APD officers accused of invasive searches
By Rhonda Cook
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
5:55 a.m. Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Atlanta taxpayers have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle lawsuits brought by men who said they were touched inappropriately by police officers searching them, and the city is on the verge of paying out more.
Late last year, the Atlanta Police Department spent almost $300,000 to settle two lawsuits brought against officers who touched the genitals of suspects. And on Monday, the Atlanta City Council agreed to pay $470,000 to settle a lawsuit by five men who said officers pulled down their pants and touched them inappropriately while looking for drugs that were not found.
Critics say officers have continued to use invasive search techniques, even after earlier settlements, though some in law enforcement say they understand that officers don’t want to risk a hidden weapon.
“This is not something that happened just once with a particular officer who has issues,” said Marlon Kautz of the grassroots organization Copwatch. “It’s an observable pattern throughout the department. That’s got to make one ask is this a deliberate strategy on the part of APD to humiliate people.”
The APD has declined to comment on the issue, but former police officer Frank Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, said such searches are necessary. “I ... have missed weapons in the crotches of people, so regretfully you have to do that sometimes,” he said.
Michael Tate, a former police officer and a consultant in police abuse cases, said officers are taught at the police academy to search anyone they suspect is armed or selling or buying drugs.
“It’s a legitimate law enforcement technique,” Tate said. “Weapons are so small, the time to react to a weapon is short. You really have to be thorough. ... The last thing in the world you want to do is arrest somebody, put them in your police car and get shot in the back.”
The current APD policy says police can detain someone when they have “facts that lead them to believe criminal activity is occurring.” The policy also says a “frisk is an intrusion” that should be used only to find weapons, “based on the officer’s belief that the person may be armed.”
The revised policy also will state a strip search, which includes an officer’s hands inside clothing, can only be conducted at the jail and out of sight of others.
So far, almost all such incidents have involved Atlanta police officers. Last June, there was a similar incident reported in Cobb County, but in that instance, the officer allegedly touched a 23-year-old man’s genitals outside his pants during a pat-down following a traffic stop. The Powder Springs officer was given a written reprimand for violating the department’s policy that only “a limited intrusion” is allowed in a frisk for weapons.
Ken Vance, executive director of the Peace Officers Standards and Training Council, said he doesn’t recall hearing of searches that involved officers from other agencies reaching inside the pants of suspects and touching their genitals.
“There are just some things you don’t do,” Vance said.
If the circumstances don’t demand a thorough on-the-scene search, like a suspicion there is a weapon, “you take that person to a secure area and conduct that search in a more anesthetic way,” he said.
Most of the complaints have come from young men in traffic stops or who were in known drug areas, but recently a businessman was stopped and searched moments after he shooed away street people approaching his customers near his Auburn Avenue restaurant, the Black Lion Cafe, shortly after midnight on Oct. 14.
Abera Gebru said he was handcuffed and his pockets searched and then one of the two officers put on a glove and pushed his hand inside Gebru’s pants while customers from the cafe watched.
“I told them I was not doing anything wrong. I told them I owned the cafe. I told them I was protecting my property,” Gebru said.
“They shouldn’t be doing a genital search in public,” said Tiffany Williams Roberts, Gebru’s attorney and a member of the community group Building Locally to Organize for Community Safety. “It’s probably the most humiliating thing that can happen. They [APD officers] have been given instructions that those kinds of searches [are not allowed].”
Mohamed Dirir, who witnessed the search, said the officers told Gebru’s customers to leave or they, too, would be arrested.
“They searched under his private parts. He jumped and said, ‘What [are] y’all doing?’ He was cooperating,” Dirir said.
A drinking in public charge against Gebru was dismissed last month. His complaint against the officers is pending before the Atlanta Citizen Review Board, as is an internal APD investigation into the incident. The APD declined to comment because its investigation is open.
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