Citizen board given power to subpoena police

The Atlanta Citizens Review Board on Monday was granted the ability to subpoena police officers -- a move that could alter the balance of power between the police and the public.

The City Council voted 13-1 in favor of the bill, which also would compel the police chief to discipline any officer who refuses to testify before the citizens board.

"This just gives the CRB the ability to conduct itself in the way we intended it to initially," Councilman H. Lamar Willis, the bill's author, said.

When the citizens board began meeting in late 2008, police at first refused to appear before it. After then-Police Chief Richard Pennington ordered them to show up, officers appeared but refused to answer questions. Under current rules, the review board had to ask the City Council to subpoena witnesses.

The bill passed Monday after a tense debate over whether to send it back to committee for further review. The delay was sought by Mayor Kasim Reed, who had asked the council for more time to review the measure.

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But Willis angrily opposed the move.

“An elderly woman was gunned down in her home three years ago and we still have an inept Citizens Review Board,” Willis said. "The police department wanted it sent back because they never wanted [the board] in the beginning. Sending it back to committee was a ploy to undermine this body and the legislation."

Willis referred to the 2006 death of Kathryn Johnston, 92, who was shot repeatedly by APD drug officers who burst into her home on a botched raid. The citizens board was reactivated after Johnston's death, and some argued that the board could do little without subpoena power.

“It is important to all of us who want to live in a great city," John Gordon, a Buckhead business owner and founder of the Friends of English Avenue,  which is working to revitalize the neighborhood in which Johnston lived. "We do not have a police department that aspires to high standards. But we can change it.”

Mayoral spokeswoman Sonji Jacobs-Dade said Reed supports the Citizens Review Board and had simply asked for time to review the measure.

“These are complicated issues, with legal ramifications, so we want to make sure it was thoroughly read and reviewed," Jacobs-Dade said.

Reed had no problem with giving the board subpoena power, his spokeswoman said. But she said the mayor did want to carefully weigh the provision that requires the police chief -- in this case Acting Chief George Turner -- to punish officers who defy the board.

“As for the part of the ordinance that requires Chief Turner to discipline an officer for ‘failure to cooperate,’ we believe that part of the ordinance should be reviewed further and carefully considered,” Jacobs-Dade said. “There are valid concerns that it undermines the authority of the police chief. The legislation, as currently worded, leaves much up to conjecture.”

Lt. Scott Kreher, president of the local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers said the bill “circumvents the powers of the police chief.”

"We are the only profession in the city that can be investigated by internal affairs, the district attorney, the FBI, Secret Service, the Justice Department," Kreher said. "You are talking about adding another layer to layers and layers of bureaucracy.  They are just throwing money at another level of bureaucracy."

But Gordon, the Buckhead business owner, disagreed.

“To my knowledge we don’t elect the police chief," he said. "We elect the city council and the mayor. They hold the power, not the police chief. Mr. Kreher has got it backwards."

Mayor Reed has been in office for just a few months and has not yet named a permanent police chief. A national search is under way,  and five finalists have been identified for the position.

Turner, the acting chief, would not comment on the council’s decision.

“I would have to reserve my opinion about that until I talk to the law department,” Turner said.

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