Atlanta cops, shaken community try to make amends

AP News
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Posted: Nov 24, 2009 6:59 AM

After a 92-year-old grandmother was cut down in a hail of police bullets during a botched raid three years ago, her community seemed to trust officers about as much as the drug dealers who roam the blighted streets.

Neighbors complained that it was so difficult to get police attention for their crime-ridden northwest Atlanta neighborhood that they rarely bothered to dial 911. Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington was jeered when he attended a memorial for Kathryn Johnston days after she was killed.

On Monday, Pennington came back and was met with applause. It's been slow and tedious, but Pennington and community leaders said the department has worked to rebuild ties with the neighborhood.

"It was through her tragic death that attention was brought to our community, about the problems we have and the challenges we face," said the Rev. Anthony Motley, who called Johnston the neighborhood's "patron saint."

There's still mistrust.

Some residents at a town hall meeting Monday night to honor the third anniversary of Johnston's death say officers still respond too slowly to calls. Others signaled that a different police approach is gradually improving the relationship between the community and its protectors.

Officers are pounding the pavement to try to connect, Pennington said.

"You have to go out and meet with residents and let them know we hear their concerns," said Pennington, who got an earful at the meeting. "We think we've done a lot to change the culture."

The community is still shaken over the death of Johnston, who was killed on Nov. 21, 2006, after plainclothes narcotics officers burst into her home using a special "no-knock" warrant to search for drugs. She fired a single bullet at the invaders, and they responded with 39 bullets through her wooden door.

Investigators originally said they had gone to the woman's house after an informant bought drugs there from a dealer. In the weeks after the killing, a probe revealed that officers tried to cover up the mistake after searching her home and finding no drugs.

Prosecutors said an officer handcuffed the dying woman and planted three baggies of marijuana in her basement. He then called an informant and told him to pretend he bought crack cocaine there, they said.

Three ex-cops were sentenced to prison for their roles in the shooting death, and the botched raid led to an investigation of the Atlanta Police Department. It forced the department to tighten its warrant requirements, ordered new training for officers and reorganized its narcotics unit.

The city also created a citizen review board to investigate police misconduct months after Johnston's death, although frustrated critics contend the panel doesn't have enough authority or funding. Both candidates for Atlanta mayor, who attended the town hall meeting, promised the board would play a more muscular role in their administrations.

The neighborhood, where residents fortify their windows with bars, still suffers from crime and blight. Its City Councilman Ivory Young said it seems for every drug dealer arrested, a hungry recruit is willing to step in.

And some said, even after the department's efforts, it will be hard to trust the police again.

Community activist "Able" Mable Thomas stood up in front of about 100 people at a community church and pointed at the chief, telling him "this community has never forgiven you."

Pennington slowly walked to the microphone.

"I'd like to take this moment to personally apologize. You can't have an ongoing healing process unless someone steps up and says they were wrong," he said. "I think we're a much better police department and we have much better officers. And we're working hard to earn back your respect."

Instead of jeers, his words were met with a standing ovation.