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Club rules 

How misbehaving cops stay in the ranks

A deputy is supposed to be fired the first time he commits an act of physical abuse. It says so right there, on page 62 of the Fulton County personnel handbook. "First offense: Dismissal."

The same goes for the first time a deputy willfully falsifies an incident report or otherwise hides the truth to cover up his or her involvement -- automatic dismissal.

In October, Creative Loafing looked into the personnel files of 10 deputies who allegedly abused inmates. They were chosen because some portion of an allegation against them had been sustained in the past two years. All 10 deputies also had been accused of prior abuse.

They represent a small fraction of the 650 deputies who work in the jail and the couple hundred more who work in the courthouse. But among the few deputies who have caused real trouble, the incidents are frightening.

One deputy, Cleveland Solomon, repeatedly struck an inmate in front of witnesses and denied the beating to internal affairs.

So did Orlando Jones. And Robert Durham. And Roderick Bradford. And Wayne Bolden.

Yet only Solomon was fired. And he eventually returned to the force.

The deputies' stories expose a sheriff's department that has failed to dole out adequate punishment; a county Personnel Board that has found flaws in the department's investigations, forcing the sheriff to give at least two fired cops their jobs back; and a state watchdog agency that's mandated to go after misbehaving peace officers but is missing the teeth to do so.

The effects have rippled, causing more damage than simply allowing a few ill-equipped deputies to keep their jobs. The malfunctioning system allows inmates' constitutional rights to be ignored. It permits short-tempered deputies to work off-duty jobs, endangering the public. And it helps a few bad cops create a climate of lawlessness that taints those who've dutifully sworn to keep the peace.

The Fulton County Sheriff's Department is certainly not the first place in Georgia where guards have beaten detainees or where a handful of tough cops have flaunted their authority in ways that harmed civilians.

The real eye-opener is not that cops do bad things. It's that they do them blatantly, get caught doing them and get away with it.

The sagas of the most wayward of Fulton's deputies reveal the gaping fissures in the system that's supposed to keep cops in line. The 1999 termination of one deputy provides a pretty good check-off list of how many things can go wrong when a deputy is fired.

Herman Ingram was accused of shooting two bystanders in the legs while working off-duty security outside a club in Buckhead. After a car pulled too close to his black Mercedes, Ingram yelled, "If you hit my car, mother-fucker, I am going to kick your ass," according to a witness, Felicia Arrington. She told police that Ingram pulled what looked like a gun. She heard shots; she and another bystander, Ralph Edwards, were struck.

Two years later, Sheriff Jacquelyn Barrett fired Ingram for fraud, falsehood, perjury and malfeasance. She later cited the shooting as her basis for the termination, pointing to affidavits from two witnesses and a forensic report that found gunshot residue on Ingram's hands.

But the Fulton County Personnel Board -- whose sole function is to hear appeals from employees who've been suspended, demoted or dismissed -- ruled that the sheriff didn't have sufficient evidence to fire Ingram.

Personnel Board Director Bob Brandes says the department's own witness testified before the three-member board that the gunshot residue test was unreliable.

"Occasionally, mistakes are made by departments and that's the reason that we have appeals -- to make sure that everything's done right," Brandes says. "And if it's not, then the board sets to make it right."

The only absolute authority to terminate a deputy seemingly rests in an independent state agency that accredits peace officers -- and can revoke their licenses. But the Peace Officer Standards and Training Council has its own shortfalls. Legislators who created POST gave it little power to assert itself when gathering information. And the line of communication between the state agency and local law enforcement brings to mind two tin cups and a twine of string.

POST took up Ingram's case in December 2000 -- a month after CL published a story outlining his violations and his overturned termination. After investigating Ingram's on- and off-the-job behavior, the council -- made up of police officers, chiefs, deputies, sheriffs and other law enforcement employees -- voted to revoke his license, essentially sealing his termination.

POST sent Ingram a letter informing him of the revocation. The letter was sent back. It appeared to the council's officials that Ingram had moved. Rather than try to find him -- or alert the sheriff's office to the fact that Ingram was no longer a qualified employee -- the council did nothing. Brad Pope, who heads the agency's investigation division, pointed to state law, which says POST need only send letters to an officer's last known address.

In September, CL called POST to check Ingram's status and discovered his license had been revoked 10 months earlier. The sheriff learned of the revocation from a reporter. Later that month, she said she terminated Ingram.

A month later, however, the council had no record of his termination.

"She might have fired him," says Wayne Melton, who is in charge of the POST's licensing division. "But I still show him active."

Georgia law states that law enforcement agencies must inform POST of suspensions or terminations within 15 days. Cops themselves are supposed to report the penalties within 10 days. But Melton says POST is seldom clued in, and the problem, again, is the law. He says the statute failed to provide the council with a way to punish agencies that don't comply.

"There's no provision for enforcement," Melton says. "It's like a toothless tiger."

The last page of Deputy Cleveland Solomon's file stands apart from any of the 1,500 pages of personnel records CL examined for this investigation. It is a letter dated Oct. 23, 2000, informing the deputy he's been terminated for the physical abuse of an inmate named Michael Calloway.

According to four witnesses -- two deputies and two jail nurses -- Solomon punched and kicked Calloway in the face while the inmate was handcuffed to a bench. Solomon denied the beating, claiming that Calloway's blood came from the inmate biting his own lip.

The punishment inarguably befitted the violation. Physical abuse equals termination. End of story.

An April 26 court order filed by the Personnel Board begs to differ. The board did not dispute that Solomon committed physical abuse. But it found that Sheriff Barrett didn't have the right to terminate Solomon, because then-Chief Deputy Gregory Henderson initially punished Solomon with a one-day suspension.

A Fulton County Superior Court judge signed the order, and Solomon was rehired with six months of back pay.

The sheriff says she changed the punishment when the Solomon case came to her on appeal. "Before that point [the Solomon investigation] had been handled below me," she says. "As I read it and the attorneys read it in preparing of the appeal, we took a whole different slant on it."

When asked if the department made a mistake in its initial decision in the Solomon case, the sheriff pauses. "Had I seen that case earlier, we might have gone with termination earlier," she says. "I think because of all that we went through on that case, the practice is that [Chief Deputy Caudell] Jones and I ... are in much closer contact and discuss these kinds of cases."

Barrett challenged the court order the following month. But the case was dropped two months later. According to Barrett, Solomon resigned.

POST -- which could have looked into the abuse allegations, revoked Solomon's certification and ensured his termination -- knows nothing of this fiasco. Melton says the council's file on Solomon, essentially comprised of whatever the sheriff's department hands over, shows that he was fired not in 2000 but in 1994.

POST did launch an investigation in February into allegations that Solomon committed some kind of sexual misconduct in 1993. Because the investigation is ongoing, no information is available.

When asked how to prove whether Solomon was actually fired once before, whether it was sexual misconduct that may have gotten him fired, why he might have been rehired the first time and why POST took so long to catch wind of a 1993 incident, Melton had no answers -- except one: "Fulton County's records are terrible."

But Barrett could say the same thing about the council's handling of Ingram's license revocation, which no one knew about for months.

"We're pretty consistent in mailing out [information] as we are required to do," she says. "I don't know how much more I can do besides mail it out."

One striking pattern among deputies who get in trouble in the jail is that they tend to get in trouble outside the jail, too. Deputy Kelvin Smith had faced 10 allegations of physical abuse of inmates -- all of them "unsubstantiated" -- when he ran into a man named Tim Peck while working off-duty security this spring. Smith said Peck confronted him, cursed him and pushed him. So Smith said he had no choice but to pull his baton and strike Peck so hard in the legs that he broke both of them.

An investigation into the incident was about two-thirds complete when sheriff's Maj. Berle Brereton sent Smith a letter stating he was exonerated. At the time the letter was sent, internal affairs had interviewed only two witnesses -- both of them employees at the restaurant that employed Smith during his off-duty hours. After sending the letter, internal affairs interviewed three more witnesses. The department never talked to Peck.

For weeks after the letter was sent, the sheriff said she was close to a decision on Smith's fate and that the department's attorneys were vetting his file. In retrospect, her decision already had been made for her. Weeks later, she closed the file, opened it to the public and gave Smith a written warning -- after all, once a deputy is exonerated, there's little else to do.

Were Barrett's hands tied, as they were when she tried to fire Solomon after he received a one-day suspension? Or was the outcome of the Smith investigation the latest example of how the department fails to punish deputies in ways that befit the violation?

Internal affairs can go easy on deputies, charging them with lesser violations when the evidence points to physical abuse or fraud, which are automatic grounds for dismissal. Yet even when a deputy is found to have committed such violations, the brass still has failed to terminate the offender.

Deputy Dwayne Bolden was accused of abusing inmate Denandias Watson, and internal affairs wrote in its investigative report that evidence "suggests" Bolden was guilty. Sixteen witnesses watched as Bolden grabbed Watson by the throat and held him in the air for almost a minute. Bolden, however, was charged with two lesser abuses: abuse of authority and verbal abuse.

Verbal abuse also was the charge leveled at Deputy Robert Durham. Yet in the letter informing Durham he is being charged with verbal abuse, Chief Deputy Jones wrote: "[Y]ou physically abused inmate John Dawson ... by pushing his face against the wall with such force that it produced a sound upon impact."

Deputy Orlando Jones was accused of punching an inmate in the head and lying about it, and internal affairs concluded that he was guilty of fraud and the use of unnecessary force. The sheriff wrote Jones a letter saying she found him to be guilty of physical abuse. But she didn't punish him with mandatory dismissal. She went against the county rules and gave him a five-day suspension.

The next time Jones lied about hitting an inmate in the head, the blow burst the inmate's eardrum. Internal affairs charged Jones only with "failure to exercise due care and caution while guarding prisoners," a violation that carries a punishment of a five- to 10-day suspension. He got the minimum.

Inmate Rodney Hubbard's punishment lasted much longer; six months later, he still had trouble hearing out of his left ear, his attorney, Steven Berne, wrote in a letter. Berne settled with the county without filing suit. He refused to discuss the settlement.

Deputy Roderick Bradford also burst an inmate's eardrum. Internal affairs suggested he be charged with use of unnecessary force. But the chief deputy wrote Bradford a letter stating that he considered the violation to be physical abuse. In January 2000, Bradford was informed that he might face dismissal. He received a two-day suspension for abuse of authority.

There's an obvious disparity both in how the department determines what rule a deputy breaks and in how deputies are punished from case to case. For searching a cellblock for his cell phone and allegedly slapping an inmate, Deputy Robert Durham received a 30-day suspension, the longest of any of the 45 physical abuse complaints CL looked into. For breaking a man's legs with a baton after 10 previous complaints were filed against him, Deputy Kelvin Smith got a written warning.

Internal affairs Sgt. Leighton Graham, who has investigated most of the recent physical abuse complaints, doesn't acknowledge that deputies are often overly forceful. "We haven't found that there was a great deal of instances where the use of force was unnecessary," Graham said during a September interview.

Sheriff Barrett shies away from describing anything the department does as a mistake. When asked why some physical abuse violations were not punished with dismissals and why some violations that appeared to be physical abuse were ruled lesser offenses, she says that such things happen. In a department with so many deputies to keep track of, a couple incidents can fall through the cracks. When asked about specifics, such as whether a deputy who bursts an inmate's eardrum should continue to work in the jail, she says she can't answer that because she is not familiar with every investigation into every inmate.

"We're only human," she says.

Barrett then points to her efforts to improve the quality of her employees' work.

From the time she came to office in the early 1990s, the sheriff has seen a deputy's starting salary rise from $22,000 to $32,000. She now requires two years of college rather than a high school diploma and makes all incoming deputies undergo psychological evaluations. She also has been working on a monitoring system that will keep track of the number of unfounded complaints a deputy receives. That way, the department can intervene with extra training or a transfer to a less stressful position.

"I think all of it combined has led to a heightening of morale in the department," Barrett says. "When I got here, there was a sense of disillusionment with what this agency's role was in the law enforcement community here."

All of this seems a lot like the sheriff is trying to remedy a problem she denies exists. Nobody else seems to know about problems in the department, either.

The Fulton County District Attorney's Office has not investigated any allegations of inmates at the jail, according to spokesman Eric Friedly.

Part of the problem of tracking abuses within the jail is that for all the disinterest on the criminal side, civil proceedings used to be the most effective means of bringing about reform.

But even filing suit against a jail or deputy has grown difficult in recent years, thanks to the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act.

The act was drafted ostensibly to lower the high number of frivolous lawsuits filed by jail detainees and prisoners. It also makes it more time-consuming and expensive for attorneys to take such cases, according to the Southern Center for Human Rights, a group of civil rights attorneys based in Atlanta.

One of the center's attorneys, Tamara Serwer, has handled lawsuits against jails throughout the Southeast. Serwer says she's seen inmates file increasingly fewer complaints about brutality in jails.

"And it doesn't mean that it's not there," she says. "It's just that there's a lot of fear. In fact, the worse it is, the less you're likely to hear about it because of the fear factor."

Without lawsuits, without dogged internal affairs units, without terminations that stick and without an effective state watchdog, it's difficult to say whether anything -- including the sheriff's attempts at reform -- will make a difference.

"I have to walk a very fine line," Barrett said in September, after the department exonerated the deputy who broke a man's legs. "I'm trying to support my staff in a very difficult situation. ... And sometimes [inmates or civilians] do get a little out of hand. And sometimes we do have to use some force to either restrain them or get them to comply with directions. But we're very clear about the training. We're very clear in terms of what level of force produces what level of reaction on account of our staff. We train, we train, we train. And then we really kind of hope for the best.

"I think without question the policy of the department is that we're not going to tolerate abuse. Discipline, OK. Abuse, no."

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