Club rules 

How misbehaving cops stay in the ranks

Page 4 of 4

"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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