Buckhead businessman John Gordon, left, and the Rev. Anthony Motley of Lindsay Street Baptist Church, look at a mural of Kathryn Johnson painted on plywood over her boarded-up home in the English Avenue community in November 2008. The two men are working to improve the quality of life in the community following the police shooting of the 92-year-old Johnston. CURTIS COMPTON / AJC file
Photo: Curtis Compton
Photo: Curtis Compton

Bill Torpy at Large: Did widow’s murder, cops’ guilt change anything?

A decade ago, a little old lady living behind burglar bars in a rough Atlanta neighborhood died in a fusillade of bullets in her own living room. The invaders were cops on an illegal raid searching for drugs that never existed.

A week after the Nov. 21, 2006, killing of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston, then-Mayor Shirley Franklin faced an angry crowd at Lindsay Street Baptist Church on the near West Side. For four hours, residents harangued officials with stories about cops kicking in doors with unsigned warrants or teens getting slammed to the pavement simply for hanging around.

“Warning taxpayers & black citizens. Don’t dial 911,” one protest sign read. “The police will kill you.”

I was one of the reporters detailed to that neighborhood for months to find out what really happened that night. I vividly remember the visceral outrage pervading the church. The killing didn’t make sense. Why would cops target a widow’s home, a house that seemed to have no connection to the neighborhood drug trade?

Of course, there was no connection. Three cops on the Atlanta Police Department drug squad, desperate to make a score, pressured a lowlife to give up his source. He told them that a kilo of coke was in the house, so they BS’d a warrant out of the compliant magistrate, burst in unannounced and the shooting commenced. They ended up in prison. Mrs. Johnston ended up in a coffin

Her murder fueled a national firestorm and ultimately a promise by the city to change policing. One promise was to improve the system so cops weren’t chasing numbers and cutting corners to meet those elusive quotas. One effort disbanded the drug squad and re-invented it, making it more difficult for those officers to get no-knock warrants.

And another change was to set up a Citizen Review Board to keep a skeptical and independent eye on rogue cops who survived under a wink-and-a-nod system.

After running through numerous disciplinary files at the time, I often wondered, “What does it take for a cop to get fired?”

A lot, seemed to be the answer.

There were complaints from officers that they toiled under a “9-and-2” system, meaning they had to write two search warrants and make nine arrests each month. Their time, they said, was filled with chasing nickel-and-dime busts of suspects who quickly got back on the street. And we heard of something called DC-6 (or Disorderly Conduct, Subsection 6, being in a drug zone), which was pretty much an unofficial charge of Walking While Black.

This week, a commemoration was held at the same church to mark the 10th anniversary. These days, cops are again (or still) looked at with suspicion by many in that same community, and marchers from Black Lives Matter are taking to the streets.

The meeting this week was put together by state Sen. Vincent Fort, who also set up the 2006 meeting and is now running for mayor. But instead of 300 seething residents, there were perhaps 40 curious folks listening to three young activists talk about making change.

In the audience were three members of the Citizen Review Board, which Fort derided — “with all due respect” — as a “paper tiger.”

Lee Reid, who heads the board, admitted to me earlier that it’s a “slow, draining process” to get accountability from the APD.

Since 2009, the board has gotten 907 complaints, fully investigated 185 of those incidents, and recommended in 71 of them that an officer be disciplined.

Just 23 times the APD did so.

“The best way to water down a citizen review board is to not sustain its recommendations,” Reid said. “Then citizens will be hesitant to file a complaint if they don’t see action.”

The board “was created because of public demand, but the public has to stay involved,” he said.

Part of the problem, a former member complained, is the news media have not publicized the board’s actions and the police department’s lack of actions. Guilty as charged here.

A few months ago, Atlanta Police Chief George Turner, who came to office with the new administration in early 2010, told me the department’s Office of Professional Standards was hearing more cases. The figures bear him out, with 2,546 complaints received in the years 2013-2015 versus 1,985 complaints in 2008-2010.

However, the department sustained a smaller percentage of the cases — 46 percent in the latter time span versus 51 percent in 2008-2010.

Complaints of unauthorized use of force went down substantially — 130 versus 199. But complaints about persons getting shot went up substantially — 30 versus 20. The figures provided by the APD don’t determine what happened with those investigations.

Turner said his department is going after more serious crimes. Drug arrests have dropped 43 percent since 2009 and “quality of life arrests” are down 38 percent during that time.

The department did not respond to several questions I sent in.

I talked with Dan Grossman, a lawyer who took on the city after a goon squad of cops busted a gay bar called the Eagle in 2009. And he’s stayed at it since.

“I don’t know if anyone really takes (the review board) seriously,” he said. “But moreover, I don’t think anyone in city government actually wants it to be credible or effective. If they did, they would have established and maintained higher standards for both paid staff and the members.”

The board does seem to endure a love/hate relationship with the city. The budget has almost doubled in the past five years, but Mayor Kasim Reed’s pick for the group’s governing board remained vacant for three years. When he finally did make an appointment, it was a woman who had a couple of old criminal convictions and did not live in the city.

Grossman said there are lots of things APD should do differently, “but I haven’t seen much evidence that City Hall wants a better police department. If they did, they would pay officers more and demand higher standards in return.”

That is a charge that officers themselves have been making since before Ms. Johnston lay dying in her living room.

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