Audit Finds Trouble in City Police Department
Police chief backs findings
Steve Visser and Ty Tagami, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Feb. 20
Atlanta’s troubled Police Department for years has failed to confront a serious crime problem and has even downplayed it, a new audit concludes.
Police Chief Richard Pennington said the report, to be released today, describes a department where crime reports have been either intentionally suppressed or lost through sloppy record keeping. The result has been altered crime statistics, he said.
Pennington, who came to Atlanta from New Orleans in 2002, asked New York-based Linder & Associates to review a year’s worth of reported crimes to determine whether each was properly classified and documented.
Pennington indicated when the audit was commissioned that he would use the findings to make major changes in the department, which he said suffered from low morale, understaffing and inadequate equipment.
The research firm was paid by the Atlanta Police Foundation, which Pennington formed to raise money to supplement his department’s budget.
The police chief briefed the Journal-Constitution on the report Thursday and said he will discuss the findings at a breakfast today with business and community leaders at the Georgia World Congress Center.
The yearlong study relied on hundreds of interviews and surveys with Atlanta police officers and residents.
Among the findings:
— Crimes have been consistently under-reported to the public over the years - at least one ranking officer said the Police Department’s job was to protect the city’s image for tourism.
— Thousands of fugitives, including murderers, wander streets with little worry that they’ll be tracked down. Fugitives usually aren’t taken into custody until picked up on a traffic stop or another new crime.
— Atlanta’s crime problem is worse than the FBI crime statistics indicate because 15 other law enforcement agencies - such as universities and MARTA police - take reports but don’t report them to the Atlanta Police Department or FBI.
— A revolving-door justice system in Fulton County Superior Court ensures that many burglars, drug dealers, car thieves and snatch thieves - even if caught - spend little time in jail.
— The department has been corrupted by a culture that has made some cops more loyal to outside jobs than to their sworn duties as police officers.
“When they came to work, they are too tired to work,” Pennington said. “They came to work to relax.”
Most shocking to him, Pennington said, is that of the residents surveyed, only 27 percent saw crime as the city’s No. 1 problem.
“More people said they are concerned about traffic than they are about crime,” the police chief said.
Pennington said he would use the information in the audit to rally support to hire more police and improve their pay and equipment.
’Why we continue to fight’
Sgt. Scott Kreher, president of the Local 623 of the International Brotherhood of Police, said the report legitimizes the complaints of rank-and-file cops that they don’t have enough officers to respond to 911 calls and patrol the streets in many zones.
“Each year the beat officer doesn’t see improvement in manpower or equipment,” Kreher said. “All he sees is the population of the city increasing while the manpower decreases. This is why we continue to fight City Hall for better pay and pensions to retain experienced officers.”
Pennington said the department began to turn the corner last August - a year after he took charge - when he restructured the top brass. He said he already had instituted a system in which zone commanders met weekly to share crime information.
The audit shows that homicides, robberies and burglaries were rising until August and then declined, Pennington said.
But he warned that a lax attitude about crime fighting - among police, the public and politicians - could mean that the turnaround could be short-lived.
Kreher said Pennington’s reforms so far have boosted accountability and made the department more effective.
The police force has just under 1,500 sworn officers, which Pennington plans to increase to more than 1,700 this year. The city needs at least 2,000 officers to effectively patrol the city, the chief said.
Among the changes Pennington wants to make this year are:
— Move detectives from headquarters into the six police zones, which he says will defuse tension between patrol officers and detectives, increase information sharing on crime and ensure that detectives respond more quickly.
— Add 10 patrol beats to the department’s 56 and restructure beats for better patrol coverage.
— Increase the size of the narcotics unit and target midlevel and upper-level drug dealers instead of focusing on street sales. The unit would work closely with federal prosecutors to take down dealers.
— Double the size of the fugitive unit to about 14 officers and work more closely with the U.S. Marshals Service’s new regional fugitive squad.
Mayor Shirley Franklin, who hired Pennington, said police pay has fallen behind during the past decade.
The City Council voted Monday to give all city employees a 2 percent pay increase retroactive to January plus another 2 percent in July.
But Franklin said money alone won’t improve the city’s Police Department. She said leadership and a good strategy are key and expressed confidence in Pennington’s plan.
“The point is, now that we have a plan we have to find ways to finance it,” the mayor said.
Councilman H. Lamar Willis said police need more money but officials must learn to do more with less.
“Every report tells us we’re behind on everything, and every report tells us we need a whole lot more money,” said Willis, who is chairman of the council’s public safety committee. “Until we can become a leaner, more efficient city government, then I can’t support another tax increase.”
Councilman C.T. Martin, a member of the public safety committee, said he was skeptical of the report, since it was produced by consultants paid by the Atlanta Police Foundation.
David Klinger, a former police officer and currently a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, called Pennington’s criticism of his own department unusual in that police chiefs usually try to put the best face on their operations.
He said Pennington’s approach was not without risk.
“It could demoralize the cops further and the citizens could get mad at the cops,” Klinger said.
Mark Niesse, AP, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Feb. 20
ATLANTA — Atlanta underreported crimes for years to help land the 1996 Olympics and pump up tourism, according to an audit commissioned by police and released Friday.
Police in this relentlessly self-promoting city of the New South routinely altered or suppressed thousands of crime reports in a concerted effort “to improve Atlanta’s chances for selection,” the audit said, citing interviews with several officers.
“Crime incidents were downgraded, underreported and discarded,” the report said.
The practice of underreporting crime began during the site-selection process for the Olympics and continued until at least 2002, when Police Chief Richard Pennington and Mayor Shirley Franklin took office, the report said.
Pennington, who sought the audit, endorsed its findings and said he would seek money to add more than 300 street officers to the 1,600-member police force to crack down on the drug trade. He said 75 percent of violent crimes is tied to drugs.
“I don’t want to alarm the citizens or have them think that when they walk out on the streets, they’re going to be mugged shot or robbed because that’s not the case,” Pennington said. “The reason that I brought this to light is to educate the public that there’s a lot of work to be done.”
Atlanta officials have long nurtured the city’s image as a sophisticated, pro-business place. Calling itself “the city too busy to hate,” Atlanta came through the civil rights era with relatively little violence because civic leaders feared trouble would be bad for business.
Despite the distorted figures, Atlanta ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in violent crimes such as rape and murder in nine of the last 10 years, according to FBI crime data, which is compiled from reports submitted by police departments.
The audit was conducted by a New York consulting firm and paid for by the Atlanta Police Foundation, which was formed to raise private money to supplement the police department’s budget.
The report concluded that many crime reports have been either intentionally suppressed or lost through sloppy record-keeping. In 2002 alone, there were more than 22,000 missing police reports. Of those crimes, 4,281 could have been counted as violent offenses but were not.
Pennington said he wants to improve accountability, upgrade technology and increase officer pay by 40 percent. The mayor said she would work to find about $25 million in the budget to pay for new hires and salary increases.
Spurgeon Richardson, president of the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, warned that the city needs to clean up crime or risk losing lucrative convention business and corporate investment.
“The No. 1 item that meeting planners ask us to do is to be a safer city,” Richardson said. “We’ve all got to step forward to solve this problem.”
Georgia State University criminal justice professor Robert Friedmann agreed that safety will influence business decisions.
“I’ve seen a business association that has come here for 20 years questioning whether they will come back because the presenters have been accosted downtown a number of times,” he said.