Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
The Office of Professional Standards is the internal affairs division of the Atlanta Police Department; it is divided into units that investigate allegations of corruption, brutality and other serious misconduct. OPS currently has a staff of approximately thirty-five (including civilian support staff, investigators, and supervisors) that is tasked with investigating the 2,300 employees on the police force.
The aftermath of the Jackson case and widespread criticism of the police force emerging from that case coincided with the criminal trial of officers, primarily from Zone 3 (one of six police zones in the city), who were accused of corruption. That trial raised new questions about OPS's effectiveness. One sergeant, in his testimony against another officer, explained that members of the "bad cop ring" did not fear an OPS investigation because they knew how to circumvent it: "As a supervisor, I knew my processes and I knew OPS's processes....It'd be the officer's word versus the citizen's and the officer would win out since there were no witnesses."26
At least six officers involved in the corruption scandal had personal experience with OPS procedures and had good reason to believe OPS would ignore or tolerate their criminal behavior, according to an investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.27 Despite many allegations of brutal treatment or violent behavior, these officers remained on the force until they faced federal corruption charges. Specific information was produced by the police department as part of the corruption investigation; this unusual glimpse into the department's apparent tolerance of violent behavior is cause for concern.
One of the officers was the subject of five brutality complaints. One complainant alleged that the officer and his partner drove him to a deserted location where the officer reportedly unzipped the man's pants and his partner grabbed the suspect's testicles and squeezed while asking questions; the officers also reportedly kicked and choked the man.28 Despite similar complaints by other suspects, OPS dismissed all five complaints as unfounded because there were no witnesses other than police officers, who backed the officer.29
Another officer, this one from Zone 6, reportedly had a violent past. In July 1991, he was charged with battering his live-in girlfriend, and in March 1993 faced the same charge from another girlfriend.30 According to newspaper reports, both times he was suspended with pay and reinstated when the women chose to drop the charges.31
A leader of the ring was arrested in DeKalb County for allegedly battering his wife, leading to a court-ordered psychological profile, which reportedly stated that he had been in seventy-five fistfights in his lifetime, including some while on duty.32 His wife recanted, and prosecutors dropped charges against him. After the corruption scandal broke, Atlanta police reopened an internal investigation into the 1993 shooting death of a criminal suspect who was shot five times by the officer after a foot chase, including three times in the back at a distance of two and a half feet. Nonetheless, despite questions about his actions and many complaints from suspects and his supervisors alleging misconduct, the officer was praised by superiors in annual performance reports for his "gung ho" attitude.33
Three more officers involved in the corruption ring had been cleared by OPS in a 1993 shooting incident that crippled Sameth Svay. Svay was shot by police during an investigation into illegal gambling. In files turned over to the AtlantaJournal-Constitution, Svay's sworn statement about the incident was missing (he had been charged with assaulting an officer and illegal gambling, but charges were later dropped), and the files reportedly show that he was never interviewed by OPS during its inquiry that led to the officers' exoneration.34
When Human Rights Watch asked Lieutenant Lyle of OPS how these officers consistently avoided serious disciplinary sanctions or termination for these alleged abuses, Lyle suggested that the brutality complaints helped to spur the federal corruption investigation. If this is the case, it raises an obvious question: Why did brutality complaints lead to a corruption investigation instead of a civil rights probe? This comment may reveal a great deal about the priorities of both federal investigators and the Atlanta Police Department. National statistics suggest that federal prosecutors are much more likely to pursue official corruption cases than civil rights prosecutions. In fiscal year 1996, for example, approximately 40 percent of official corruption cases referred by the FBI to U.S. Attorneys were prosecuted, compared to approximately 4 percent of civil rights referrals.35
In another case, a civil lawsuit filed on behalf of Charles Cunningham alleges that the plaintiff was beaten with a flashlight by Atlanta Police Officer Charles Traylor on June 11, 1993.36 According to Cunningham, he was a bystander during a fistfight outside a nightclub in Atlanta when Officer Traylor arrived at the scene. Officer Traylor allegedly hit another individual with a flashlight, while Cunningham protested from some distance. Officer Traylor then allegedly struck Cunningham with the flashlight. The blow cut completely through Cunningham's lip, requiring an operation.
Traylor reportedly was found psychologically unfit for police work by several psychologists, one of whom warned in 1988 that "persistent demands to cope withstressful or demanding situations might lead to outbursts of emotion."37 Traylor's behavior was attributed to attention deficit disorder, and he was given medication. But, in 1992, a psychologist warned that Traylor was still not fit for full duty.38
This was all the more disturbing in that Officer Traylor had been convicted and disciplined for violent behavior in the past. In 1988 he was convicted of simple battery after he fought with another driver over a parking space.39 In 1989, Traylor fought with another officer after an argument over race relations and was hospitalized for his injuries. That fight resulted in a three-day suspension. Over half a dozen complaints had been filed against the officer, though none of these resulted in discipline. In one startling off-duty incident, Traylor reportedly shot at another vehicle on an interstate highway. He later stated that he thought he saw a revolver in the other vehicle; no firearm was found. As of August 1997, Officer Traylor was still on the force and working out of Zone 6; as part of the settlement with Cunningham, Traylor must remain on desk duty.40
The OPS staff who spoke with Human Rights Watch were suspicious of complainants' motives and appeared to give police the benefit of the doubt. An OPS representative told Human Rights Watch during an interview in November 1995, "People make complaints to get out of trouble."41 When Human Rights Watch questioned the low number of complaints received by the Atlanta police and the OPS's assertion that the sustained rate is very low, OPS asserted, "We don't have a brutal police force here."42 The same sergeant from OPS was not aware of any brutality case leading to dismissal.
The OPS does maintain an early warning system, but when questioned by Human Rights Watch, Chief Harvard refused to disclose the number of officers who have been reviewed under the system.43 If three or more maltreatment complaints are filed against an officer in a one-year period, whether or not the complaints are sustained, a review is initiated. Similarly, four firearms discharges by an officer in a five-year period result in a review. Of course, if the review of an officer results in no retraining or counseling (as seems to have been the case with some of the officers involved in the Zone 3 corruption), procedures leading to review may not be sufficient.
26 Bill Torpy, "Jailed cop tells of thefts by police," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, February 23, 1996.
27 Bill Rankin, "Badges for sale," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, February 18, 1996. In the absence of any other police monitoring group in the city, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has played an unusually active role in obtaining information about police misconduct.
35 Information collected from the Executive Office of the U.S. Attorney's office by the Transactional Research Access Clearinghouse, a private research group.
36 Civil complaint, Cunningham v. City of Atlanta, Eldrin Bell (former A.P.D. Chief of Police), Officer Charles Traylor, U.S. District Court, Northern District (Atlanta Division) 94-CV-1018-RHH, May 1, 1995. Information provided by the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, which represents the plaintiff in this case. Peter Mantius, "Brutality lawsuit filed against Atlanta officer," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 19, 1994.
37 Cunningham v. City of Atlanta, Eldrin Bell (former A.P.D. Chief of Police), Officer Charles Traylor, U.S. District Court, Northern District (Atlanta Division) 94-CV-1018-RHH, May 1, 1995, quoting Dr. Myrna Burnette.
38 Ibid., citing Dr. Stephen O'Hagan.
39 Cunningham v. City of Atlanta, Eldrin Bell (former A.P.D. Chief of Police), Officer Charles Traylor, U.S. District Court, Northern District (Atlanta Division) 94-CV-1018-RHH, May 1, 1995.
40 Telephone interview, Gerald Weber, ACLU of Georgia, April 27, 1998.
41 Human Rights Watch interview with Sgt. Dennis Mullen, OPS, Atlanta, November 1, 1995.
42 Ibid. Despite repeated requests, the OPS was unable or unwilling to provide us with a precise, or even estimated, sustained rate for abuse complaints. Sergeant Mullen's statement that the sustained rate is "very low" was the only response provided.
43 Letter to Human Rights Watch from Chief Beverly Harvard, January 27, 1998.
© June 1998
Human Rights Watch