City to pay slain woman's family $4.9 million

One of the most divisive chapters in the history of the Atlanta Police Department has come to a close.

Four years after rogue APD narcotics officers killed 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston during an illegal raid of her home, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has offered her family a $4.9 million settlement.

Under the structure of the settlement the estate, represented by Johnston's niece Sarah C. Dozier, will get $3 million immediately and another $1.9 million in fiscal year 2012.

“Clearly a terrible wrong was committed in this tragic case. In the end, the city was forced to step up and right this wrong, as well as can be under our system of laws," said Nicholas Moraitakis, an attorney for Dozier. "It is always gratifying to be on the side seeking and receiving justice.”

Markel Hutchins, a spokesman for the family, said he spoke with Dozier on Monday, but added that she would not be commenting. Her attorneys from The Cochran Firm confirmed that and held a press conference Monday after the council voted 14-0 to settle the case.

Reed said the resolution of the case is an important healing step for the city and the police department, which was nearly ripped apart because of the shooting.

"As a result of the incident, several police officers were indicted in federal and state court on charges and were later convicted and sentenced for their actions," said Reed, adding that the Narcotics Unit has been totally reorganized.

Johnston was killed in November 2006 when a police drug unit tried to execute a "no-knock" warrant on her home, using information provided by an informant who claimed he had purchased drugs at from the home. After officers kicked in the door, the elderly Johnston reached for a gun and fired one shot. Police returned fire, killing her. No drugs were found, and officers planted drugs in the home that had been recovered from a different raid.

After an extensive local and federal probe, three officers -- Arthur Tessler, Gregg Junnier and Jason R. Smith -- pleaded guilty and were sentenced to federal prison for conspiring to violate Johnston's civil rights.

In June 2009, a fourth officer, Wilbert Stallings, a former sergeant, also pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate Johnson's civil rights and was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison. A fifth officer, Daniel Betts, pleaded guilty to taking payments from businesses in exchange for extra police vigilance and was sentenced to probation.

This past June, two Atlanta police officers involved in the shooting were fired by new police chief George Turner after an internal investigation found they lied and falsified documents; another officer resigned and six more were disciplined.

Turner, who was officially ratified as police chief Monday in a 13-0 council vote, said the settlement allows the department to focus on rebuilding trust in high-crime neighborhoods where residents both often distrust the police and need the most protection.

Councilwoman Felicia Moore told Turner Monday that she questioned whether he could reform the department's culture of silence regarding police wrongdoing that the Johnston case unveiled because he was a product of that culture.

"That culture needs to change," she said.

Turner responded that he had had already began to reform the Office of Professional Standards to make it more accountable.

"Since being in this role, I have terminated nine employees, specifically those employees who have not lived up to the standards,” Turner said during a committee on council meeting Monday morning.

In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Turner said that complaints that arrest quotas drove the wrongdoing in the Johnston case were invalid. He acknowledged that the department evaluates officers in part on the number of arrests but said that was only part of the evaluation.

"Quotas are against state law and federal law," he said. "People want an police force that is accountable, that has high integrity and that gives a good day's work.....You don't have to set quotas in a community with the crime rate that we have in the city."

In a strange twist Monday at City Hall, just hours after Reed’s announcement four groups representing different aspects of the English Avenue area were honored for the work they are doing in the community.

“The tragedy was a horrific tragedy that does call for a monetary award of some significance,” said John Gordon, the founder of Friends of English. “My recommendation to our city fathers is that they avoid similar awards in the future by fixing the inadequacies that we have in the police department. We receive too many calls and get too many complaints. The accountability is still not there yet.”

The Rev. Anthony Motley, whose church Lindsay Street Baptist Church became a rallying point in the wake of the Johnston shooting, called her the “patron saint” of the community.

“No amount of money can ever be a satisfactory replacement for a loved one. But, if it is a satisfactory representation for the family, if it represents a dignified atonement for the death, then that is all that matters,” Motley said.

This is the second time in less than a month that the city has been on the short end of a multi-million legal matter. In July, the city lost a six-year legal battle over an airport advertising contract.

A federal jury awarded Corey Airport Services $8.5 million in compensatory damages to be split among several defendants. Atlanta, which is appealing the verdict would have to pay around $2.8 million. If the city ultimately has to pay the Corey settlement the money would come out of the airport's enterprise fund.

Acting city attorney Peter Andrews said the Johnston payment comes from monies set aside in the general fund to address lawsuits.

As of Aug. 11, the city had 312 open legal matters it was dealing with ranging from the Johnston suit to slip and falls.

“As a lawyer, I understand that lawsuits are going to happen. We just have to be prepared to manage them,” said City Council President Ceasar Mitchell. “I am glad we have the opportunity to bring as much to head and closure as possible, because litigations can linger and become toxic. The fact that Corey went to trail and we settled this shows a level of progress.”

Staff writer Steve Visser contributed to this article.