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Meltdown 

Seven months after Kathryn Johnston’s shooting, Chief Richard Pennington feels the heat from angry cops

It was early January, and Atlanta's poorest neighborhoods were uneasy. An old anxiety had resurfaced with lethal urgency: Were police cruisers roaming the streets the vanguard of an occupation army, or the last line of defense against mounting crime in the city?

click to enlarge Kathryn Johnston's house on Neal Street now sits empty. - JOEFF DAVIS
  • JOEFF DAVIS
  • Kathryn Johnston's house on Neal Street now sits empty.

Six weeks earlier, 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston had been gunned down by officers searching for drugs in her modest house. To get a no-knock search warrant, they'd claimed an informant had purchased cocaine at Johnston's Neal Street residence. A few bags of pot allegedly were found during the raid, but the implication that Johnston was allowing dealers in her home outraged relatives and neighbors.

The informant, Alexis White, called 911 the day after the shooting, claiming "dirty" cops were pressuring him to lie about drug buys. That ignited incendiary disbelief in the official story.

It wasn't long before demonstrators began demonstrating and activists commenced to activate. The Rev. Markel Hutchins, representing Johnston's family, proclaimed "zero confidence" in the police. National firebrand Al Sharpton declared, "Something stinks in this case." And the New Black Panther Party hit Atlanta streets, raising fears of violent retribution against police. "The Atlanta region is the most dangerous region for police murders and police brutality," Panther leader Malik Zulu Shabazz claimed at a DeKalb County gathering.

No one had answers. Everyone had strong opinions.

Chief Richard Pennington tried to reassure the community. "We will not rest until every detail is checked, verified and checked again," the chief vowed in a column for the AJC a week after the shooting.

That promise now provokes guffaws among some officers – among the loudest from those once assigned to the department's homeland security intelligence squad. By early January, they had reason to believe the officers who'd broken through Johnston's door were rogue cops – that the warrant was obtained with lies, and the bags of pot planted as she lay dying on her floor.

In short, what the intelligence officers learned, but the community didn't, was the worst possible news for law enforcement: Johnston's death was a heinous crime, and corrupt cops were the perps.

How they came by the knowledge was simple. An intelligence-squad member, Ken Allen, is a vice president in the International Brotherhood of Police Officers. He says one of the officers who'd later be fingered in the botched drug raid, Gregg Junnier, basically confessed his role to the union. Junnier's admission was an attempt to make sure he could retire without losing his pension when federal investigators started naming names, Allen explains. But Allen realized at the time that the information would affect a lot more than one bad cop's pension.

"We knew that when the truth about the Neal Street incident came out, there was a very definite risk of civil disturbance," Allen says. "In such a scenario, the first people a crowd would attack would be uniformed officers on patrol in the neighborhoods ... and they're often the last in the chain to hear what's happening."

Allen and other members of the intelligence squad wanted to launch an investigation into the possibility that riots and violence might stem from the disclosures that were sure to come out about the Johnston case. But checking the community's pulse for the potential of bloody upheaval turned out not to be high on the department's agenda.

Allen says he and his supervisor, Lt. Mike Wilson, were commanded to attend a meeting with another lieutenant, Stacie Gibbs. This was unusual, because Gibbs wasn't in the intelligence unit's chain of command. According to Allen, Gibbs made it clear that she was acting at the direction of her boss, Maj. C.J. Davis, and Chief Pennington.

"Lt. Gibbs told us, 'You won't investigate anything. You won't say anything. You don't know anything,'" Allen recalls.

In response to written questions, Pennington spokeswoman Jane Pal says, "There were no such meetings," but notes that officers were instructed around that time not to publicly discuss the Johnston incident because the FBI had taken on the case. Davis and Gibbs didn't reply to requests for comments about the meeting. Wilson says he was "trying to remember" what transpired and would get back to CL, but he didn't.

Allen insists the January meeting took place but admits he was perplexed by Gibbs' demands. Now he believes its purpose was to control potential damage to the reputations of Pennington and his command staff. The full story of the Johnston affair hadn't come out, and there was a possibility it wouldn't. Even if news did break, Allen figures, department honchos would be able to distance themselves from any culpability.

"They [Pennington, Davis and other top brass] were primarily concerned about image, their image, more than with the safety of their own officers," Allen continues. "This was all about image."

A fuller account of the raid wouldn't materialize until April 26, when Junnier and Jason R. Smith pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, and a third officer, Arthur Tesler, was indicted.

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