Police chief, mayor to respond to criticism

Some residents highly concerned about crime, critical of Pennington's leadership

Atlanta police Chief Richard Pennington within the hour is expected to join Mayor Shirley Franklin at police headquarters to speak to the public about recent high-profile crimes and criticism that the chief needs to be more visible.

Critics have spoken up in the wake of those crimes, which included last weekend’s carjacking of a city councilman and fatal shooting of a former boxing champ.

Residents and politicians both said they want to see their police chief.

“I would like to see him come around and tour the community and let people see his face,” said Makeda Johnson, chairwoman of the Neighborhood Planning Unit for Vine City. “Let the criminal element know that we are cracking down from the top down.”

Johnson characterized the city’s police captains as “pretty active,” but said “we don’t see Pennington front and center.”

Pennington and the mayor have taken criticism in recent months for their contention that crime is actually on the downswing in Atlanta even though some high-profile crimes have created the perception that it is getting worse. They have called a news conference for 10 a.m. today.

Pennington was out of town Wednesday and unavailable for comment, Police Officer Otis Redmond said.

However, in an interview with WAGA-TV Wednesday night, Pennington bristled at the criticism, saying, “I’m ticked off, only because they are going to characterize me as missing in action like I don’t care, and I’ve dedicated 35 years of my life to nothing but public safety.”

Pennington told the station that he was in Atlanta last weekend when Councilman Ceasar Mitchell was carjacked, but admitted he had left town for training before boxer Vernon Forrest was gunned down.

“I want to make sure that people understand that chiefs of police and everyone in our police department are required to have a minimum amount of 40 hours training,” Pennington said. “That includes me.”

The chief conceded that “people would like to see me more than what I’ve been doing, but I have good leaders and I have good commanders.”

Like Johnson, other civic leaders had praise for Pennington’s underlings while criticizing him.

“We have some phenomenal majors underneath him who are actually conducting our business,” said John Wolfinger, head of the public safety committee for the Virginia-Highland Civic Association. “These people are working 24/7.”

But Wolfinger voiced dismay that Pennington seemed to have handed off to the majors.

“Our department needs leadership,” he said, “and it has to come from the very top.”

Former Atlanta Deputy Chief Lou Arcangeli criticized Pennington for only being available for “good news” announcements while letting department spokesmen or his subordinates field questions about controversies and high-profile crimes.

“I was surprised to watch a recent press conference regarding crimes near the Georgia Tech campus and see the Atlanta Police Department represented by a lieutenant and a sergeant. Where was the chief?” Arcangeli asked. “Leadership matters, and he hasn’t mattered. His absence has been an issue.”

Arcangeli contended that Pennington’s lack of presence undercut department morale.

“I think it has created a lack of confidence in both citizens and cops, and I don’t think either group feels supported right now.”

City Council President Lisa Borders, a mayoral candidate, voiced concern Wednesday that Pennington has not been at the forefront of discussing the recent crime issues.

“One of the central themes of my public safety plan is identifying a chief of police who can provide oversight to the administration of the department,” Borders said in a statement. “That person must be available to the public and must be visible to uniformed beat officers.”

Borders has been burglarized three times in nine months. Fellow Councilman Mitchell, who is running for council president, was carjacked at gunpoint Saturday. Later Saturday, former boxing champ Forrest was shot in the back seven or eight times after chasing a man who robbed him at a south Atlanta gas station.

David Klinger, a former cop and policing expert at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, said chiefs don’t trot out to reassure the public during every high-profile crime but they need to be visible during controversies.

“He should be at community forums — certainly not all of them — but that is one place he should be,” said Klinger, who is also a researcher with the Police Foundation in Washington. “He is the chief of police, and for major things he should be there.”

Staff writers Mike Morris and Eric Stirgus contributed to this article.