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It was the fund, which still doesn't have any black board members that rejected his application.
Whitaker says that as with Baugh, the fund returned the membership dues of Henry Hooks, one of the original eight black police officers to join Atlanta's police force. And DeKalb County Sheriff's Department Chief Deputy Lewis Graham says he also was turned down for membership during the late 1960s.
What's more, the state legally didn't have to make the fund available to black applicants until 1972 -- the year Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination, was interpreted by the courts to apply to state and local governments -- Shanor says.
Last April, Straut approached Whitaker to ask him why he wasn't a member of the pension fund. Whitaker told him that membership had depended on race.
Straut was initially skeptical, but Whitaker told him to check it out for himself. Straut says that after a phone call to the fund, he learned Whitaker was right: blacks couldn't join the fund until 1976.
Straut, who was shot in the head on the job in 1989 and still walks with a limp, had to fight his own battle against a department that he believes tried to keep him off the job because he was disabled. It explains why he's pushing the state to make amends to black cops like Whitaker. "I got a little taste of discrimination in my mouth, and it was stinky," Straut says. "If I see [discrimination], I'm going to stamp it out."
Word has gotten out that Straut, who is white, has taken on the cause. "My phone's been ringing off the hook," he says. He figures that at least 160 cops were kept out of the pension fund.
Straut is pushing the state to open a one-year window for cops who were denied access. Those cops would than have the opportunity to make one-time $3,600 payments to the fund and be given full retirement benefits. The $3,600 figure comes from multiplying the $10 per month membership dues over 30 years -- the maximum number of years of service covered by the plan. To do that, state law would have to be changed, because the fund allows members to "buy back" only a maximum of five years of service.
Of course, the fund won't be able to afford an influx of new members that it wasn't planning for -- especially amid a struggling stock market -- so the state will probably be asked to chip in some money.
To figure out how much it will take to cover the new beneficiaries and keep the fund solvent, the state must complete an actuary report.
But the fund's Carter says state law prevents the legislature from changing the rules regarding pension funds until the beginning of a governor's term -- 2003 in this case. So the state must change its own laws to even be able to consider adding once-denied black members to the program.
Straut credits state representative Brooks for bringing the issue to the governor's attention, but even Brooks says: "I can't give you a timetable" on addressing the police officers' concerns.
While Brooks suggests the issue would be best solved off the public stage, Straut disagrees, saying that such a tactic would prevent it from becoming a political issue and an embarrassment to the governor.
The time to make amends should be now, Straut says. The governor should push for the necessary changes to state law and make a commitment to right an obvious wrong. If black officers can prove they were denied access to the pension fund, which seems likely, they could conceivably sue the state. That would cost a lot more than the price tag for chipping in money to the pension fund.
"I'm a white guy, and I see that [the inattention by the state] is wrong," Straut says.
Meanwhile, progress has been extremely slow. Barnes didn't answer the initial letters Straut and Whitaker sent to his office, and it took an intervention by Brooks to get the attention of the administration.
Most recently Straut says a call for resumes for prospective fund board members -- it still doesn't have any black members -- recently came down from the governor's office. So there is some progress.
Straut says Barnes knows that he owes his election in 1998, in large part, to black Atlanta voters. Insensitivity and inaction on a matter like this might translate to bad news at the polls, Straut suggests.
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