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May 13, 2007 - Atlanta Journal-Constitution (GA)

Editorial: Don't Handcuff Police Oversight

Resisting Independent Review Panels Hurts Metro Atlanta's Cops And Public They Serve

By Mike King, for the editorial board

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Metro Atlanta public officials need to act boldly to ensure that local police departments use violence only when necessary -- to protect themselves and others -- when confronting potentially dangerous suspects, and that shootings by police officers are investigated fully and fairly.

And the best way to accomplish that is to authorize private citizen panels to review all police shootings of suspects and to create independent, professional monitors who can help police enhance their own safety as well as those they are sworn to protect.

Community tensions over fatal police action have been high since last year, when DeKalb County police were involved in a dozen fatal shootings of suspects, an unusually high number for a department its size. Then in November, narcotics officers in Atlanta killed an elderly woman in a hail of gunfire when they broke through the front door of her home in a botched drug raid.

So far, the Atlanta incident resulted in two officers pleading guilty last month to manslaughter in state court, and to federal charges of conspiracy to violate the civil rights of the dead woman. A third officer has been charged with false imprisonment and making false statements to police investigators.

Meanwhile federal officials have an ongoing probe of police misconduct in Atlanta's narcotics division as a result of what they learned about the cover-up of the botched drug raid. The 2006 DeKalb shootings have also resulted in a continuing special grand jury investigation into police conduct.

Even as those investigations continue, the metro area has witnessed a spate of suspect shootings in recent months.

After being called to break up a fight, Fulton County police shot and killed Ron Pettaway and wounded his brother Roy outside a College Park night club April 15. Neither man was armed, and the family of the Pettaway brothers has asked a judge to issue criminal warrants against the two officers involved.

The county police department continues to investigate the shootings, as does the county district attorney and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. But so far little information has been made public and distrust within the community is growing.

Since the first of the year, police officers in Acworth and Clayton County have each shot and killed a suspect and Gwinnett County police have fatally shot two suspects.

In Atlanta, police have shot three suspects just since April 28, twice when trying to pull over vehicles and once when an officer chased a suspect on foot who had fled a car thought to be stolen.

There were no fatalities in the three Atlanta shootings; with the exception of the Pettaway brothers case, there has also been no suggestion that police acted irresponsibly. Indeed, in one of the Gwinnett shootings and the one in Acworth, the suspects fired on officers who were protected by bullet-proof vests.

Yet only Atlanta seems to be dealing with the spate of shootings with any degree of seriousness. City Councilman H. Lamar Willis convinced the council to revitalize the city's moribund civilian review board and give it wide-ranging authority. The 11-member group will be given subpoena power to look into police conduct and issue yearly reports to the mayor and city council.

Rather than allowing an independent review, DeKalb's police chief decided to enact a new policy of asking the GBI and federal Drug Enforcement Agency to send agents to the scenes of police shootings to observe investigations. That is less a substantive policy than a PR move, since those agencies are limited to acting mostly as advisers to the county police commanders, not as independent reviewers.

Fulton, Cobb, Gwinnett and Clayton county police departments rely exclusively on county prosecuting attorneys to review suspect shooting cases. But most of the time those reviews are based on investigations conducted by the department's own internal affairs officers.

In those blessedly rare instances where the actions of the officers constitute a crime -- as they did in the Kathryn Johnston case -- prosecutors may seek criminal charges. But if not, the review usually ends there, with no effort made to probe the incidents further for lessons that might prevent future shootings.

For instance, in several of the recent incidents, including the fatal shooting in Clayton County, police shot into a moving vehicle, which in many departments is banned by policy.

In contrast, more than 100 large American cities and counties have adopted formal citizen-review panels or professional monitors to examine police conduct and make recommendations that can improve procedures.

Denver has a full-time monitor overseeing the city's 1,400-member police force and 850 county sheriff's deputies. The Denver monitor's $600,000-a-year budget includes lawyers, an ombudsman and a data analyst. Tucson, in Arizona, has both a professional monitor and an unpaid civilian review board with the authority to examine files on civilian complaints once the department's internal affairs unit has completed its work.

Police instinctively resist such oversight, often fearing that being second-guessed by civilians will make them afraid to use force when necessary. But the best cops know there is no substitute for constant training, up-to-date procedures and strict adherence to wise department policies.

By emphasizing and reviewing all three, the lives saved by independent overseers are just as likely to be those of police officers as they are those of suspects or civilians. Ignoring the issue will result in more deaths and less credibility for police and public officials alike.

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