No Red Dog could mean fewer police complaints

Cristina Beamud’s job may get a little easier now that the Atlanta Police’s Red Dog unit is being disbanded.

"We have a disproportionate number of complaints about officers who belong to the Red Dog unit as opposed to officers involved in the zones," said Beamud, executive director of the Atlanta Citizen Review Board that investigates citizens complaints against police for such things as excessive force or abusive language.

Police departments nationwide have been dumping units like the Red Dog that were created to come down hard on criminals because the units became more of a liability than an asset in the war on crime. That war requires community support. But the units tended to draw the most lawsuits and scandals, which undermined law enforcement, said Beamud and other experts.

Atlanta Police Chief George Turner and Mayor Kasim Reed announced Monday the Red Dog would be disbanded within 60 days and would be replaced  by a unit designed to target violent crime. They also said the new unit would only be manned by officers who are schooled in ensuring their arrests could withstand constitutional scrutiny and who do not have "sustained" complaints of excessive force against them.

"It was a good move for the chief of police and the mayor to make," said Volkan Topalli, a professor of criminal justice at Georgia State University. "As a tactical unit the Red Dog was very efficient and effective but because of the actions of a minority of officers ….it got a reputation for strong arm (tactics). It got to the point that its reputation outstripped the reality.

"It was hard for them to be effective because anything they did could only be seen as negative."

Turner acknowledged as much when he said the new unit would focus on gathering intelligence to pinpoint the core of violent offenders in Atlanta. Topalli, an expert on gangs and street criminals, noted that only a tiny percentage of the population commits most of the violent crime. The police often know them but it is usually the beat officers and detectives who arrested them after the crime is committed. That information isn't shared across the department and should be.

Beamud, a former police officer and prosecutor, said targeted policing as opposed to drug sweeps will result in fewer legitimate complaints against the police and more resources aimed at the serious offenders. "Don't just arrest everybody," she said.

She noted, however, that the criteria that no officers in the new unit have "sustained" complaints of excessive use of force should be an easy one to make.

The APD's Office of Professional Standards, which investigates complaints of officer misconduct sustained one complaint of excessive use of force in 2008 and 2009. The 2010 figures aren't out yet.

The citizen review board was created by the City Council to investigate complaints about police outside of the chain of command because of public suspicions about OPS. So far Turner has rejected the board's findings every time they resulted in a complaint being sustained against an officer, according to the board's figures.

David Klinger, a former police officer and expert on policing said that numbers of complaints and how many the department sustains don't necessarily indicate a problem within the department.

“If they are just rubber stamping things and saying, ‘I believe the cops,' then you have a problem.”

APD spokesman Carlos Campos said Turner will not only rely on sustained complaints for ensuring problem officers don't get into the new unit, which is open to Red Dog applicants. Turner will also look at the officer's overall disciplinary record.

John Gordon, a Buckhead businessman who was involved in establishing the Atlanta Citizen Review Board, said the actions that gave the Red Dog a reputation were part of pattern across the police department.  He cited the series of lawsuits that have resulted in payouts from city coffers because of charges of police misconduct.

“That unit is well-intentioned but it has been the source of a lot of problems,” said Gordon who co-chairs Friends of English Avenue. “If anybody thinks the problems in the police department are limited to the Red Dog unit then I think they are sorely missing the point. But this is a good start.”