Police watchdog group to get new leader
By Rhonda Cook
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
5:36 a.m. Thursday, April 12, 2012
The vote Thursday night on a new executive director of the Atlanta Civilian Review Board will say a lot about the future and reputation of the police oversight agency, observers say.
Three women and a man with widely differing professional backgrounds are the remaining candidates to succeed Cristina Beamud, who resigned in November after almost three and a half years of dealing with the Atlanta Police Department and the police union.
Nine police watchdog and civil rights groups wrote an open letter to the all-volunteer board reminding its members why the oversight panel was put in place after the fatal 2006 shooting of an elderly woman in her home.
The ACRB is a product of public outrage over the shooting of 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston during a botched drug raid on Neal Street in northwest Atlanta. Subsequent state and federal investigations found officers lied, planted evidence and tried to get an informant to verify their versions of what happened that night. Several officers went to prison.
“The public’s faith in the ACRB rests largely on our belief that it serves the best interests of the people, even when faced with political pressure and hardship," the groups wrote. "It is also absolutely imperative that Atlanta’s new executive director be entirely free from conflicts of interest with the Atlanta Police Department and city of Atlanta government.
"Over the past five years, the board has reviewed numbers of complaints filed by people who were abused by officers engaged in some of the same practices that led to the Neal Street tragedy," the letter from the advocacy groups said. "Many communities have yet to heal from the trauma caused by continued irresponsible police practices and harassment."
ACRB Chairman Paul Bartels said he expected a decision to be reached Thursday night but it could be a week before a formal offer is made, depending on the required background check.
The four finalists out of 160 who applied are: former APD employee Valerie Bell-Smith, who is now the spokeswoman for Atlanta’s Department of Public Works; Grantville police Chief Clyburn Halley; ACRB investigator Sheena Robertson; and former U.S. Justice Department civil rights prosecutor Holly Wiseman, who also was deputy independent police monitor in New Orleans.
The watchdog groups, which include Building Locally to Organize Community Safety, Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights and the Southern Center for Human Rights, didn't name a candidate they support, but their description of what they want indicates they back Wiseman.
The police union supports Robertson.
According to an email sent to International Brotherhood of Police Officers members, Wiseman "is the most qualified candidate for the position, however, it is clear that she views the position as an opportunity to clean up [the] Atlanta Police Department, and would use the ACRB’s power to investigate complaints and study trends [and] to attempt to reform the department. ... She believes in complete transparency for the department, which ... could be detrimental to the rights of officers involved in the complaints."
Robertson, on the other hand, "has been reasonable in her dealings with the officers" subject to ACRB investigations and she "would not be ‘out to get' officers," the email said.
Asked to respond to the union email's assertions about her, Wiseman said: "The statutory requirements of the ACRB is to investigate complaints against the police and to conduct studies to improve police operations. If selected as executive director of the ACRB, I look forward to working with the APD to accomplish these goals.”
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