Atlanta police fight new board

As the Atlanta Police Department drags its feet in investigations conducted by the Atlanta Citizen Review Board, the residents of Atlanta who the APD are sworn to serve and protect are beginning to wonder why.

The Citizen Review Board was created after the police shot and killed 92-year-old grandmother Kathryn Johnston in her own home after obtaining an illegal search warrant and later planting evidence of drugs in her home to cover it up. Mayor Shirley Franklin signed the ordinance creating the board in 2007 and the ACRB started its work in earnest late last year. Or, at least, it tried.

Its questions to police in the course of normal investigations were met with silence. And even now that the City Council has issued subpoenas ordering the APD to comply with ACRB requests, the APD and the police union are not consistently complying with the law.

In an e-mail statement circulated in August, APD Chief Richard Pennington promised that the APD was in the process of “developing a standard operating procedure that will define procedures between the Atlanta Citizen’s Review Board and Atlanta Police personnel.”

That was a belated step in the right direction, but we should remember that a general description of how the APD and the ACRB should interact already exists. Under existing law, the ACRB has full access to police personnel for interviewing purposes, as well as access to nonconfidential APD documents, and can request that the City Council’s Committee on Council issue subpoenas to compel materials or the production of persons from the APD. The law also instructs all Atlanta employees to cooperate with the board.

Chief Pennington also promised the Citizen Review Board in August that he was preparing a directive requiring officers to submit to ACRB interviews and would impose discipline on officers who refused to comply with the board’s interview requests; yet an Oct. 29 letter from the board to Chief Pennington makes clear that he has failed to do so.

As a result, APD officers have continued to refuse to submit to ACRB interviews, creating backlogs and undermining the ACRB’s authority to respond to individuals who have filed complaints.

Even if Chief Pennington follows through on his promise, the police union may still stand in the way. The police union has insisted that police officers’ answers to the board’s questions could lead to criminal charges; however, that statement is not supported by the law.

The ordinance creating the ACRB provides that police personnel who are currently the subject of a related criminal investigation need not appear before the ACRB until the investigation has ended.

Additionally, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Garrity v. State of New Jersey provides that where police officers are given a choice between incriminating themselves and facing disciplinary action, their statements are not admissible in future criminal proceedings.

So, as long as officers who refuse to participate in board investigations are disciplined — which is how the system is designed to operate — officers interviewed by the ACRB need not fear criminal prosecution based on their statements to the board.

The ACRB was created in large part to help the APD become a better police force. If there are bad apples, the ACRB is there to find them and only them. The community’s confidence in the APD deteriorates every time it refuses to cooperate fully with the independent agency designed to police the police.

Rather than fight the ACRB, the APD — including the members and leadership of the police union — should recognize that it is in the best interest of public safety for police officers to cooperate with the ACRB’s investigations.

Lauren Sudeall Lucas is a staff attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta.

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