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Police Brutality in Atlanta

by Jonathon S. Wright

Shattered glass lies in piles in a vacant parking lot in Atlanta’s trendy Buckhead district. Much of this glass can be traced to automobile break-ins, as late-night revelers sacrifice security for a free parking space. On July 14, however, the life of 18-year-old Corey Ward was ended prematurely in a different shower of glass, after an undercover Atlanta police officer shot and killed him.

Officer R. S. Bunn says that he shot Ward in self-defense, alleging that Ward attempted to ram him with an SUV after being ordered to stop. According to Bunn and his partner, Ward and five friends were attempting to steal a car when he identified himself as a police officer and attempted to make an arrest.

Ward’s family and at least some of the people in the car with him tell a different story, claiming that Ward was wrongly profiled as a thief simply because he was a young black man driving a new SUV. They maintain that Bunn and his partner never identified themselves as police officers, and then shot him for no good reason.

A five year veteran, this is not the first time that Officer Bunn has been accused of using unnecessary force. There are four other cases in his file in which claims have been brought. The only one of those four which resulted in any disciplinary action was the beating of Michael Jascomb during a drug arrest, and that centered on Bunn’s failure to report the use of force. Although Jascomb was suffering from a retinal hemorrhage after the incident, his claim of excessive force was dismissed.

About a week after Jascomb’s claim was dismissed, Bunn was accused of hitting Mark Norfleet in the head with his baton during an arrest. Norfleet’s claims were dismissed entirely, as were those of Joe Summers, who accused Bunn and a group of other officers of taking him into an alley and beating him.

On September 3, 2000, Bunn was involved in an altercation with Ylia Lavender, who claimed that he punched her in the face without provocation, breaking her eye socket. Lavender’s claim was dismissed due to lack of evidence, but she has since joined with the family of Corey Ward in bringing a suit against the Atlanta police. Her vision remains impaired due to the incident.

Rev. Markel Hutchins, national president and CEO of the National Youth Connection, opined at an August 3 rally that these incidents are representative of a justice system that would “rather lock young black America up than lift them up,” contending that “if the Atlanta Police Department had done their job and taken R. S. Bunn off the street in 2000, Corey Ward would be here today.” Unfortunately, the case of Corey Ward appears symptomatic of a police department too willing to use deadly force.

Twelve people have been shot by Atlanta police this year, the most since 1995, and five of the shootings have been fatal. At the time of the killing of Corey Ward there had been three incidents involving police shooting at cars within eight days, and, in the last month, two alleged prostitutes have been shot by undercover vice officers, prompting Police Chief Richard Pennington to suspend vice patrols temporarily.

On July 10, 18-year-old Aneika James was wounded after she allegedly stabbed a vice officer during an arrest at 5pm in Perkerson Park, an area heavily occupied by local children, despite the request of a park employee that the police cease patrolling the area at that time of day. Less than a month later, on August 5, 35-year-old Tessa Hardeman was fatally shot by another undercover vice officer after she allegedly pepper-sprayed him and stabbed him during an arrest.

On August 8, only three days after Tessa Hardeman’s death, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran a story outlining several complaints of police abuse by prostitutes, who claim that they are often taken advantage of by policemen who use their badge as a form of extortion. Maj. Leander Robinson, who is in charge of the criminal investigation unit that oversees the vice squad, suggests that these men could be posing as police using fake badges; however, in the face of these allegations, it remains difficult to discount the possibility of either of these women feeling forced to wield a knife in self-defense against an ill-intentioned assailant who was later revealed to be an officer.

Chief Pennington maintains that “This department has a great reputation in terms of not being involved in excessive force,” and has promised to look into department policies and procedures with regards to both shooting at vehicles and vice squad patrols. However, the efficacy of disciplinary procedures for Atlanta-area police has been called into question recently, most notably in the November 28, 2001 issue of Creative Loafing, which exposed issues of gross miscommunication and lax discipline in the cases of ten Fulton County Sheriff’s Deputies who had been charged with excessive force or reckless behavior either on or off duty but had faced little or no disciplinary action. The Creative Loafing report also documented a near-complete lack of communication between the Sheriff’s Department and the Peace Officer Standards and Training Council, the only agency with the authority to revoke the license of a peace officer in Georgia, meaning that a deputy whose license had been revoked could continue to hold onto his or her job and badge. As a result, community confidence in police disciplinary procedures has been sorely shaken.

To exacerbate matters, the city was recently split by the trial of Imam Jamil al-Amin, a trial regarded by many to have been biased and unfair. This spate of shootings has only served to charge the atmosphere further. When 300 protestors rallied peacefully on August 3 in support of the families of Corey Ward and Ylia Lavender, the hundreds of police lined up to “control” them seemed to signify a growing rift between Atlanta’s police and its populace, a battle line already drawn, increasingly distinct. Sgt. V. Sellers, a supervisor in the zone where R. S. Bunn shot Corey Ward, states, “You can’t even go to the restaurants anymore. Where are you going to park? What’s the crowd like? Is my car going to get broken into? It’s not even worth it. This is the battle we’re trying to fight for the people of Atlanta.” All of this martial symbolism begs one question: if there is in fact a war in progress, what can be done to bring peace to the streets of Atlanta?

The basic root of the conflict is our society’s method of policing, a method that pervades our entire justice system, and that has led to the misguided and rhetorical declaration of a “war on crime”. Our police department must evolve from a paramilitary organization into an organization that is integrated with the fabric of the community, an organization that provides for the public safety in a manner that doesn’t make ordinary citizens feel uncomfortable every time they pass a uniformed officer. This transition could be effected by moving most officers from the crime fighting and investigation sectors of the department to a sector designated “Public Safety”.

A small number of police should continue to perform “traditional” police jobs like responding to crime scenes, investigating crimes, and pursuing criminals. Officers in the Public Safety sector, on the other hand, would dramatically alter the community’s view of police. They wouldn’t be the faceless people who always show up too late; they would be the familiar faces from the everyday beat. The resulting trust would enable public safety officers to take the pulse of the community, to be a conduit of information from the community, and to solve minor problems before they escalate into violence. These officers would not carry guns.. The use of guns to “keep the peace” is counterproductive because guns inspire fear, which in turn inspires irrational and violent behavior, as well as distrust.

Shifting our policing focus to community-based Public Safety patrols would likely decrease the occurrence of violence in those communities, as is evidenced by lower crime rates in countries that have traditionally followed that approach. It would also allow police departments to provide much more intensive training for those officers who are permitted to carry guns, thus helping to minimize the abuse of firearms. The plan would take time and patience to implement, but would be a tremendous step forward in community-police relations.

The suffering of the families of Corey Ward, Ylia Lavender, Aneika James, Tessa Hardeman, and countless others demands justice. While a portion of this justice is manifested in holding police accountable for their actions, true justice cannot be achieved until we address the larger issue. It is time that the people of Atlanta not fear the police as much as they fear the crime that police are intended to fight. It is time that our police move away from their reliance on intimidation and guns as a method of controlling the populace, and instead invest in the communities they are hired to protect and serve.

Jonathon S. Wright can be reached at: jonwri@bellsouth.net

 

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