Mayor Kasim Reed on Wednesday lashed out at a federal lawsuit against Atlanta over its botched police raid at the Eagle, calling the pending litigation a serious threat to the city.
The comments from Reed (top photo) marked a departure from the more measured response that has typified his reaction to the case since taking office in January. The statement came on Wednesday as attorneys involved in the lawsuit amended the complaint to add six plaintiffs, bringing the total to 28, and identified 35 officers who took part in the Sept. 11 raid.
Also on Wednesday, officers involved in the raid began answering questions from the Atlanta Citizen Review Board, which is investigating more than a dozen complaints of police misconduct.
On Monday, depositions in the lawsuit started with the city expected to complete interviews with 22 plaintiffs by early next week. Action in the federal lawsuit comes just a few days after seven of the eight men arrested in the raid had the charges dropped or were found not guilty during a trial in Atlanta Municipal Court. An eighth person charged in the raid did not appear in court on March 11 and faces a bench warrant for his arrest.
On Wednesday, attorneys in the case amended their original lawsuit, which was filed Nov. 24 against the city, its police chief and four-dozen officers claiming violations of federal and state laws. The amended suit includes the names of officers who weren’t identified in the original filing and adds patrons at the bar during the raid who have since stepped forward.
Top police commanders and several gay officers defended the agency and its approach to the raid during a public forum on Oct. 5. The amended complaint includes comments from commanders at the forum and adds Major Debra Williams, who at the time supervised the Atlanta Police Department’s Special Enforcement Section, which includes the Red Dog Unit that took part in the Eagle raid.
During the forum, Williams said that it is standard practice for the police department to take identification from people and run computerized background checks during raids over safety concerns. A key contention of the lawsuit argues that the raid was a warrantless search without probable cause.
New details added to lawsuit
“We added some additional information that we have uncovered in the past month,” says Daniel Grossman (second photo), an attorney handling the lawsuit. “We wanted to make it clear that certain police officials had knowledge of this policy. What [Williams] said is a pretty key explanation of the policy.”
The amended complaint also adds testimony given during the March 11 criminal case by Det. Bennie Bridges, who oversaw the raid.
“In sworn testimony before the Atlanta Municipal Court on March 11, 2010, Defendant Bridges testified that the Red Dog Unit was brought to the Atlanta Eagle on the night of the Raid specifically to ‘hold everyone’ at the Eagle as part of a police department ‘investigation,’ the lawsuit says. “In other words, Defendant Bridges and the other Individual Defendants had already decided to seize everyone present at the Eagle before any officer entered the Eagle, had any chance to observe any of the Plaintiffs, or had made any determination with regard to reasonable suspicion or probable cause in connection with any of the Plaintiffs.”
“What [Bridges] really said is that they had already made the decision to hold everyone at the Eagle before they even left the precinct house, before they had any idea whether anyone was breaking the law or not,” Grossman says. “They didn’t care whether these guys were suspected of criminal activity. They decided to hold them before they even showed up. I can’t think of a clearer statement about how little they cared about probable cause.”
Acting City Attorney Roger Bhandari could not be reached for comment Thursday morning.
Reed blasted the lawsuit as a threat to the city on Wednesday in written comments to WSB, which aired a report on the Eagle lawsuit.
“The plaintiffs in this case are asking for unlimited punitive damages at a time when the city is facing considerable budget challenges,” Reed says. “As the chief financial steward of this city, I have to take that threat very seriously.”
Reed had maintained a measured approach to speaking out about the lawsuit and the raid since taking office in January. On Feb. 15, he said that an investigation by the Atlanta Citizen Review Board into complaints of police misconduct during the raid was being bogged down in legal concerns.
But his statement on Wednesday appeared to harden his approach to the lawsuit and investigations into the raid. As a candidate, Reed called for an “immediate, thorough and transparent investigation” and was one of several elected officials and candidates to do so. But since taking office, Reed has battled accusations that the city and police department are impeding the ACRB investigation.
Grossman countered that the lawsuit is about changing the policies of the Atlanta Police Department, not seeking a financial windfall from the city. That echoes public comments made by Robert Kelley, an Eagle co-owner who has repeatedly said since the raid that what he wants from the city is an apology.
“This case is not about money, it is about changing policies,” Grossman says. “It’s about getting the city to agree to a consent order, enforceable by a federal court, that they will follow the law in the future in regards to search, seizure and first amendment protections. They have refused to agree in writing, enforced by a federal court, to follow the law. Until they are willing, in a legally binding way, to admit that their police officers will obey the constitution, how can you settle the case?”
Officers testify in raid investigation
Reed’s comments on Wednesday came as the ACRB opened its interviews with 18 officers involved in the Eagle raid. Some 13 complaints have been filed with the ACRB over allegations of police misconduct during the incident.
Officers have appeared before the panel but refused to testify, prompting the Atlanta City Council to vote earlier this month to subpoena the officers involved in the raid and force them to speak to the ACRB about the complaints.
The ACRB conducted six interviews on Wednesday, with six more scheduled each day on Thursday and Friday, according Cris Beamud, the ACRB’s executive director.
“They all spoke to us,” Beamud says. “Two of them asserted their Fifth Amendment privilege to some of the questions, but not all of the questions. For the most part, we are getting statements. These officers had all been asked to appear and they did and refused to give us statements. Now with a subpoena, they are giving us statements. I supposes that is an improvement.”
Once the interviews with officers are concluded, the ACRB must transcribe the interviews, organize them and present them to the board for their consideration, Beamud says. She has no expectation on when the board will consider the complaints or issue its ruling on them.
The raid also prompted an ongoing internal investigation by the Atlanta Police Department.
Police say anonymous tips about alleged sex acts and illegal drug activity in or near the club prompted the undercover investigation that led to the Sept. 11 raid. All of the charges against the eight men—either dancers or employees of the bar—were violations of city ordinances and no illegal drugs were found during the raid.
The Sept. 10 raid ignited a firestorm of controversy over police tactics and prompted several elected officials and political candidates to question the raid and call for an investigation. It resulted in a public forum with top commanders of the police department, who defended the raid, and three protests. The action also prompted a federal lawsuit, which was filed in late November.