City settles rogue cop suit; is Eagle case next?

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imageFour years and nearly $5 million later, Mayor Kasim Reed and the City of Atlanta tried this week to move past a lawsuit over rogue cops, a settlement that hints at how a lawsuit over the year-old Eagle raid may unfold.

In short, don’t expect it to end anytime soon.

The settlement that Reed (top photo) and the Atlanta City Council inked Monday will pay $4.9 million to the estate of Kathryn Johnston, a 92-year-old woman that was gunned down in November 2006 by narcotics officers who were illegally raiding her home. The estate will get $2.9 million this year and another $2 million in fiscal year 2012, all from a reserve fund the city maintains to pay for lawsuit settlements.

“It’s a good thing that they’ve decided to finally settle the case,” says Dan Grossman (second photo), one of the attorneys suing the city over its botched raid of the Eagle in September 2009. “Police officers pled guilty to her murder in 2007 and it took three years? As recently as a few months ago, the city was claiming they did nothing wrong and asked the court to throw out the case. It is a very similar pattern that we are seeing in the Eagle case.”

Will the Johnston settlement help bring the Eagle lawsuit to a close? That’s doubtful for a handful of reasons.

imageGuilt: Despite agreeing to a $4.9 million settlement in the Johnston case, Reed says the city does not admit any guilt. That stubbornness – even after two Atlanta police officers involved were fired, another officer resigned, six more were disciplined and three pleaded guilty to criminal charges – will likely stall any settlement in the Eagle case. Plaintiffs have said all they initially wanted was an apology from the city after the gay bar raid; former Mayor Shirley Franklin refused as has Reed, who continues to blame the raid on her predecessor. So the Eagle patrons sued.

“Up until this point, one of things that we are gong to look for in this case is that the city will have to admit to its illegal conduct. We do feel strongly that a complete admission of wrongdoing and very concrete procedures to make sure it doesn’t happen again are going to be very important parts if the city wants to settle this case. We will see how long that takes,” Grossman says.

Time: Johnston was killed in November 2006; the Eagle was raided about a year ago. If the city stalls – the lawsuit, filed in late November, is in depositions now – the Eagle patrons have quite a while yet to wait, based on the nearly four years it took to reach a conclusion in the Johnston case. The negotiations between lawyers for the Johnston estate and the city took seven months to hammer out the specifics announced this week.

imageDiscipline: The Johnston settlement came after three officers pleaded guilty to criminal charges, the feds investigated and the Atlanta Police Department completed its own internal investigation. With the Eagle case, the police department has yet to wrap up its internal investigation and the Atlanta Citizen Review Board is still probing complaints of misconduct related to the raid. It’s already called for the discipline of two officers involved in the raid. (The city’s case against the eight men arrested in the Sept. 10 raid fell apart in court.) No officers are facing criminal charges in the Eagle case and it’s unlikely that any will be filed.

Seriousness: If Reed and the city won’t apologize for a raid that killed a 92-year-old woman, will they really admit wrongdoing in a raid that resulted in eight arrests and the hours-long detention of five-dozen bar patrons, even if the popular refrain from the cops the night of the raid was “shut the fuck up”? The Johnston case prompted police to disband and then reorganize its Narcotics Unit. There has been no public discussion of the paramilitary Red Dog Unit, which supported the Eagle raid, being revamped in the wake of the Eagle case.

Reed: The fallout from the raid has stung Reed and stymied his efforts to move his young administration past something that didn’t take place on his watch. He spoke against the raid as a candidate, but criticized the lawsuit as mayor. He’s also said the Eagle raid wouldn’t happen today during his administration and put in place a police chief that’s reached out to LGBT residents.

Will the Eagle case fall to Reed the stubborn attorney who wants to drag out the lawsuit at every turn, or a healing mayor that wants to put it behind the city and move forward with his efforts to improve relations with a large and vocal gay constituency? The mayor really is the wild card in the Eagle lawsuit.

“Sept. 10 will be the one-year anniversary of the Eagle raid. They have had more than enough time to look inward, correct themselves and do the right thing. I hope it doesn’t take us four years,” Grossman says.

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