Atlanta Citizens Review Board Gets on Activists’ Last Nerve
(APN) ATLANTA — On Thursday, May 14, 2015, the meeting of the Atlanta Citizens Review Board (ACRB) at the Ben Hill Recreation Center was packed with citizens expressing their dissatisfaction with the Board for myriad reasons. Current issues include demanding an end to the “Don’t Run Campaign” and demanding an investigation into the death of Alexia Christian.
The City of Atlanta created the ACRB after the 2006 police murder of Kathryn Johnston, 92, in order to provide civilian oversight to the actions of Atlanta Police. The Council even granted the Board direct subpoena power in 2010, as previously reported by APN.
However, those familiar with the Board’s operations say it has failed to live up to their expectations.
- Lack of transparency, with the removal of complaints from the Board’s website in 2012;
- A low proportion of sustained complaints, with the Board rejecting or not sustaining the vast majority of complaints;
- Difficulty with the Board even having a quorum so that it can conduct its own meetings, according to a review of the Board’s minutes;
- One member of the Board, Ruth Price, being a retired police officer, who almost never, if ever, supports a citizen complaint;
- The City rejecting the first two Executive Director candidates who were recommended by the Selection Committee; and most recently,
- The “Don’t Run” campaign.
Some twenty billboards have gone up around town telling young men, ‘Don’t run from the police,’ and this has outraged the community. Community leaders told the Board the campaign sends the wrong message: it blames the victims of police violence and murder.
People at the meeting want the campaign stopped and the billboards immediately taken down. Others said the ACRB’s credibility had been damaged by the “Don’t Run Campaign.”
Activists cited the names of numerous high profile victims who were recently killed by police who did not run; some were in their own home when they were shot and killed by the police.
“I have concerns about the Don’t Run campaign legally and constitutionally. When you have a public campaign telling citizens to don’t do something that is legal and constitutional, you have a problem,” State Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) told Board Members.
“I have clients who run from the police because they are going to be terrorized and injured,” Tiffany Roberts, a private attorney, said.
“The ACRB now sounds like it is a police talking-piece, telling young men to not run. It is embarrassing, shameful, and detrimental. I have worked as a public defender in Atlanta for seven years and I can tell you, the distrust, fear, violence that exists between my clients and the police is deep, real and it needs a resolution,” Anna Kurien said.
“It is taxpayers’ dollars that is paying for the billboards, so you are paying for your own demise. Twenty billboards at a minimum of fifteen hundred each, that’s thirty thousand dollars,” Kalonji Changa, National Coalition to Combat Police Terrorism, explained to the Board.
Several Board Members seemed unaware of the “Don’t Run Campaign” or of the actual cost.
Individuals and organizations requested the ACRB to investigate the death of Alexia Christian, who was shot and killed in the back of a police car in downtown Atlanta on April 30, 2015.
The circumstances of what happened are confusing and conflicting. Some reports say she was handcuffed. Other reports say she was not handcuffed and that she had a gun and shot at the police first.
Many people, including her family, are asking for a full investigation. They want the dash camera video from the police cruiser released and any street surveillance camera videos released.
“The Chief says, we can’t release it until after the investigation. That’s stonewalling. That video is not owned by the police.. it’s the property of the people,” Sen. Fort said.
Many other concerns were raised, including problems filing a complaint; problems with transparency; how many complaints Atlanta Police Chief George Turner has turned down; the fact that most complaints do not seem to go anyplace; people being afraid to make a complaint; whether the ACRB actually has any meaningful power; how the Board is spending its increased budget; whether there is enough representation of young people on the Board; and the manner by which Board members are selected, which is by the Council instead of the people.
“In the last three years, this Board’s budget has more than doubled, and yet when we go online we can’t find any Board minutes since November 2014, and no complaint information since 2012. So where is the transparency of this board?” Xochitl Bervera, Director, Racial Justice Action Center, asked the Board.
APN readers can go to their website, http://acrbgov.org/ , and see for one’s self that this is true.
According to the FY15 Operating Budget Highlights for the ACRB General Fund, the 2013 actual expenditures were 329,639 dollars and the 2015 budget is 645,800 dollars.
At one point, William Harrison, Chairman of the ACRB, asked the people in the audience to contact the City Council and ask them to expand ACRB power. Harrison was referring to the fact that the APD does not have to accept the Board’s recommendations regarding the complaints it investigates.
“You have to use the power you have now or we don’t want you to expand your power,” one member of the audience shouted back.
One man complained that he could not file a complaint because the website was down, and said he was given an email address that turned out to be a wrong email address.
The 2014 ACRB annual report shows that in 2014, only 22 percent of the complaints filed were sustained, meaning that the Board found evidence to support the finding that the police committed the violation.
Out of that 22 percent, only half were accepted by APD. It is not immediately clear from the report what disciplinary actions, if any, the police took in those cases.
There is at least one case where the Board’s findings did lead to disciplinary actions being taken against APD officers, and that is the Atlanta Eagle raid of 2009.
However, in another incident previously reported by APN, the Board declined to review a complaint where two APD officers stopped and questioned a person for looking homeless. The Board declined to take the case after deciding that the police may have legitimately determined that questioning homeless looking people was a good way to fight crime.
The last person to speak was Alexia Christian’s sister.
“We put my sister in the ground last Saturday and we still don’t know what happened to her. The media make her out a criminal. Nothing she did had anything to do with her being gunned down in the back of a police car. There needs to be an investigation,” she said. Then she broke down in tears.
Without any recognition or acknowledgement of the family’s pain, Chairman Harrison abruptly said, “We are going to go into executive session now to discuss the issues.”
The audience really became hostile at that point, with everyone talking at the same time, and saying that the Board should apologize for the attitude of disrespect and dismissal of the family members.
“The website in under construction and we are going to update that website. There are areas that are outdated,” Harrison told APN in a phone interview.
Harrison told APN he did not believe it was accurate that complaints have not been posted since 2012. The current information may be in a different place, he said.
Harrison said he would provide APN with additional information about the outcome of sustained complaints.