While the number of suspended officers represents a fraction of the APD force, it is far higher than any other large metro Atlanta department.
Seventeen of the 26 suspended officers have not been charged with crimes and have continued to earn paychecks, most working administrative duty without a badge and gun. This is at a time when high-profile crimes and a shortage of cops on Atlanta’s streets have become hot-button issues, prompting a new crime-fighting plan announced last week by Mayor Shirley Franklin and Police Chief Richard Pennington.
The cumulative amount of pay the 17 suspended officers have received — about 290 months’ worth of salary — could put at least 24 officers on the street for a year.
‘Can’t wait forever’
Maj. Lane Hagin, who as commander of Atlanta’s internal affairs unit oversees departmental discipline, said once his investigators begin a probe of a suspended officer, they try to complete it within 90 days. “But due to the number of complaints, that’s not always possible,” he said.
When officers face criminal charges, the department usually waits for a determination in the judicial system before acting, Hagin said. If there’s a guilty verdict, the officer is dismissed. If a criminal case is dismissed or an officer found not guilty, the department would then proceed toward punishing, firing or reinstating the officer.
APD follows this procedure even though the law allows it to conduct its own probes of officers facing criminal charges while an outside investigation is being conducted. Hagin said APD’s procedure allows it to compile a more comprehensive file on the officer before acting.
Steve Rothlein, a retired police officer who now trains departments, said Atlanta’s procedure of waiting for a criminal case to conclude is not uncommon.
“If you’re not sure about something, you err on the side of caution,” said Rothlein, who headed the Miami-Dade Police Department’s internal affairs unit. “But you can’t wait forever. ... If you’re going to fire them, get them off the books and hire somebody else.”
APD, with about 1,600 officers, has a higher percentage of suspended officers than other large Atlanta-area departments. Contacted recently for a comparison, DeKalb County, with 1,042 officers, had four suspended. Cobb County, with 650 officers, had two. Gwinnett County, with 715, had one.
Many factors in play
The comparatively large number of Atlanta cops on suspension is likely due to several factors common with urban departments: More young, inexperienced officers, higher case loads, more pressure on street cops.
Attorney Bill McKenney, who has represented dozens of Atlanta officers in disciplinary matters, said APD has lost hundreds of experienced officers to other departments in recent years — and it shows. “You’re getting a younger group of officers, a lack of training, a lack of judgment,” McKenney said.
Why so many officers remain on suspension for so long is less clear. Prosecutors completed investigations of several of the officers on the suspension list many months ago, but it appears those officers’ cases have not yet been dealt with by APD.
The Gwinnett Police Department offers a sharp contrast to Atlanta.
“Gwinnett County handles things a lot quicker; both in the DA’s office and in the department,” said Frank Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police. “It’s different with an urban department like Atlanta. There’s lower pay and low morale. You encounter different allegations against officers. They handle more complaints.”
“If there is a gross violation, it’s handled swiftly or they resign,” Gwinnett spokesman Cpl. David Schiralli said in explaining the county’s single current suspension.
In June, after he was accused of zapping a man with a Taser as a prank, a Gwinnett corporal resigned and was charged with misdemeanor battery, and two sergeants also resigned rather than being fired.
Officers’ cases linger
Seven of the Atlanta officers suspended with pay were investigated by the FBI after the 2006 death of Kathryn Johnston, 92, who was shot by police in a botched drug raid at her home. Officers used false information to get a warrant to enter the house. The three officers who got the warrant pleaded guilty and are in federal prison, as is their sergeant.
Last October, U.S. Attorney David Nahmias announced he had completed his prosecutions and gave Atlanta police his report, which could have led to state prosecutions or discipline of other officers.
Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said his office “made a decision early on” to prosecute the officers who went to prison and clear the others. He said the Atlanta Police Department was informed of that decision. Progress reports Howard’s office sent to APD over the past year indicate it learned of his decision before August 2008.
It’s unclear, however, how Atlanta is moving in the cases of the officers investigated by the FBI. Their names remain on the suspension list. Hagin would not comment on those cases.
In May, internal affairs investigators told officer Brad Burchfield, who also was suspended after the Johnston killing, that they wanted to interview him. By then, Burchfield, a patrolman, had received 23 months of pay while sitting at home. Rather than talking, he resigned.
“As long as they were going to pay him, he said, ‘Fine,’ ” said Attorney Page Pate, who represented him. “After a while [on suspension] he found another position [managing a Publix store]. They were now going to begin their investigation. He thought. ‘Forget it.’ ”
Said Pate: “I don’t know why it took so long. It fell into a black hole, and no one pursued it.”
Simultaneous probes OK
Pate pointed out that Atlanta internal affairs officers could have conducted a disciplinary investigation at the same time federal and Fulton County investigators conducted their probes.
Under the so-called “Garrity rule,” which grew out of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, departments can conduct an administrative investigation while a criminal investigation is being conducted by an outside agency. Under this rule, an officer’s statements to internal affairs cannot be used in the criminal probe, and an officer refusing to take part in an administrative hearing can be fired.
Hagin, Atlanta’s internal affairs chief, said the department’s policy is to wait to get the full investigative file from prosecutors. Asked about Longe’s status, he said: “He’s suspended without pay. So he’s not sitting [and being paid]. Due process has to be consistent. If we were going to wait for others’ [cases to be resolved], why not do it for him?”
But it was only last year, after his indictment, that he was taken off the police payroll. Longe’s attorney, Jackie Patterson, said he is appealing the case to the state Supreme Court, saying the indictment came too long after the alleged crime.
Atlanta police union leader Sgt. Scott Kreher, a frequent critic of the department, said Hagin “has been an avid supporter of putting officers back to work.” Kreher may be a case in point.
Kreher was suspended in May after saying he wanted to beat Mayor Franklin with a baseball bat because of the city’s treatment of injured officers. Howard’s office last month decided Kreher committed no crime, and he was back at work the next day.