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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.

No riots occurred as information on the tragedy unfolded. "The city was lucky," Allen says.

But what astounds many of the 50-plus officers with whom CL spoke for this story is how little action city officials, particularly Pennington and Mayor Shirley Franklin, have taken in response to the Neal Street incident.

Franklin has been noticeably absent from most of the affair. Her only public statements were to rigorously defend her handpicked chief. On April 30, for example, she blamed Johnston's death on bad officers with bad characters, and argued that the case had nothing to do with police management, policies or training. When questioned about Pennington's future, she responded: "I've not heard it from a single police officer or business leader to suggest Chief Pennington was anything other than qualified. No question."

Other than a handful of news conferences and a community forum shortly after the shooting, Pennington also has been largely invisible. His responses to withering questions about the Johnston case and larger management issues have been specifics-thin assurances that all is under control.

Part of what unraveled after Johnston's death, however, was the chief's image as the effective, popular leader who took hold of the department on the heels of the inept Beverly Harvard, former Mayor Bill Campbell's chief. In recent weeks, the city has learned about a department beset by a near meltdown in officer morale.

When Franklin named Pennington chief five years ago, he brought along the kind of story line that captures the public's imagination: He was the tough reformer who'd cleaned up the notorious New Orleans department. A closer look would have revealed that he also was a savvy political operator with ties to urban politicians, including Washington Mayor Marion Barry (best remembered for his 1990 crack cocaine conviction) and Atlanta's late Maynard Jackson, who put together the machine that's dominated city politics to this day.

click to enlarge TAKING HEAT: Richard Pennington gets an earful at a community meeting on the Johnston shooting. - JOEFF DAVIS
  • JOEFF DAVIS
  • TAKING HEAT: Richard Pennington gets an earful at a community meeting on the Johnston shooting.

Press reports that linked Pennington and Barry didn't appear to raise warning flags for Atlanta officials. In a 1997 report on the period Pennington served as assistant police chief in the District of Columbia, the Washington Post said the department was rife with "political interference ... a persistent lack of fiscal controls, bad hiring practices and poor management." Police officials, the Post reported, "knew of the worst abuses years ago and did little to remedy the problems."

The Barry connection twice deep-sixed Pennington's chances for Washington chief. After the mayor was jailed, his reform-minded successor, Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, "snubbed" Pennington, the Post reported. And, in 1998, after Barry's restoration and Pennington's move to New Orleans, the chief was forced to withdraw his second bid for the District of Columbia job. U.S. Sen. Lauch Faircloth, R-N.C., who served on an oversight committee for the district, accused Pennington of being unable to "clean house" because of his "insider" status with Barry, according to the Post.

In 1994, after losing his first Washington bid, Pennington was named New Orleans chief. Many there still credit him with cleaning up a corrupt department. In 1996, he vowed to cut the city's murder rate in half; he delivered in three years.

Still, in 2002 the New Orleans Times-Picayune gave him mixed reviews: "[Most] crime categories saw double-digit decreases. But the dramatic success came at a time when crime rates were falling nationwide and sociological trends, such as an improving economy and a plateau in crack cocaine use, all worked in New Orleans' favor. Now, with a heroin epidemic gripping parts of the city and crime creeping up in most major categories, according to just-released statistics, [Pennington was being attacked] on the very issue that should be the chief's strong suit."

New Orleans lawyer Mary Howell, who's challenged the police on brutality cases, gives Pennington mainly positive reviews. On cleaning up the department's renowned corruption, Howell says, Pennington "seemed to get it. He listened and took action. He stopped a number of bad things."

The chief cited lower crime statistics as he muscled his way to a 50 percent raise. "I never bought into the crime-reduction claims," Howell says. "The Achilles heel was always the statistics. Incentives were based on achieving numbers, and that encouraged massive fraud."

By 2002, Pennington's reputation was positive enough for him to put up a strong run for mayor. After he lost to Ray Nagin, he returned briefly to his police job, but his prospects were dim under a former political foe, whom Pennington had accused of being a serial liar.

Fortunately for him, Atlanta's new mayor was looking for a chief of her own. Franklin conducted what she billed as an arm's-length, nationwide search – though word leaked long before her May 31 announcement that Pennington's friendship with her political mentor, former Mayor Maynard Jackson, gave him the inside track.

Pennington didn't follow a difficult act. He immediately came across as the reformer to the unpopular Harvard, who'd presided over a scandal involving manipulated crime statistics. Under Pennington, that same bottom-line measure for the public – crime stats – dropped at first. From 2002 to 2005, all reported crimes in Atlanta came down by 21 percent.

Even early on, however, there were signs that everyone wouldn't be a Pennington fan.

Sgt. Randy Traylor first encountered the new chief on Pennington's first day on the job. "I got stabbed in the stomach by a prostitute," recalls the 27-year veteran. "I thought I was dead."

Pennington came down to Grady Memorial Hospital. What happened next left Traylor with a deep resentment for the man many cops had expected to turn the department around.

"He took a look at me, and he sneered, 'What's a sergeant doing picking up a prostitute?'" Traylor recalls. "My lieutenant was there and he looked the chief straight in the eye and said, 'He's doing his job.' Pennington didn't like that, and I found myself on the morning graveyard shift. My lieutenant put me in for a Purple Heart, and guess what? I still haven't received it.

"I could retire tomorrow," Traylor says. "But I'm not going to give up a dime of my pension because of him."

Asked about the incident, Pal didn't respond by press time. (While Pal addressed many of CL's questions, Pennington refused requests for an interview for this story.)

Traylor now is on airport duty, where he reports that four officers are leaving the department. The attrition rate has all but crippled the department's effectiveness. One officer who graduated from the academy a year ago says five classmates already have quit and another 20 are trying to leave.

According to the union, the city's hired six fewer officers this year than have left the force.

"The turnover is devastating," Allen says.

One officer who recently jumped ship was Joe Cobb, who'd served in the public information office. "I'm not leaving mad," he says. "But the current climate isn't appealing. I have never seen morale lower in a law enforcement department."

"As bad as it was under Campbell and Harvard," Allen says, "at least there was some spirit left in the ranks. Pennington has destroyed even that."

Pocketbook issues always seem to be the top concern for Atlanta cops. Three years ago, Franklin proposed raising their salaries by 40 percent, but she hasn't followed up with the budget to do that. And pay here still lags the average for a city this size.

Meanwhile, Pennington's $190,000 pay package is one of the highest in the nation for a police official. His $32,000 in raises in five years nearly match the starting pay for an officer. And Franklin lobbied hard last year for a special $10,000 annual increase for Pennington's pension. City Council turned down her request after the Johnston shooting. Franklin labeled it a "vote of no confidence."

Then WSB-TV reported in May that the chief has been collecting comp time enabling him to amass tens of thousands of dollars in unused vacation time, which he's likely to pocket when he leaves the city. An AJC report estimated the total unused time at $34,000.

"You know of any corporation that allows such a highly paid executive to collect comp time?" asks Sgt. Scott Kreher, president of the police union.

The comp-time issue is likely to become a flash point in the next few weeks. A long-simmering dispute – officers have been denied overtime pay under many circumstances – resulted in a three-year battle in federal court. In a settlement reached in recent days, more than 600 police officers will be compensated by the city for unpaid overtime work. According to Mitchell Benjamin, an attorney for the officers, the exact amount is still confidential, but he calls it "very justifiable."

Pennington's "performance standards" nearly are as much of a lightning rod and may have a more direct impact on the quality of policing in Atlanta.

click to enlarge GIVING HEAT: Police union President Scott Kreher - JOEFF DAVIS
  • JOEFF DAVIS
  • GIVING HEAT: Police union President Scott Kreher

Pennington denies the standards are quotas. But cops cite documents showing they're expected to make a specified number of arrests, serve a specified number of warrants or make a specified number of calls on businesses. One 2005 memo obtained by CL, authored by Lt. M.K. Fuller, states: "Per Major [Ernest] Finley, if an officer comes in with no cases for that day, that officer will be on a foot beat until further notices."

The chief angered officers in April when he declared to the media that without numerical goals "cops would come in every day with nothing on their sheets." They grouse that "standards" sound impressive but make good police work difficult: They're being required to amass numbers of often-meaningless arrests while ignoring more time-consuming investigations of serious crimes.

"They're quotas," Kreher says. "We all know what they are."

Pennington's standards form an inescapable backdrop to Johnston's shooting. Narcotics officers were expected to compile a daunting tally of warrants served and street arrests. Although nothing excuses their crimes, were the officers bending to the pressure of Pennington's numbers game?

If he's ever reconsidered his reliance on standards, however, Pennington hasn't shown it. His actions instead have placed the onus on street-level cops – requiring widespread drug testing of officers, for example – while he's insulated himself and his inner circle from the public and the media.

Pointing to the chain of responsibility – from the drug cops to Gibbs to Davis to Pennington – one police veteran summed up his frustration. "I don't know what's worse," Traylor says, "that they [the police commanders] knew what was going on, and didn't do anything, or didn't have a clue."

U.S. Attorney David Nahmias has vowed to look deeper. In announcing plea deals with Junnier and Smith, he promised an "ongoing investigation into just how wide the culture of misconduct extends" among Atlanta police. That probe is still pending.

A couple months ago, Pennington did shuffle some staff around. The narcotics squad, previously slashed in half during Pennington's tenure, was reassigned, and the chief promised to increase its strength from 14 to 30 officers.

Although the narcotics units were deemed so troubled that Pennington suspended their operation for six months, neither of the ranking officers up the chain of command appear to have hit major career bumps. While Lt. Gibbs was quietly reassigned to a downtown precinct, Maj. Davis was put in charge of policing police as head of the Office of Professional Standards, or internal affairs.

Davis is a frequent target of officers' accusations of cronyism by Pennington. She was involved in the 2003 NBA All-Star scandal, when officers deserted their details to work lucrative jobs for celebrities. The then-Lt. Davis claimed she toiled 72 hours without sleep in work for the city and private-duty employers. Pennington said at the time that he'd punish officers involved in the affair – but he promoted Davis to major.

"Seventy-two hours, that's what she said, and the chief promised to fire anyone who lies," says Detective Eugene Haragsin. "I know SEALs [Navy special forces] who've tried to do that and can't."

Pennington apparently has decided to punish someone. Allen, Haragsin and union president Kreher all have received what they regard as punitive transfers in recent weeks. Kreher and Allen were relegated to graveyard shifts and taken out of their prized positions in the fugitive and homeland security units. Haragsin already was on night shift, but was removed from the fugitive unit and sent to a zone job, where the crimes he handles are of a much lower level.

"Was this punishment?" Kreher asks. "Of course it was." His new job puts him under Maj. Ernest Finley, a man criticized by the union for enthusiastically implementing Pennington's quota system. Kreher filed a grievance against his transfer, which Finley denied. Kreher appealed. Last week, city personnel officials granted him the right to challenge his reassignment.

Allen says his kick in the pants stems from three things: The chief had observed Allen, in his role as a union official, videotaping a press conference at which Pennington spoke. The detective also vocally protested artwork in City Hall East that opined, "Politically [it's] OK to hate the white man."

"But most of all," Allen says, "I think it was Neal Street."

In the wake of the scandal over Johnston's shooting, the department's morale meltdown has rippled into City Hall. Council President Lisa Borders, a Franklin ally who's shown increasing independence as she prepares for a 2009 mayoral run, has been monitoring the problems. About the transfers of Kreher, Allen and Haragsin, she says: "This situation reeks of retribution."

Councilman H. Lamar Willis compares the city's leadership after the Johnston killing to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's apology following the volatile public reaction to the November police slaying of a bridegroom leaving a bachelor party.

"Mayor Franklin's style is hands-off," Willis says. "In the Johnston case, it was a horrible style for a situation of this magnitude.

"And I can't understand her defense of Chief Pennington," he adds. "The blame for what happened to Kathryn Johnston rests clearly on Chief Pennington's shoulders. It was his department. He must be held accountable."

Of course, Pennington is no rube when it comes to politics. In his New Orleans mayoral campaign, he tapped influential benefactors of a police foundation, which was created to collect private funds that support police work. He formed a similar foundation here soon after he arrived and has reputedly eyed a run for mayor.

There are other similarities to his tenure in New Orleans. The quota system created an image of effective police work, and Pennington looked good in both cities because crime numbers at first went down. As was the case in New Orleans, crime is rising in Atlanta now. From 2005 to 2006, the number of all crimes climbed 2.1 percent. The murder rate soared 22 percent.

Pennington claimed credit for the early decreases (never mind that crimes were plunging nationally or that much of the drop in Atlanta could be attributed to razing many of the city's public housing projects). But he's yet to take the blame for the crime hikes. His only explanation, bizarre in its lack of insight, was that "illegal drugs are somehow related to a large percentage of murders."

Mayor Franklin's spokeswoman, Beverly Isom, refuses to respond to specific questions about Pennington and the department, citing the ongoing federal probe into the Johnston raid. But she offers a broad defense of the chief's leadership.

"The Atlanta Police Department has a story to tell about the great majority of men and women who do their job well everyday and the numerous programs and initiatives that are helping to make Atlanta a better city," Isom wrote in an e-mail response to CL's questions. "APD has considerable challenges but they are doing an incredible job as they work to address those challenges."

Does the mayor have a strategy to address the department's sagging reputation? Isom refused to answer "yes" or "no." According to City Council members, Franklin does. In August she plans to ramp up a public-relations campaign to bolster Pennington's reputation.

Alyssa Abkowitz contributed to this story.

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