By Rhonda Cook
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
11:18 p.m. Monday, March 1, 2010
The Atlanta City Council will issue subpoenas to force 18 police officers to answer questions from the Citizen Review Board about a raid last September at a gay bar where patrons said they were verbally abused and forced to lie face down on the floor, some for more than an hour.
The Committee on Council's unanimous vote came after more than an hour of testimony, questions and debate Monday on the board's request to increase the pressure on Atlanta police officers who have appeared before the board but refused to answer questions. The union and officers say they are not shielded from criminal charges based on testimony before the board as they are when they answer questions in an APD internal investigation.
There is no criminal investigation pending, though four Atlanta Eagle employees are charged with violating city ordinances. A civil case was filed in federal court against the officers and the city, however.
“Even with a subpoena, I’m not sure the person has to speak,” council member Cleta Winslow said moments before the vote.
A lawyer for the Police Benevolent Association said it would be up to each officer to hire an attorney if he decided to fight the subpoena. If they do not respond to the subpoena, officers could be fined $1,000 each or sentenced to six months in jail, according to Cristina Beamud, the board's executive director.
“I’m disappointed that after six months we’re still here,” said Councilman Alex Wan, whose district includes the bar on Ponce de Leon Avenue. “I hope that at some point we’re going to get this resolved and closed out.”
During the Sept. 10 raid, more than 20 Atlanta police officers -- including members of the Red Dog narcotics unit -- detained and searched about five dozen Atlanta Eagle customers, making some of them lie handcuffed and face down on the club's floor. Some customers said they were not allowed to move for more than an hour while officers confiscated their driver's licenses and ran their names through the police computer. The also said they had to endure anti-gay slurs from some of the officers.
According to Atlanta police records, the raid was staged because of reports of drug activity at the club and after undercover vice officers said they had seen men having sex at the club while customers looked on. No illegal drugs were found during the searches of employees and customers, and no one was charged with having illicit sex.
Citizen Review Board members, trying to resolve a complaint, have been frustrated by constant push backs from officers and APD.
The police union says the officers cannot be forced to give evidence that could lead to criminal charges against them. The Citizen Review Board cannot extend the same protections from self-incrimination officers get when they cooperate with an internal investigation.
“If the department orders the officers to testify, they will be glad to testify if they are protected,” said Dan English, an attorney for the Police Benevolent Association.
APD has ordered the officers to appear, but has not required them to answer questions.
“The police department doesn’t want to recognize our organization,” board member Maceo Williams told the council members. “If you refuse to appear, there should be consequences. If they don’t want to cooperate and you all don’t want to force their hands, we should just all go home. The law is good for everybody, so please help us enforce this.”
Committee chairwoman Felicia Moore said APD declined an invitation to come to the meeting Monday.
Board vice chairman Seth Kirschenbaum said the subpoena request “has implications beyond the Eagle bar."
“This is the watershed moment for the Citizen Review Board,” Kirschenbaum said before the vote. “If the subpoenas are not issued, we’re done.”
The board was created to calm a distrustful public after the 2006 death of 92-year-old grandmother Kathryn Johnston, who was shot and killed by undercover officers in her Neal Street home.
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