Recap: Ordinance 20-O-1486, an effort to establish police accountability to the Fulton County District Attorney’s office

As City Council prepares to reconvene after its two-week long recess, here’s a refresh on a police accountability ordinance that was held in committee on Mon., July 13

Atlanta protesters holding signs during a demonstration downtown on June 3, 2020. Photography by A.R. Frank.

This piece was co-authored by S.M. Johnson and Aja Arnold.

ATLANTA — Last month, Councilmember Antonio Brown introduced new forms of legislation to Atlanta City Council which have since been reviewed prior to the council’s two-week recess that ended today. Among the legislations was Ordinance 20-O-1486, which was written to require the Atlanta Police Department to “provide information and cooperate with the Fulton County District Attorney’s office as necessary to facilitate and improve efficiency and enhance the transparency of investigations involving officer-involved shootings and incidents of serious bodily injury and accusations of sexual misconduct.”

A substitute for the original legislation was brought forward to the Public Safety Committee on Mon., July 13, which included minor verbiage changes as well as structural changes. The ordinance, authored by Councilman Brown, was written and introduced following an independent investigation he formed. The independent investigation transpired over the course of 90 days during Atlanta’s social and civil unrest in the form of consecutive protests raising awareness of police brutality and misconduct.

“I decided to form an independent investigation on what was transpiring in regards to why cases within our prosecuting offices were not moving forward in one way or another, understanding that the environment and conditions we are operating in are during a time of unrest and a lack of trust between community and police” explained Brown during his time alloted to speak on the legislation. “During this period, I interviewed various sources from APD officers in a variety of capacities within the police force, prosecuting agencies, individuals and families of victims impacted by police misconduct, and experts in the field that include recommendations from Obama’s 21st Century Policing report.”

Brown continued to say that through this independent investigative work, it was uncovered that “there was a broken system within city processes that was contributing to a breakdown of communications between the APD notifying prosecuting agencies.” He cited occurrences of “cell phones being wiped” and “locked” before being turned over to prosecuting agencies, along with a number of issues he chose to not publicize in the public listening session. He also noted “officers’ refusal to cooperate with prosecuting agencies and an overall blatant disconnect within the entire process.”

The original ordinance included six reforms in the following areas to improve efficiency and transparency between the APD and the FCDA:

  1. Incident Reporting 
  2. Control of Investigations 
  3. Sharing of Information 
  4. Cooperation with Investigation 
  5. Body and Dash Cams 
  6. Reports and Review

Of the six proposed in the original legislation, only four reforms remained in the legislative substitute that was presented during the July 13 council. All were revised into more watered-down versions of the originals, in many instances changing the reforms into “requests”:

  1. Incident Reporting 
  2. Sharing of Information 
  3. Cooperation with Investigation 
  4. Body and Dash Cams 

What happened: the long and short of it

It seems the ordinance in its original form never had a chance, considering the current ranks within City Council that seem deadlocked in moving forward any type of meaningful reform in response to police brutality and misconduct. We saw this earlier this year with the tanking of the Rayshard Brooks Bill and the majority of the council continuously pledging allegiance to the APD, halting any steps to defund the police and reallocate funds to community resources and programs. 

The general consensus between councilmembers and APD Police Chief Rodney Bryant was that Ordinance 20-O-1486 doesn’t bring anything new to the table in regards to the systems already in place between the FCDA and the APD.

Brown attempted to explain that although there are SOPs in place, there is a lack of oversight and enforcement, which was what the ordinance sought to implement. He further explained the purpose of the legislation is to not only provide enforcement, timely reporting, and an efficient and transparent exchange of information, but also to provide protections to officers who serve as whistleblowers. The lack of protections has caused a lot of officers to refuse to cooperate with the FCDA, as Brown mentioned and was later echoed by District Attorney Paul Howard during the meeting.

To be fair to the opposing members’ argument, there are a set of SOPs in place that are mentioned in the ordinance. However, what the ordinance does is call into account that those procedures have not been and will not be enforced without this type of legislation that seeks to install. According to Brown, the legislation is merely something to be implemented in addition to the SOPs already in place to ensure that what is supposed to happen is happening. 

After the original ordinance was introduced in session, Councilmember Sheperd immediately made requests for substitutions, which was seconded by Councilmember Carla Smith. These requests included changes to words such as “must” to “should,” “Fulton County District Attorney” to “Prosecuting Attorney,” and “requesting” to “requiring,” along with changing the roles and responsibilities of the FCDA in these investigations and removing parts of and whole reforms that were laid out in the original ordinance. This not only changed the language of the ordinance, but also the overall strength of what Councilman Brown wanted to accomplish.

A vote was immediately called and carried by all members of the committee to adopt the substitutions. 

The original ordinance was severely altered by the requests for substitutions in the language, which were all approved by the legal department. Additionally, Bryant stated the police “already cooperate fully” in these types of investigations, saying that the legislation would not significantly affect anything already being done. In regards to the whistleblower portion of the ordinance, Amber Robinson of the legal department stated that, “It’s already in place because of state law.”

Chief Bryant was asked to provide clarifications and opinions on current standing operating procedures (SOPs) and the legislation. He said that if incidents occur, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation is first contacted to do an investigation and then the District Attorney is called. 

“We would rather have an impartial and independent investigation by GBI,” he said, explaining that this is in accordance with the Obama’s 21st Century Policing report. It should be noted that Bryant had not heard the updated language of the ordinance which caused some confusion when he was making his statement. He was updated, but still stuck to his original statement. 

Howard spoke to the legislation and what he felt was its importance, stating that, “Those things are not already happening; and because they’re not already happening, they cause undue delays in many of the cases that we prosecute.” He continued to explain that the ordinance initially sought to identify the District Attorney as the independent investigating agency, which is in compliance with the 21st Century Policing Task Force.

“What the task force recommendation says,” he explained, “is that police officers should not investigate themselves. The GBI is another police agency. The independent external agency I believe is best suited to handle these investigations is the District Attorney’s Office, because it is the office that ultimately decides if someone is prosecuted.”

He also explained that once the GBI completes an investigation, they don’t follow through with any recommendations. “They simply conduct an investigation,” he said. “Right now, whether or not an incident is reported to us is at the mercy of the police department.”

Howard cited specific cases in which his staff has been barred from entering crime scenes, including the officer involved shootings of Maurice Hampton in 2013 and Jimmy Atchison in 2019. He continued to explain that in the case of Rayshard Brooks’ death that occurred on June 12, 2020, the District Attorney’s office was notified by a civilian, not anyone affiliated with the police department or other police agency. Because of this, he said his office wasn’t able to be on the scene until 1:15 a.m., while the shooting occurred around 11:30 p.m.; he pointed out that these were crucial hours of a police investigation.

In regards to incidents involving sexual assault committed by police officers, Howard shared there is one case being investigated right now that involves an Atlanta officer with two sexual assault complaints from 2011. He said that the District Attorney’s office was “finally notified” by the news media in 2017 and received a report from the police department in 2018.

Based on what we heard in this city council meeting, it appears that neither Brown’s independent investigation or Howard’s sentiments were thoroughly taken into account. Instead, they were countered with what seemed to be previously held frustrations towards Howard and the District Attorney’s office. Councilmembers on the committee, particularly President Felicia Moore and Councilmember Dustin Hillis, seemed to have a contentious relationship with Howard, who is currently being investigated by the GBI for use of nonprofit funds and is facing sexual harassment allegations which he has strongly denied. In regards to Ordinance 20-O-1486, Howard’s thoughts and testimony were largely negated by past cases, the current investigation, and the fact that Howard is up for re-election.

The legal department was called to clarify the legalities of the language changes which were reviewed and approved. Legal also pointed out that the ordinance does not create any “disruption or creation of additional obligations on the APD.” The language regarding the FCDA was changed to better include the other jurisdictions like Dekalb County.

Throughout the meeting, Councilmembers Amir Farokhi, Cleta Winslow, Hillis, and Moore, continued to push the narrative that this legislation was “redundant, duplicitous, and already in place.” Brown continued to rebut those statements, quickly interjecting Hillis’ comments specifically, stating “the legislation isn’t about what’s in place, but what’s being done.” He went on to say that while there are SOPs in place, they’re simply not being adhered to, which somehow prompted Winslow to proceed in a tangent in which she referred to cases in  Pittsburgh in the ‘90s.

“I don’t want the public to think the APD is running amok with bad police officers,” she said, referring to decades-old examples of drug dealing in Pittsburgh and the FBI being brought in by the APD to handle those situations. Winslow’s statements ultimately failed to drive home any significant context to the conversation regarding the relationship between the GBI, the APD, and the FCDA.

Councilmembers began to pick apart Howard’s comments, labeling them as personal issues and conflicts of interests. At one point, Howard was interrupted and cut off by Moore who asked him to “wrap it up,” saying his comments were not “fact-based.” Hillis brought up previous cases and meetings he said were ignored by the District Attorney’s office, a similar sentiment that Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms shared following Rayshard Brooks’ death before Howard brought down charges to the involved officers in the fatal shooting.

Howard and Councilman Brown were refused further time to counter any of the statements, while Bryant doubled down on the GBI being the lead investigator during instances of officer involved shootings. Moore concluded that both sides were heard and said more time was needed to discuss Howard’s examples. She then rushed to call for final comments or a motion. Hillis took a few more shots at Howard and then called for a motion to hold, saying to Howard, “Maybe now I’ll get that meeting.” 

The motion to hold was almost immediately seconded by Winslow and a vote was quickly called, carrying a 6-1 vote (six yays, one nay) to hold the ordinance in committee to be reviewed at a later date. 

City Council reconvenes from its two-week recess on Mon., Aug. 3. While we know City Council will be revisiting the 8 Can’t Wait legislation that Mayor Bottoms vetoed on Tue., July 14, it is not clear when the council will revisit this particular ordinance.

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