Fourteen months after Atlanta City Council unanimously created a citizen review board to investigate allegations of police misconduct, the panel is still a work in progress. And not much progress has been made.
Not only is the review board, like the city as a whole, facing budget constraints, it still doesn't have an executive director. Sharese Shields, appointed to the board by Mayor Shirley Franklin, and other members interviewed the first executive director candidate on Saturday. "There's still a lot of work to be done," Shields says. "We want to get that person on board and then everything else will start to fall into place."
In addition to a full-time person to handle the day-to-day operations, the board wants to hire an investigator and administrative assistant. But Franklin's 2008 budget proposal earmarks just $311,000 for the board. According to Councilman C.T. Martin, that's not enough.
Martin, who co-sponsored the ordinance that created the panel, another $100,000 is needed to be fully functional – and that could be problematic for a city in the midst of a financial crisis. "There's not enough money in the budget proposal to hire an investigator," he says. "We're going to do the best we can to try to get them something."
State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, has attended some of the review board's initial meetings as an observer, and is also concerned about the lack of funds. "The mayor and the council knew it was underfunded, and I think the intent was for it not to be effective," he says.
The board was created after narcotics officers burst into the home of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston on Nov. 21, 2006. Johnston thought her home was being invaded and fired one shot from a revolver as officers were breaking down her door. They responded with a barrage of 39 shots that killed her. And in the months following the killing, the depth of corruption plaguing the narcotics squad – the type of allegations the review board would investigate – has risen to the surface.
It turned out that officer Jason Smith lied to a judge when he swore that an informant said large quantities of drugs were being sold from Johnston's home on Neal Street. To cover themselves after fatally wounding the elderly woman, the narcotics officers planted drugs in her basement.
Smith and Gregg Junnier have since pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, and to federal charges of conspiracy to violate a person's civil rights ending in death. Both officers face at least 10 years in prison; however, their plea agreement stipulates that they could receive less time if they provide "substantial assistance" to a federal investigation of corruption inside the police department.
A third officer involved in the Johnston killing, Arthur Tesler, is currently on trial in Fulton Superior Court on charges that include violating his oath of office, lying in an official investigation and false imprisonment. Last week, Junnier testified against his former colleague, and described how the narcotics squad routinely cut corners to obtain warrants.
The officers all said they were working under pressure to meet arrest quotas. "You definitely had a numbers game in the narcotics unit," says Sgt. Scott Kreher, president of the local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers.
But Kreher questions whether a review board is even necessary – and whether it might do more harm than good. The real problems that he says plague the department – understaffing, low morale and pressure to meet arrest numbers – would be exacerbated rather than solved by the board.
"Once the ordinance was written, we pointed out issues we think violate officers' due process rights," Kreher says. "When the full council was ready to vote, the city attorney stood up and said they should not approve the ordinance as written. He told them that we would sue the city over this."
Kreher questions whether the review board's power to subpoena officers is legally sound. Currently, officers have to give a statement if there is an Internal Affairs investigation. But those statements can't be used in a criminal case.
"With a citizen review board, there's the issue of making public statements," he says. "In an investigation, everyone should be making private statements so people don't hear all the testimony and have the opportunity to adjust what they say based on what's already been said."
Kreher points out that there are several mechanisms already in place to investigate police wrongdoing in cases like Johnston's death: Internal Affairs, the district attorney's office, the GBI and the FBI. "We certainly don't want another incident like that to happen again," he says. "But I don't think a citizen review board is going to keep an officer from being a rogue. To do that, we have to keep hiring practices as high as we can and hire good people."
The union is waiting for the board to handle its first case before deciding whether it will mount a legal challenge. "We want to see them handle a case," he says.
Mayor Franklin was less than enthusiastic about putting a citizen review board in place, and it took her office several months to start the process of appointing members. But while Martin and others have been critical of the slow progress, he thinks it is finally coming together. "I had hoped this would get a quicker start because it works to restore the faith in the police department," Martin says.
Councilwoman Claire Muller points out that the city once had a review board in place. "Atlanta needs to have a citizen review board," she says. "It's very important we have an independent panel. I have great hopes for it."
Fort remains "very concerned" about funding, and by the inexperience the review board members have in police affairs. "If you don't give them resources, it's not going to be able to be effective," he says. "It's been 14 months and what you have, in effect, is the board still trying to get up and running. And we still hear reports in the community that what happened in November 2006 is still going on now."
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