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Police oversight board looks to mayor and chief for cooperation


richard penningtonShould Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington discipline officers who won’t cooperate with a citizen oversight board?

We may find out next week, when board members sit down to hash things out with Pennington (right) and Mayor Shirley Franklin.

The board was formed two years ago by city ordinance in response to a botched drug raid that killed 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston. (Five officers have been sentenced in federal court for crimes uncovered in the aftermath of that incident.)

But now, as the board digs in to its first cases, rank-and-file police officers are refusing to talk to the board’s investigators.

The officers show up, accompanied by a union lawyer, when they are summoned to an interview, said Cris Beamud, the board’s executive director. They just won’t answer any questions.

Leaders of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers cite concerns about self-incrimination, particularly in cases where criminal prosecution is an option.

Officers are given the so-called Garrity warning, derived from a 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision. In that case, the court ruled that police could not be compelled to provide information that would later be used to prosecute them. Given that protection, however, officers can be fired for refusing to cooperate with an investigation.

Union representatives have complained that the particular wording of the review board’s Garrity warning is inadequate. But Beamud said the union’s lawyers have told her that’s not the issue. Really, she said, they want to know whether Pennington will come down hard on cops who don’t cooperate.

They said, “in effect, they were testing to see what the chief was going to do,” Beamud said.

The city’s ordinance says police personnel, if they are the subject of a criminal investigation, may elect not to appear before the board until the investigation is over. Beamud said, however, that Atlanta officers are not cooperating in any cases.

“I do not see any other way to accomplish the compelling of statements from officers other than to ask the police chief and the mayor to impose discipline on the officers,” Beamud said.

The board decided its first case Thursday night, concluding that three officers responding to a January bank robbery used excessive force in questioning a bystander carrying a backpack. The board recommended retraining but no disciplinary action. (The complainant was not harmed, but other details of the case are not yet public.)

The panel stopped short of calling for discipline for the officers’ refusal to answer questions about the incident. First, they said, they’d like to see how the mayor and police chief respond. A meeting is scheduled for Tuesday.





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