Pennington takes blame for 2006 Johnston shooting — or does he?
One week ago, Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington apologized and shouldered the blame for the 2006 shooting death of Kathryn Johnston.
At a forum for mayoral candidates, Pennington said:
“I take full responsibility for what happened. … You can’t have an ongoing healing process until someone steps up and say[s] they were wrong.”
But in court papers, Pennington tells a somewhat different story.
Attorneys for Johnston’s estate claim arrest quotas pressured narcotics detectives to obtain search warrants based on false information. One such bogus warrant led police in November 2006 to 933 Neal St. N.W., where they broke down the 92-year-old Johnston’s front door and gunned her down as she defended herself.
Pennington acknowledges the department sets annual performance standards for the narcotics unit and other officers. But attorneys for the chief said Johnston’s lawyers have distorted evidence and misquoted testimony about those standards “to a degree bordering on intentional deception.”
Placing the blame on alleged arrest quotas, city attorneys said, is “a blatant attempt to circumvent justice in order to impose liability upon two Defendants [Pennington and the city] who are clearly not responsible for the illegal actions of a few rogue officers.”
Three former officers are serving federal prison sentences for their roles in Johnston’s death and a subsequent cover-up, and two others have been convicted for related crimes. Now, the city and Pennington are in court defending a civil rights suit filed in 2007 by Johnston’s niece.
The so-called arrest quotas are at the center of the legal dispute. Lt. Stacie Gibbs, who ran the narcotics squad, testified in July that her detectives were rated as “effective” if they met certain numeric goals for arrests and search warrants. (Her deposition was filed in court under seal, but portions were disclosed as part of a recent motion by Johnston’s lawyers.)
Those performance standards were not intended as quotas, Pennington testified a few days later, in a deposition that was also filed under seal.
In excerpts disclosed in court papers, Pennington said he prohibited arrest quotas in the department. Gibbs’ performance standards appeared to cross that line, he said, but he still didn’t regard them as arrest quotas. That’s because narcotics detectives were rated by the percentage of lead, or tips, that they closed with an arrest, not a hard number.
Gibbs asked detectives to execute, on average, at least two search warrants each month and to clear at least 50 percent of the leads, or tips, assigned to them with an arrest. Those fell under “critical job element #3” of the detectives’ performance evaluations.
But another supervisor, Maj. Ernest Finley, testified that about 25 percent of the leads given to narcotics investigators were reliable.
“A lot of these lead sheets that we get is — it’s the way for the community to vent, to get some type of police visibility. Again, these officers are not motivated to go out there and arrest the world. If they don’t have PC [probable cause], they will not make an arrest. A lot of the responses on these lead sheets were bad addresses, no activity, no activity. And so, again, it was part of what we do, but it wasn’t anything that was numbers driven.”
Narcotics investigators’ performance was rated as needing improvement if they cleared 30 to 49 percent of their leads with an arrest. Less than that was deemed “unacceptable.”
Pennington professed ignorance of the specific goals set for the narcotics squad. But overall, he defended numeric measurements as perhaps the only way to rate employees’ performance.
“…in police departments, critical job elements come up every day; not just in narcotics, but almost every unit throughout the police department because how, how else are you going to measure what these officers do if you don’t have a performance evaluation or performance standards? You’ve got to have some way to measure what police officers do in the, in the police department. And the only way we can measure what they do is based on productivity.”