MyAJC Exclusive: Atlanta cops: ‘Happy’ video just management’s song and dance

Last week, the public affairs unit of the Atlanta Police Department released a video version of the monster sing-along hit “Happy,” a performance that even included grumpy old Chief George Turner shaking his money maker.

APD’s “Happy” was a hit itself. Folks love to see cops dancing, because if they’re grooving then they seem a lot less likely to write you a speeding ticket.

Well, as it turns out, the video may as well have been produced by the fantasy-spinners at Disney. A lot of APD’s rank-and-file are downright Unhappy. In fact, they’re locked in a high-stakes battle with Mayor Kasim Reed over pay, pensions and politics.

Lt. Rick Mason, who heads the department’s narcotics unit, said the video was “cute” and did a good job of humanizing officers.

“But it doesn’t show the true feeling of the department,” he said. “Most of the people in the video were administrative, people sitting behind desks. There were very few crime fighters.”

Mason, a tall skinny fellow who has work-related disabilities to his hip and shoulder and a pending wrist surgery, was one of about 20 cops who showed up Monday to set the record straight for the Atlanta City Council. Mason said none of his 40 narcs participated in the video.

“It’s nothing against me,” he told the council. “They’re just not happy.”

It’s an old gripe: They’re not paid enough.

Mason, a 21-year veteran, makes $68,000 a year supervising officers who earn $45,000 a year to bust in doors of drug houses in Atlanta’s worst neighborhoods. He had misgivings about going public – perceived malcontents sometimes get slapped down by higher-ups.

Steve Zygaj, vice president of the APD’s chapter of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, said he would dance to a polka tune – he’s a guy of Polish descent from New York – if he made $68K.

The stocky 14-year APD vet is a lieutenant like Mason but makes just $55,000. He came on during a time that cops weren’t getting as many yearly pay bumps, so he’s stuck at a pay grade less than most sergeants.

A salary of $55,000 isn’t a lot for a police lieutenant of a major metropolitan police force. “Not for getting shot at, stabbed and hit in the head with a brick,” Zygaj said after the meeting. Street cops wear battle injuries like higher-ups wear the gold braids on their uniforms.

“I’m on the street every day,” he said. “I’ve never seen a deputy chief make an arrest. I’ve never seen a major make an arrest.”

Last week, Zygaj called for 200 cops to fill the council chambers and project a message to the council. That just a tenth of that number attended, he said, showed that many cops don’t have time to take off from the second or third jobs they hold to survive.

Others worried they’d anger the department’s “white shirts” (the captains and above) and soon end up on the midnight shift or airport duty.

City council members listened to the officers’ complaints without comment.

And Reed has said he won’t consider giving police and firefighters a raise unless they drop a lawsuit challenging his reform legislation, which has them paying more into their pensions.

“I’m not going to approve any budget with a raise while we are being sued for $48 million,” Reed said a few months back. “You’re not going to rob the train and shoot the conductor in the head at the same time, and that’s what you’re trying to do here.”

A spokesman for the mayor repeated pretty much the same sentiment this week, although not as colorfully.

The IBPO’s local president, Ken Allen, an investigator with 28 years on the force, stayed away from talking about the “Happy” video. Allen, a serious-looking guy, bore in on the mayor, who was not there, saying Hizzoner is holding salary discussions “hostage” by tying raises to the suit.

Those are two are apples and oranges, he insists. In fact, the hundreds of new recruits the city has hired the past three years to hit the magical – and long elusive – goal of 2,000 officers are not even a part of the suit. So, in essence, they are being punished for the litigious “sins” of their forefathers.

Atlanta cops have long complained that APD is a farm team that hires, trains and gives great, real-life experience to young, aspiring officers — who then parlay that into better-paying jobs at suburban forces where there are fewer opportunities for crack-heads to bust their noggins with bricks.

Zygaj says APD has churned through 1,200 cops since 2002, costing the city $85 million.

That figure includes training costs and the salaries paid to new cops who aren’t of much use until they get experience under their belts. And then they head to other departments. Allen said the force has lost 69 officers so far this year and is on pace to lose 150 by year’s end.

Once again, it’s the same old story – hire hundreds, lose hundreds, a process that’s likely to continue until the city steps up.

And until then, you won’t see a lot of the cops dancing.

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