WXIA-TV – Atlanta, GA, USA
Reported by: Jon Shirek
Reported by: Jaye Watson
Reported by: Keith Whitney
Kathryn Johnston’s niece wants the City of Atlanta punished, wants the city to pay. But she says she wants justice more than money.
On Wednesday, exactly one year after Atlanta police narcotics officers illegally raided the home of Kathryn Johnston, 92, and shot Johnston to death, her niece, Sarah Dozier, filed a lawsuit in Fulton County State Court against the city, the police chief, and five of the officers who had direct or indirect involvement in the shooting.
“Not until the City of Atlanta fully admits and accepts its responsibility for the death of my aunt will justice be served and healing begin,” Dozier said in a statement released by her attorneys Wednesday. “I want to ensure that her legacy is the removal of unconstitutional practices by the Atlanta Police Department so this tragedy never, ever happens to anyone, ever again.”
Dozier is represented by The Cochran Firm in Atlanta. Her attorneys said corruption in the Atlanta Police Department ultimately led to the narcotics officers shooting Johnston.
“They falsified affidavits, they illegally obtained search warrants, they coerced witnesses, they tampered with evidence, they unlawfully entered the home of Kathryn Johnston in direct violation of her constitutional rights,” said Shean Williams of The Cochran Firm during a Wednesday news conference outside the Fulton County Courthouse. “And as she laid in her own pool of blood, rather than provide medical assistance, they planted evidence in her home and devised a plan to cover up their corrupt actions in an effort to defame this lady’s character. In sum, we’re asking the City of Atlanta to take full responsibility for a corrupt system that has produced corrupt cops.”
Dozier’s attorneys said the officers, and other street cops, had been pressured by superiors to meet job performance quotas. The attorneys said the officers resorted to framing innocent citizens, if necessary, to make it appear as if the officers were obtaining high numbers of legitimate search warrants and arresting high numbers of real criminal suspects, in order to keep their jobs.
“This was a time bomb waiting to explode, it was a powder keg,” said Johnston family spokesman, Rev. Markel Hutchins, at the news conference. “The police officers in Atlanta have long been engaged in a policy and practice of violating citizens’ civil and human rights to obtain illegal search warrants and make entry into their homes.”
Kathryn Johnston was killed in a hail of 39 police bullets when undercover, plain-clothed Atlanta narcotics officers burst into her home at 933 Neal St., NW, armed with a no-knock search warrant they had obtained from a judge, a warrant based on an informant telling the officers he had bought drugs at her home. It turned out the officers knew in advance there were no drugs in her home. They ended up planting marijuana in Johnston’s basement after shooting her to death. Johnston had fired at them with a rusty revolver, possibly thinking they were burglars. She missed. The officers received minor wounds from their own, ricocheted rounds.
On Tuesday, Chief Richard Pennington described how, in the past year, he has, in fact, reformed policies and procedures in the police department, put tighter supervisory controls on street cops and undercover officers, and strengthened the ability of his command staff to detect and weed out undisciplined or corrupt officers.
For example, Pennington said the new team of 30 narcotics officers — double the 15 who had been in the narcotics unit — now must have their undercover drug buys videotaped by surveillance cameras, when possible. Cameras have been purchased for that purpose. And officers seeking to use no-knock warrants in drug raids must first get the warrants approved by a police major before submitting the warrant applications to a judge.
Also, when they serve warrants, they must wear standard raid gear, not undercover clothing. Narcotics officers will undergo random drug testing and yearly interviews to assure suitability for the unit.
The FBI continues to investigate the Atlanta Police Department because of the shooting. Pennington said his department continues to cooperate with the federal investigation.
And Mayor Shirley Franklin once again expressed the City’s deep regret over what happened to Kathryn Johnston.
“Indeed, I apologized then and will continue to apologize for this terrible tragedy in our community,” Franklin said Tuesday, prior to the lawsuit being filed.
Lawyers with The Cochran Firm said that the city repeatedly refused to meet with anyone from the family to discuss the case in order to reach a settlement and avoid a lawsuit, and no one from the city has personally offered anyone with the family an apology.
Deputy City Attorney Jerry DeLoach declined to comment Wednesday, saying he had not yet seen a copy of the lawsuit.
Johnston’s niece is not asking for a specific dollar amount in damages from the city. Rev. Hutchins said that, based on previous, unrelated cases, he expects the damages could run into the “tens of millions of dollars.”
Two of the police officers involved in the shooting have pleaded guilty to criminal charges and are awaiting sentencing. A third is awaiting trial. All three are among the officers named in the lawsuit.
A service of remembrance and healing was held Wednesday evening in Kathryn Johnston’s neighborhood.
Members of the English Avenue community gathered at the Lindsay Street Baptist Church, along with Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and Police Chief Richard Pennington.
The goal of the service was to heal the relationship between Atlanta police and the community.
The church is only a few blocks from Johnston’s home. Johnston’s family has plans to turn the home into a permanent memorial to her.
Community activists said Johnston has become the face of a cause, and illustrates a big problem in Atlanta.
“When the police are the people you’re supposed to call to protect you and they’re attacking you what do you do?” asked activist Kelonji Changa.
Chonga and others expressed their disappointment that there have been what they said were other cases of police brutality that they said have gone ignored by the police department.
Vigil Shows Community-Police Rift Still Wide
Johnston was not the only casualty of that night a year ago — trust between the police and the community was shattered that night.
Wednesday night’s memorial was another step in that healing process.
Inside, at the memorial service, ministers were preaching to the choir — literally, as few members of the community actually showed up for the event.
Outside, activists gathered to say the community needs more than healing.
“The charges that have been brought upon the officers, we think are ridiculous, when you are talking about giving someone ten or 12 years for breaking into someone’s home and murdering them in cold blood,” said protester Kalonji Changa. “And then making an effort to cover it up.”
With marchers holding candles and police holding back traffic, the memorial wound its way through the tough streets of the English Avenue neighborhood.
Despite being sued by the Johnston family mere hours before, city leaders were front and center in the vigil.
“We have to be ever so vigilant that we do the right thing in our public service,” said Mayor Shirley Franklin.
Chief Richard Pennington acknowledged that crime in the area might be up, but also said police can not fight it alone.
“Police departments in other cities have done great jobs, but they didn’t do it by themselves,” Pennington said. “They did it with the help of the communities. And that’s what we’re going to do.”
But protesters insist the police still aren’t doing enough.
“Not only does this community need to be made whole,” said former US Rep. Cynthia McKinney. “But the Johnston family has yet to receive justice.”
The purpose of the memorial was to help the public reconcile with police, who have changed their procedures on drug busts.
“The policies and procedures manual that was announced yesterday by Chief Pennington was printed in black ink, but written in red blood,” said Johnson family spokesman Rev. Markel Hutchins. “The red blood of Kathryn Johnston.”
One of the ministers at the service dubbed Kathryn Johnston the patron saint of English Avenue — one of the few things both sides could agree on.