Crossroads For top cop 

The next few months will tell Atlanta cops all they need to know about their chief

After just a little more than a year in office, Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington has largely succeeded in accomplishing one of the two most important tasks of his administration: winning the confidence of Atlanta citizens.

His next undertaking -- winning the respect and trust of his own troops -- is proving a much more difficult problem.

And that shouldn't be surprising. Here are just a few reasons: nearly a decade of "leadership" from the largely invisible Beverly Harvard, a woman widely regarded as a pawn of former Mayor Bill Campbell; declining ranks; frozen pay increases and broken promises.

Add to that list internal investigations that never seemed to go anywhere -- unless you were an enemy of the chief -- and any sane person, let alone one called on to put his life on the line every day, would have worked up a healthy skepticism of his "superiors."

But when Pennington took over, he made it clear that business as usual in the APD was finished. He would be out front with the troops. He would hold people accountable. He would upgrade equipment, salaries and morale.

Now, a little more than a month after he made 95 personnel changes in a two-week period that included promotions, forced retirements and transfers, his record on keeping his promises is mixed. And that's why his administration stands at a crucial crossroads as it finishes up an investigation of a scandal involving its motorcycle patrol division, waits for news in a separate investigation by Fulton District Attorney Paul Howard of its sex crimes unit and weathers two high-profile indictments.

Last summer, WAGA/Fox 5 investigative reporter Dale Russell reported on a scheme in which Atlanta motorcycle cops left their posts and abandoned their duties to Atlanta citizens during February's NBA All-Star Weekend. The cops instead provided special escorts to VIP fans, like the rapper Jay-Z, while the rest of us were stuck in the thumping suspended animation of Peachtree Street traffic. Russell also discovered that many of the officers allegedly double-dipped -- taking $150 payments for each escort while still on the city clock.

It used to be standard procedure for motorcycle cops -- generally regarded as one of the most overworked groups in the city -- to clock out and run special details for a little extra cash. It was seen as a fringe benefit for the long hours they put in. But NBA All-Star Weekend was no normal weekend, and clearly, the cops needed all the manpower they could spare on the streets controlling traffic flow and helping average citizens.

Russell found that two cops put together the scheme -- Lt. Tim Ewing and Maj. Stan Savage. What's more, Russell fingered Ewing for trying to force the owners of a Buckhead fitness club, who were looking for a detail to police their charity fun run, to use his services.

So what's the big deal for Pennington? Police brass knew about the problem months before Russell's investigation aired. After all, they had to assemble all the radio communications for the reporter. Yet they did nothing. Only after the two-part series ran was an Office of Professional Standards (OPS) investigation begun. And once it finally did commence, internal affairs investigators weren't just asking about the scheme. Instead, they started an inquisition into who talked to Russell, even asking to see cops' cell phone records.

"I did hear about that, but that's totally inappropriate," Pennington says. "Because it didn't matter who talked to Dale Russell, and I called the OPS commander when I heard it [and said], 'If you're asking that question, I want you to cease from asking that question, because it's irrelevant to the investigation.' All I care about is if my officers did something wrong."

The affair indicates why many Atlanta cops have zero confidence in their own internal affairs unit.

Speaking of which, Lt. Terrence Steele, the man implicated in the cover-up of 34 rape cases that involved difficult-to-track-down or uncooperative victims, was transferred to OPS once he came under investigation -- not exactly the way to build trust in the unit. That investigation was turned over to District Attorney Howard, and the results should soon be made public.

On the surface, many of the chief's moves raise suspicions, especially in a department whose worst suspicions have often been confirmed. But in the face of tough questioning, Pennington remains unflappable.

"This is not new to me ... those things happened to me probably three-fold in New Orleans," says Pennington, also alluding to Atlanta Officer David Freeman, who was recently indicted by the feds for allegedly leading an Atlanta gang involved in drug selling and murders. "I'm not going to cover anything up, and I'm going to lay the chips right where they fall. That's why I laugh when people say, 'Chief probably not going to do nothing if he finds out about this.'" Pennington has made administrative changes that will make embarrassments like the NBA motorcyclist-for-hire scheme less likely to happen again. He recently instituted a new rule that allows officers a maximum of 24 hours per week of off-duty jobs, and put Maj. Damian Finch in charge of the newly created field inspections unit that will monitor compliance with the rule change. What's more, Atlanta cops can't clock out to work a detail and then clock back in anymore. Extra jobs have to be worked before or after an APD shift.

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