It is time for the leaders and citizens of Atlanta to reaffirm their commitment to citizen oversight of police. The Atlanta Citizen Review Board (“the Review Board”) was established by a unanimous vote of the City Council in March 2007. It was, in part, a response to the shooting of Ms. Kathryn Johnston in what has now become known as the Neal Street shooting or the “botched raid.” The Council established a board of eleven volunteer citizens to conduct complaint investigations and studies in order to improve trust and accountability between the Atlanta Police Department and the citizens of the city. Sir Robert Peel, the founder of municipal policing, understood that the ability to perform police functions depends upon securing the cooperation and approval of the public.
Many cities throughout the United States have established Citizen Oversight Boards. Washington, DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles have investigatory models of oversight. Since the Atlanta Citizen Review Board’s inception, there has been a lack of full cooperation by the Atlanta Police Department. After a director and investigative staff were hired in September 2008, the police department reluctantly provided information and reports to assist the Board to address complaints filed by citizens. However, officers are still not required to submit to interviews by members of the Review Board staff. Before ending his tenure as Police Chief, Richard Pennington issued a directive that only requires officers to appear but not to be interviewed. This does not promote good complaint resolution and does not help to strengthen the relationships that the Atlanta Police Department aspires to build with its citizens. Interim Chief George Turner has affirmed this policy of non compliance.
The Atlanta Citizen Review Board has tried to reach out to Mayor Reed in order to discuss this important issue. The Executive Director and the Board have requested meetings numerous times. The Mayor has not responded. During the Mayor’s campaign he said that he believed that the Board should be better funded, that the Board needed subpoena power and that the Board needed more robust investigatory capabilities. However, he has not required Interim Chief George Turner to discipline officers who refused to give statements. This is inconsistent. This does not ensure a robust investigation nor does it help to ensure that each individual is treated well and has his or her rights protected. Currently, 36 officers have either refused to appear or have refused to be interviewed. Neither Chief Pennington nor Interim Chief Turner has imposed discipline on these officers despite the fact that this refusal is a violation of the city ordinance that established the Board’s authority. It also undermines the Board’s ability to do its important work.
Recently, eighteen officers have refused to answer questions about the incident that occurred on September 10, 2009 at the Eagle Bar. This made it necessary to ask the Committee on Council to issue subpoenas to these officers. This is a remarkable waste of time when the Police Chief could simply require officers to answer questions that are related to the work performed for the City of Atlanta. It is time to send a message that in order for the Board to perform its work, they will need the support and cooperation from the Police Department, the Mayor and City Council. The Police Chief has a responsibility to enforce all laws and the Mayor and City Council should require the Chief to enforce this law, which is designed to improve the quality of services provided by the City of Atlanta.