Lesbian now chairs Atlanta’s police review board

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imageThe Atlanta Citizen Review Board, which is investigating complaints tied to the Eagle raid, recently elected a lesbian as its chair, elevating a member who has served since the board’s inception in 2007.

Joy Morrissey (photo) will now help steer the 11-member board as it navigates through discussions with Mayor Kasim Reed and the Atlanta Police Department over allowing police officers to give sworn testimony and answer questions during its investigations. A stalemate over the ordinance that created the ACRB has resulted in officers appearing before the board but refusing to testify, an issue that came to a head earlier this month when the board’s vice chair accused the police department of stonewalling its investigation of citizen complaints into the Sept. 10 raid of the Eagle.

The board then threatened to ask the City Council to subpoena 10 officers in the Eagle case to force them to testify. Reed weighed in on the matter last week when he said his administration is working with the ACRB to provide testimony from the officers and review the 2007 ordinance that created the board. But the mayor cautioned that he has concerns that if officers testify before the board while the city faces a lawsuit over the raid, their testimony could provide plaintiffs in the suit “two bites at the apple.”

Morrissey, whose current three-year term ends in 2011, was elected chair on Feb. 11. She says that the lack of police cooperation is among many hurdles the ACRB has faced since the City Council recrafted it in 2007 in the wake of a fatal 2006 police shooting of a 92-year-old woman in her home. The board also had to overcome a limited budget from City Hall and a lack of staff, she says.

“There is that bureaucratic snafu that goes on – the workings of politics that play out,” Morrissey says. “It’s been very hard for us initially to get up and running. We didn’t have any staff and basically had to claw that out for ourselves. We are up and running now and intend to make an impact, and we are headed in the right direction.”

imageThe ACRB, its board and a fulltime staff of four were established to investigate complaints from citizens about the police department. The board’s annual budget, which is about $350,000, funds the staff and its two investigators. With that funding and staffing, the board can tackle two cases a month, Morrissey says.

In 2009, the board received 39 complaints and considered 12 cases. Some 26 officers have refused to testify in cases the ACRB is investigating, with 10 of those related to the Eagle probe. In most cases in which the board has recommended sanctions against officers, the police chief has not sustained their recommendations, Morrissey says.

In September, the ACRB unanimously upheld a complaint of excessive force against two officers who stopped and questioned TaRaince Kelly and her partner in their driveway. The officers refused to testify before the board, which later recommended to the chief that the officers be suspended for five days. Two months later, a police department official responded to the board and said that its own internal investigation, which included sworn statements from the officers, led him to reject the ACRB’s recommendations.

“We sustained the case for the complainants. It took us a while to get to it, and that was mostly because we didn’t have things set up. We’ve been an orphan,” Morrissey says.

But despite the hurdles, the ACRB is making an impact, she says.

“We are making great strides, and we are going to make a meaningful impact with many citizens in the city. We want to assure citizens that come forward and make a complaint that they have the right to know it is being investigated and investigated by an independent group, which is the only way you will ensure citizens of the public trust that needs to be there, and quite frankly, it has not been there,” Morrissey says.

The former teacher and stay-at-home partner came to the ACRB after hearing about the board during a Neighborhood Planning Unit meeting in her Piedmont Heights neighborhood. Morrissey, 56, says the board needs diverse members. Among the board’s 11 members, elected officials appoint three members, four come from NPUs, two from local bar associations and two from civic groups. None of the civic and legal groups that appoint members are LGBTspecific, and previous media reports indicated the ACRB did not include any gay or lesbian board members.

“In my heart of hearts, it’s been very good for me personally. I feel like I’m doing something good for the citizens of Atlanta and doing something good for the gay and lesbian population. We are represented,” Morrissey says.

“Since I was elected chair, it just so happened that the time was right that I stepped forward and say, hey look at me because everybody has made the assumption that there hasn’t been [any LGBT representation]. It is important that the community knows it is represented,” she adds. “We need to feel safe in our community, and in order to do that, you have to bring opinions, experiences and thoughts from all sections of the city. We have a very diverse group, and I hope we continue to do so.”

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