As far as James Hereford knew, he wasn't doing anything illegal by taking the stairs. Still, there he was, under arrest in a downtown Atlanta police precinct, being questioned about his presence in the stairwell of a nearby parking garage.
Hereford's only "crime" was carelessness. After eating lunch in Underground Atlanta's food court on a Thursday afternoon last August, the 50-year-old employee of 180 Peachtree crossed the pedestrian bridge into the parking garage and entered an elevator intending to head down to street level. But in his haste and distracted by the conversation he was having on his cell phone, Hereford accidentally took the elevator up to the garage's top floor. Realizing his error, he crossed the breezeway and took the stairs instead. Officer Grady Goggins, a 12-year veteran of the Atlanta Police Department, entered the stairwell behind him.
Purportedly startled by Hereford and suspicious of his presence in a parking deck that's apparently become notorious for car break-ins, Goggins questioned then arrested him. Hereford was frisked and the contents of his pockets were examined.
Despite the absence of anything suspicious, Hereford was escorted — in cuffs, he claims, with Goggins gripping the back of his pants — to the Underground Atlanta precinct, where he was held until the officer was convinced he was just a guy on his lunch break who'd made a mistake.
But according to the APD's Office of Professional Standards, Goggins followed procedure and didn't do anything wrong by arresting Hereford. His lawyer and the members of the Atlanta Citizen Review Board, an outside advisory group that investigates allegations of police misconduct, however, disagree.
Hereford has filed suit in the matter, represented by attorney Dan Grossman, who also represented the owners, employees and patrons of the Atlanta Eagle following the police department's unlawful 2009 raid of the Midtown bar. The city ended up shelling out a $1.025 million settlement in that case, but the city itself isn't typically held financially responsible for misconduct when a single officer is involved.
Grossman believes that Hereford's case, in conjunction with similar cases, could change that — permanently.
"It's really an example where they've walked into serious liability," Grossman explains. "We [Grossman and other attorneys] are going to be citing this decision and holding the city liable for things like this in the future."
When he returned to work after being released by Goggins, Hereford was confident his rights had been violated. Besides that, he was embarrassed. For pressing the wrong button in an elevator and not having a good enough excuse for taking the stairs, he was escorted through downtown during the busy lunch hour by a cop.
Hereford filed complaints shortly after with both the police department's Office of Professional Standards, the internal division that handles reports of police misconduct, and with the Citizen Review Board. But, the two groups, as they have many times in the past, emerged from their respective investigations with dramatically different conclusions, despite the fact that Hereford and Goggins' accounts of what took place are almost identical. The only fact that's up for debate is whether Hereford was cuffed before or after he was brought to the police precinct (Goggins says he couldn't remember exactly, but believes the latter was the case).
In his statement to OPS, Goggins confirmed that he had questioned Hereford because he was present in the stairwell, and even admitted that when he first encountered Hereford, he drew his fist back defensively. He indicated that he wasn't convinced by Hereford's story, that it "did not immediately dispel [his] concern for the safety of [his] person and property."
Mostly, though, it seems he didn't agree with Hereford's logic.
"The route Mr. Hereford had taken would have taken him in the opposite direction of this work address and would add about 10-15 minutes to his travel time," Goggins said in his statement. "Hereford could have walked out of the back door, walked towards the police station for the shortest distance back to work."
Citing a city ordinance intended to prevent car theft and burglary, Goggins said the reason he brought Hereford back to the precinct was to "continue his investigation."
It was the Citizen Review Board's opinion that Goggins not only misused that particular ordinance, but likely misunderstood it. The ordinance says it's unlawful for anyone to "prowl" in a parking area, and lays out three specific behaviors a suspect "has to" display in order for an officer to apply it: Attempting entry into a vehicle; tampering with a vehicle; or displaying behavior that's suspicious enough to make the officer fear for his safety or the security of vehicles in the area.
Although Goggins said he was "concerned" about his safety, the Citizen Review Board didn't agree that concern was necessarily founded — Hereford was cooperative, and had nothing but his debit cards and cell phone on him — and recommended at their April meeting that the accusations of false arrest and false imprisonment be sustained. They also recommended that the OPS investigator who handled the complaint undergo further training. The department hasn't yet responded to those recommendations.
Attorney Grossman says Hereford's case is one of several examples of the department's failure to adequately train and discipline officers — and that's why, he says, the city can be held responsible.
"If the city knows that officers are breaking the law and consistently refuses to punish them," Grossman says, "then the city becomes responsible, because there's a pattern."
Because a lawsuit is pending, neither the department nor several members of the Atlanta City Council contacted by CL would comment. Grossman is confident the court will rule in favor of Hereford, but says he and his client also hope OPS will change the decision that exonerated Officer Goggins.
Granted, he's not aware of a time OPS has ever overturned a decision, but says, "Maybe this is the time to start."
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