Garrett McLendon’s dad was a cop, but the Cobb County man admits he’s looking at police in a little different light these days. Being force to lie facedown amid broken glass on a barroom floor for an hour while being taunted, insulted and threatened tends to have that effect on a guy.
McLendon was among the 62 patrons at Midtown’s Atlanta Eagle gay bar on Sept. 10, the night of a now-notorious commando-style raid by a dozen members of the police department’s Red Dog squad — which usually combats gang activity — and nine undercover members of the APD’s intelligence and organized crime unit.
“Nothing was ever explained to us by the officers,” McLendon recalls. “When I asked if I could move away from the broken glass, I was told, ‘Shut the fuck up or you’ll be handcuffed.’ The police were laughing and joking while we were lying there and at different times, I heard them say, ‘You people make me sick’ and ‘I hate fags.’ One of them said, ‘This is fun; we should do this every week.’”
In the days since then, McLendon has closely followed news coverage of the raid, read the police reports and listened to last week’s police news conference in which embattled Chief Richard Pennington seemed to half-defend, half-apologize for the incident. But like many metro Atlanta residents, he’s left with a number of nagging questions: Why did police feel they needed to take down the club with the kind of force usually reserved for busting meth labs? Why did officers seem to act so unprofessionally toward the Eagle’s customers, none of whom was arrested? And, was the whole thing really just about sex?
Definitive answers will have to wait at least until the conclusion of a months-long internal investigation ordered by Pennington, or an external inquiry by the Citizen Review Board, which is still trying to establish the limits of its authority. Either way, Pennington, who’s likely to leave his job at the end of the year, will be enjoying his retirement by the time any report is finalized.
In the meantime, the controversy over the Eagle raid is being used as political fodder by mayoral and City Council candidates, two of whom made a show of bailing out Eagle employees who’d been jailed on charges of illegally providing adult entertainment. And, of course, the entire debacle has given a fresh black eye to a police department that had recently managed to earn back citizen sympathy and support aftermonths of furloughs and a rash of violent crimes.
This much, however, is clear: The APD launched an undercover investigation of the Eagle back in May, almost immediately after being forwarded an anonymous complaint that came to the mayor’s office. The message, which reads as if were written by a nearby homeowner, complains of"Thursday-night sex parties” that “spills [sic] out into the neighborhood,” with men having “oral and anal sex” in public.
The complaint also claims “bags of what appears to be drug residue are strewn around a one-block radius of the bar.” (Only one block? This is Ponce de Leon Avenue, after all.)
Undercover vice cops were dispatched to the Eagle two days after the complaint was received to “investigate illegal sexual activities,” according to police reports. All of them reported seeing sex taking place openly within the club.
“In the backroom, [I saw] two males engaging in anal sex and a third male receiving oral sex while a group of about 15 people watched,” one of the officers wrote, echoing his colleagues’ observations.
Three weeks later, in June, at least two officers returned to the Eagle on a Thursday night. This time they didn’t report witnessing illegal sex, only underwear-clad go-go dancers. The most provocative item in those reports was arguably the description of a dancer who “pulled down his shorts showing a little of his rear end.”
None of the police reports for May or June makes any mention of alleged drug use at the bar.
On July 1, another complaint about the Eagle surfaced, this time through the Crime Stoppers tip line. Instead of alleging illegal activities that had already taken place, this one described, with an insider’s sense of detail, an upcoming party for the Southern Bears gay social club. “Sex will be permitted” and “drugs will be sold freely,” predicted the anonymous complainant.
But police didn’t raid the bar on the night of the Southern Bears party or even send in an undercover crew. Rather, they waited nearly another two and a half months to go all SWAT on the place.
“I still can’t figure out why they didn’t arrest people at the time if they saw sex in the club,” says Eagle co-owner Richard Ramey. “If there was a problem with sex at the Eagle, they could’ve sat down with us and talked about it, but we’ve never gotten any complaints.”
Ramey is convinced the second complaint came from a former customer who wanted revenge because he’d recently been barred from the Eagle for causing disturbances.
Eagle attorney Alan Begner explains that if someone is busted having sex in a bar — gay or straight — the result is usually a charge of public indecency against the folks with their junk hanging out. In cases where the bar itself is believed to be knowingly providing a venue for such activity, Begner says the infraction would be handled by the APD’s License and Permits unit, which seldom makes arrests when they hand out citations.
“None of this makes sense, politically,” Begner says of the way police chose to deal with the Eagle.
On the night of the raid, nine undercover officers were sent into the bar. Their reports, filed the next day, provide a somewhat hazy picture of what was witnessed. One officer reports being “unable to see any sex acts happening” in the back room, while another says he saw “two men in what appeared to be a sexual act,” although he concedes he “could not get a good visual due to the extreme low light.” A third reports witnessing “several men receiving and giving oral sex” in the back room, while the vice officer who ultimately called in the Red Dog unit writes of seeing dancers pull down their underwear to expose themselves.
Despite the allegations of back-room sex, none of the 62 customers in the bar that night was arrested or charged with anything, nor were the bar owners cited. Instead, four go-go dancers were charged with “providing adult entertainment without a license” and four bartenders were charged with operating an adult-entertainment business without a permit. All were jailed, initially without bail.
McLendon, a frequent Eagle patron, admits he’s seen customers having sex in the back room before, but not on the night of the raid. And he says he’s never seen drug use there.
“It’s a regular bar, not a sex club,” he says. “That activity isn’t condoned by the bar. People go to watch TV, play pool and hang out.”
Co-owner Ramey, who was not present the night of the raid, is troubled by several unanswered questions. Why were his patrons — even those sitting at the bar and playing pool — forcibly searched, seemingly without probable cause, to look for illegal drugs? And why did the cops bring three paddy wagons — enough to cart off everyone in the bar?
“I have trouble believing this was just about sex,” says Ramey, who adds that he has zero tolerance for drugs in his business. None of the 62 patrons or the Eagle employees was found to be carrying so much as a joint.
“The cops came in and found a bunch of people having a few drinks and watching ‘Project Runway’ and treated them like they weren’t even second-class citizens,” he says. “If you were raiding a strip club, you wouldn’t call the dancers ‘whores’ and sluts.’”
There’s another worrisome question, especially to Officer Dani Lee Harris, the department’s LGBT liaison. Although Harris is supposed to be kept in the loop about police operations affecting the gay community, she learned about the raid like everyone else — the next morning.
Maj. Debra Williams, who heads the intelligence and organized crime unit, had neglected to inform her, she says.
“When I asked the major why reporters are asking me about a raid I hadn’t been told about, I got blown out of the water,” says Harris, who makes no effort to conceal her frustration. Still, she reserves judgment about whether the department followed proper protocol in calling in the raid.
As for the issue of police sensitivity to gays, Harris recalls a 2005 incident in which two men cutting through Piedmont Park after dark were detained by cops, verbally harassed and accused of cruising for sex. In that case, the offending officer was fired.
“Any organization has individuals with personal issues,” Harris says, “but I don’t believe the police department as a whole is insensitive.”
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