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November 21, 2007
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Atlanta unveils new narcotics unit

By Cameron McWhirter
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ATLANTA On the eve of the one-year anniversary of the worst scandal to hit the Atlanta Police Department in his four years as leader, Chief Richard Pennington announced that the department's newly revamped anti-drug section is "the best-trained narcotics unit in the Southeast."

With Mayor Shirley Franklin by his side, Pennington said the Nov. 21, 2006, police killing of Kathryn Johnston, 92, in her home on the city's northwest side was a tragedy that "tore at the heart of the community" and caused an overhaul of police training and procedures to ensure such a thing doesn't happen again.

Even as Pennington spoke, lawyers for Johnston's family were readying a suit against the chief, the mayor, the city and the police officers directly involved in the shooting.

They were set to file their suit this morning.

Police had raided the house on Neal Street with sketchy information provided by an informant.

They used a "no-knock" search warrant, meaning they could enter the house without warning.

A fearful Johnston apparently thought the police were criminals and brought out an old gun to stop the intruders. She fired one shot and missed.

Police fired multiple times, killing her and wounding other officers.

The fiasco caused national headlines and led to a federal investigation of Atlanta police, and an almost year-long hiatus on police efforts to shut down drug houses in Georgia's largest city.

The reborn unit  doubled from 15 officers to 30  has been up and running since the first week of October, Pennington said.

Franklin said the botched drug raid, in which Johnston was fatally shot and at least some of the officers participating tried to cover up the crime, was "a horrible night for the Johnston family, for our community and for our Police Department" but her administration was "well on the way to restoring trust for the Police Department, trust that was fractured last year."

As of Tuesday afternoon, Johnston's relatives and their supporters did not appear to believe such a restoration was under way.

At a news conference in front of Johnston's boarded-up home, Markel Hutchins, an Atlanta minister who is serving as the family's spokesman, said the family was glad to see the Police Department changes, but they want more.

"We are encouraged by the steps," Hutchins said. "We have a long way to go."

Johnston's family was not present at the news conference, but Hutchins said they want the city to provide them with a "substantial cash settlement," rename Neal Street after Johnston, and preserve her house as a memorial to what happened.

They also want an apology from the mayor, he said. Hutchins said Franklin has never tried to contact the family.

Asked if she felt the city was responsible for Johnston's death, Franklin said, "I apologized then and I will continue to apologize for this tragedy."

At his news conference at police headquarters, Pennington detailed his overhaul of the narcotics unit, including replacing everyone in the entire unit and putting the new officers through extensive training from outside police agencies.

Other APD narcotics changes include:

* "No-knock" search warrants must be approved by a major.

* Search warrants must be approved by a lieutenant.

* Drugs seized must be field-tested.

* Officers conducting raids will wear special uniforms, not street clothes.

* Narcotics unit officers will be interviewed annually and given random drug tests.

* Informants receiving money for information will have to be paid in the presence of a supervisor.

The head of the new narcotics unit, Lt. William Trivelpiece, said "there is a lot more structure and layered supervision" in the new procedures.

Hoping to improve the department's frayed relations with the community, Pennington announced he and his staff would attend a special church service for Johnston this evening in the English Avenue neighborhood where the shooting happened.

Hutchins said he and Johnston family supporters will attend as well.

"We are very, very serious about re-engaging with the community," Franklin said.

Some citizens remain unconvinced.

Dremecia Sumpter, 27, a mother of five who has lived two doors down from the Johnston house since about a month before the shooting, said police presence in the neighborhood remains spotty and community relations are poor.

She said kids partying on the corner of Joseph E. Lowery Boulevard and Neal Street got into a fight several weeks ago and shots were fired. She said police took half an hour to respond.

"The police aren't patrolling this area at all, anyway, anyhow," she said.

Copyright 2007 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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