spokesman Carlos Campos. “However, we have always advocated for an ‘audit’ model approach to a Citizen Review Board, rather than the current ‘investigative’ model. We believe the audit model is more effective at providing the level of departmental oversight the public is seeking.”

Citizen groups see that argument as one to weaken the city’s watchdog system.

“It’s obvious ... that [police] want a symbolic organization. They want an organization with no teeth in it. They want a citizen review board in name only and they do not want a board that will serve as a serious checks and balances on police actions,” said the Rev. Anthony Motley of Lindsay Street Baptist, which has been a leader of efforts to fight crime in Kathryn Johnston’s neighborhood.

Only one member of the board has a law enforcement background. Some critics of police oversight said laypeople do not understand or appreciate that officers deal with difficult, untrustworthy, dangerous people every day and it’s common for some to claim brutality or false arrest to deflect from the charges against them.

But various neighborhood safety groups say APD cannot police itself and that is evidenced in just a few cases that came after officers shot and killed Johnston. Even as top police officials insisted officers acted appropriately in the cases below, the ACRB was saying otherwise and the city’s lawyers were settling lawsuits — $2.6 million in the past year.

-- More than 60 employees and patrons of the Atlanta Eagle bar in Midtown Atlanta were forced to lie on the floor for an hour while APD officers looked for evidence there had been public sex acts in the club. Eight were arrested but all those charges were dropped. Initially, top APD commanders insisted the operation was by the book. The resulting lawsuits cost taxpayers more than $1.5 million. After the first lawsuit was settled, six officers were fired for lying.

-- A series of lawsuits were filed, and settled, because officers conducted strip searches in public or conducted road-side cavity searches. Some of those officers were fired.

-- A 61-year-old woman was arrested when she questioned an officer’s order that she and another person move from the sidewalk where she was having a conversation; that cost taxpayers $20,000

“These things are allowed to happen because officers know they can get away with it. It’s an indictment of internal affairs,” said University of Omaha professor Sam Walker, who has written several books on police oversight.

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