Atlanta could have settled gay bar lawsuit in February and saved taxpayers $1 million

The attorneys for Atlanta Eagle bar owners and patrons offered in February to settle a federal lawsuit against the police department for almost all of the same concessions that were in the agreement that ended the case this week.

The only condition that was not offered in February, but is now in the final agreement, is that the city will pay 28 men a total of $1.025 million.

“They could have saved themselves a lot of money,” said Daniel Grossman, an attorney for the bar and the customers in the suit.

The final negotiated agreement also requires Atlanta taxpayers to pay legal expenses for both sides as well as the costs of depositions and transcripts. There are three lawyers for the Atlanta Eagle and there have been a total of eight lawyers for the city since the lawsuit was filed in federal court earlier this year.

“The money is not just the million paid to us,” Grossman said. “It’s the million they spent defending this case.”

According to a court filing, the possibility of a settlement was discussed during a Feb. 24 meeting. The lawyers for the Midtown Atlanta bar suggested that the Atlanta Police Department and the city agree to "not violate citizens’ constitutional rights.” The city’s lawyers accused the Eagle of being “unwilling to entertain reasonable settlement discussions at the time,” according to the court document.

The settlement was reached last week. The City Council approved the settlement on Monday. And on Wednesday, Mayor Kasim Reed apologized for the botched Sept. 10, 2009, raid.

Reed told reporters that Atlanta police officers had “engaged in inappropriate conduct.”

Atlanta Eagle owners, employees and patrons said members of the Red Dog drug unit violated their rights by forcing them to lie on the barroom floor while the officers searched them and peppered them with anti-homosexual comments. The patrons also said they were not allowed to leave the bar for a long while.

APD initially said the Red Dog officers went to the bar based on reports that drugs were openly sold and men were engaging in sex acts while others watched. Eight people were charged with violating city ordinances involving licensing. A municipal court judge later dismissed the cases against three of them and then prosecutors dropped charges against the remaining five.

“I believe that what occurred that evening should not have happened and should not happen again,” Reed said at Wednesday's news conference. “As mayor of Atlanta, I feel pain for anyone mistreated in our city and apologize to each plaintiff in the ... case.”

The agreement calls for police policies to be change. Grossman said those same policy changes were discussed last winter.

"The Atlanta Police Department is committed to complying with the court order, which sets forth reforms required to be implemented within 180 days," spokesman Carlos Campos said.

Grossman said changes should be made to policies involving warrant-less searches when there is no probable cause, detaining people without “reasonable articulable suspicion” and demanding identification without reasonable suspicion the person is breaking the law.

“You’d think the police chief himself would want to rewrite that,” Grossman said. “Why did we have to fight, kicking and screaming, to get something every city in America does? Even if the city doesn’t give a darn about its citizens, why don’t they do it to keep from getting sued?"


APD has an open internal affairs investigation into allegations concerning that night, but it concerns accusations that the officers were rude.

“It was  … poorly done,” Grossman said. “They avoided citing whether the officers broke certain laws by simply never investigating whether or not they broke those laws. They only investigated the officers for a courtesy violation. …It was a stacked deck.”

APD is gathering information to respond to Grossman’s assessments. The mayor’s office also did not provide answers to e-mailed questions.

The Atlanta Citizen Review Board in early June found against APD after reviewing a false arrest complaint brought by a man who lived in an apartment above the bar. The board is still reviewing another case from that night.

Board executive director Cristina Beamud said she sent APD Chief George Turner a “detailed report” in October of the board's findings so far in the Eagle case.

“The police department has yet to address those concerns. It would seem to me that they could have settled this case that much earlier had they given due considerations to the findings of the board,” Beamud said.

In addition to the internal APD investigation, the mayor has vowed to look into claims that Atlanta police officials erased e-mails, text messages and photographs that may have offered details of the raid even though a federal judge ordered the records preserved.

The status of that review was not known Thursday afternoon.