Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
In Atlanta, the police department and elected leadership boast of low complaint rates of police brutality. Chief Beverly Harvard recently noted to Human Rights Watch that in 1996, out of a total of 288 citizen complaints against the police that the department investigated, only fifty-six involved unauthorized use of force; and in 1997, the department investigated 331 complaints, of which sixty-one involved unauthorized use of force.1 This is, as the mayor has stated in the past, a very low number of complaints.2
What these numbers do not show is the fact that the department chooses which complaints have enough merit to investigate, and its internal affairs unit - the office that carries out the investigations - is widely perceived as biased, while Atlanta has the weakest external review mechanism of any city that Human Rights Watch covered for this report.3 Moreover, Georgia grants the police special privileges in grand jury proceedings - privileges unique in the United States - such that prosecuting a police officer for crimes relating to the use of excessive force, or any other criminal charge, is even more difficult in this state than in others.
In these circumstances, it is extremely difficult to gauge how prevalent the problem of police abuse really is, though the city's public defender's office reports that many of its clients claim abuse.4 What can be said is that the complaint-intakeprocess is flawed, which discourages even legitimate complaints; the police department resists revealing information about the cases it has received and investigated; and there is no independent agency, commission, or nongovernmental organization that regularly monitors police brutality complaints so as to follow the process and tally the numbers and types of complaints in Atlanta.
During the past several years, Atlanta's police department has received negative publicity for, among other cases, an officer's fatal shooting of an unarmed man in December 1995, five officers caught on videotape beating a motorist in April 1997, and a corruption scandal that revealed how little police officers fear the oversight of the Office of Professional Standards (OPS), the internal affairs unit, with regard to brutality complaints. These cases and others indicate that there is a need for more sustained, forceful independent oversight, to check on the rigor of internal investigations and to ensure that, where complaints are justified, the offending officers are disciplined or charged as appropriate.
On December 7, 1995, suspecting a robbery in progress, plainclothes Atlanta police officer Willie T. Sauls entered a motorcycle shop with his gun drawn and shouting obscenities. An employee thought the police surrounding the store were themselves robbers, and a gunfight ensued. When the shooting stopped, a customer named Jerry Jackson was dead and two others, including Officer Sauls, were wounded.5
What was initially reported as a tragically botched raid became a significant scandal when witnesses who viewed some of the incident from a nearby building contacted reporters weeks after the shooting, stating that they had attempted to provide police investigators with their eyewitness accounts but were ignored. The witnesses claimed that police spokespeople quoted in the press were misleading the public because they did not want to acknowledge what the witnesses reportedly had seen: Sauls's partner, Officer Waine Pinckney, shooting Jackson as he lay prone and unarmed on the sidewalk outside the store, apparently posing no risk.6
The incident exposed a range of problems, from poor training to serious shortcomings in investigative procedures, since eyewitnesses' statements were either not taken or ignored once received.7 The Jackson shooting also highlighted the absence of any external check on the police department generally, because unlike most U.S. major cities, Atlanta had no functional citizen review mechanism. In the shootings' aftermath the city's Civilian Review Board was re-activated, though unfortunately not with adequate powers.8
The review of police brutality complaints is entirely in the hands of the police. According to the department's internal affairs unit, the Office of Professional Standards (OPS), each precinct is allowed a great deal of discretion in deciding which cases are serious enough to submit to the OPS. According to police abuse experts in the city, there is a perception that the internal affairs unit is not interested in pursuing complaints against police officers, resulting in distrust of the OPS in many affected communities. Because victims of police abuse may not believe the OPS will handle their cases properly, many do not file formal complaints. Another important contributing factor in the low number of complaints filed with the OPS may be its requirement that a complainant must file his or her complaint in person, rather than filing a complaint form by mail.
1 Letter from Chief Beverly Harvard, January 27, 1998.
2 Kathy Scruggs, "Angry Harvard changing policies," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, January 11, 1996. In 1996, the department reportedly investigated only fifty-six complaints that alleged the use of unauthorized force. Compare this low rate to the San Francisco Police Department, which had a slightly larger force-in 1996, approximately 2,000 sworn officers with the San Francisco force compared to 1,500 with the Atlanta police. The San Francisco Police Commission's Office of Citizen Complaints receives 1,000 complaints each year, with approximately half of the complainants alleging unnecessary force or unauthorized action by the police. A further comparison: the San Jose (California) Police Department, which had approximately 1,200 sworn officers in 1996, received 198 unnecessary force complaints in 1994 and 122 in 1995. In other words, the San Jose force was 20 percent smaller than Atlanta's but, if Atlanta's official tally is to be believed, receives three times as many unnecessary force complaints.
3 Providence has no external review mechanism.
4 Telephone interview, Deputy Director Vanessa Gales, March 4, 1996. Those with physical signs of mistreatment are photographed by the public defender's Office and brought to the attention of the OPS
5 One officer, Ivant Fields, was on the scene even though he was under investigation for his second shooting in a sixteen-month period and should have been assigned to desk duty. R. Robin McDonald, "In 16 months, 2 shootings," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, February 6, 1996. Fields's presence at the scene raises additional questions since, according to Lt. Scott Lyle of the force's internal affairs unit, the Office of Professional Standards (OPS), officers involved in shooting incidents are removed from situations that may require the use of firearms until investigations are completed. Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Lieutenant Lyle, March 26, 1996.
6 Ronald Smothers, "Atlanta police face criticism in recent killing by an officer," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, December 29, 1995.
7 After the seriously flawed investigation into the Jackson shooting, Mayor Bill Campbell promised changes at the Atlanta Police Department. In February 1996, the commander of the homicide section, who was responsible for the Jackson investigation, was transferred to a senior position in the Office of Professional Standards (OPS), the internal affairs unit responsible for reviewing and investigating police misconduct. No official explanation was given for the transfer.
8 Scruggs, "Angry Harvard changing policies," Atlanta Journal-Constitution. According to Lieutenant Lyle of the OPS, his office initiated forty-seven unauthorized-use-of-force investigations in 1995. There were 134 such investigations in 1991; 125 in 1992; eighty-three in 1993; and sixty-one in 1994. In response to a query from Human Rights Watch, Chief Harvard reported that in 1996 the department investigated 288 citizen complaints, fifty-six of which involved unauthorized use of force, and in 1997 the department investigated 331 complaints, sixty-one of which involving unauthorized use of force. Letter from Chief Harvard, January 27, 1998.
© June 1998
Human Rights Watch