Officers censured for mishandling Alpharetta playground flap

Two Alpharetta police officers accused of showing favoritism to a politically-connected suspect have received light reprimands from the city.

Officers Chris Massey and Matt Burger, who responded to a mother’s complaint that Paul Oakes, a councilwoman’s husband, roughed up her daughter on a playground swing last month, were given verbal warnings for failing to seek out witnesses and writing up inconsistent reports.

Warnings are the department's lightest form of censure, according to assistant City Administrator James Drinkard.

"I am very angry, very upset," the child's mother, Christole Abdelmaseh, said. "That's not even a slap on the hand."

The city cleared the officers of six other possible infractions, including violating the ethics policy by giving special treatment to Oakes. Oakes and his wife, outgoing Councilwoman Cheryl Oakes, sit on the board of the Alpharetta Public Safety Foundation, a fundraiser for the city's police and fire departments.

However, an internal affairs investigation, conducted by Sandy Springs police to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, found no evidence that either officer knew of Oakes' stature at the time. They didn't ask for his identification and in an initial report Burger referred to him as "the man in the yellow shirt."

The two responded to a 911 call from Wills Park on Oct. 15, when Abdelmaseh accused Oakes of slamming her 4-year-old daughter out of a swing, causing her to land on her back and head. She said Oakes was furious because he wanted his granddaughter to have a turn. Her daughter, Hadassah, wasn't injured.

Oakes, through his attorney, has said that he only lifted the empty swing over his head, telling the girl to wait in line, and she fell to the ground in a tantrum.

Abdelmaseh told investigators that when Massey first arrived at the park, he seemed concerned, but after conferring with Oakes his demeanor turned jovial and he told her there was nothing he could do.

Massey and Burger then chatted and chuckled with Oakes, the mother alleged, rather than looking for witnesses. The men denied joking with each other.

Neither officer filed a formal incident report immediately afterward, but in supplemental reports filed more than a week later after Abdelmaseh pressed the matter, conflicting accounts muddied whether Oakes ever admitted to laying a hand on the child.

Massey wrote that Oakes said he never touched the child, but Burger -- quoting Massey -- wrote that Oakes said he physically removed the child from the swing. The officers chalked it up to a miscommunication, investigative documents show.

The allegations came three weeks before Cheryl Oakes' reelection bid for the post 4 council seat. Some have speculated that the resulting political firestorm tipped the race to challenger Jim Gilvin, who won with 54 percent of the vote.

Alpharetta Public Safety Director Gary George and Deputy Director Keith Sanders made the decision to hand out the warnings based on Sandy Springs' findings, Drinkard said. The GBI is handling the criminal side of the case and is still investigating.

University of West Georgia criminology professor David Jenks said the lack of witnesses and the conflicting reports probably eliminates any chance of prosecuting a criminal case.  And, he said, unless internal affairs investigators can prove bad police work was done intentionally to protect a suspect, such light punishment as the verbal warning is typical.