Anger mounts in Atlanta over police killing of elderly woman

Over 300 attend protest to vent frustration

police chief appeals for calm

November 29, 2006|By Jenny Jarvie and Richard Fausset | Jenny Jarvie and Richard Fausset,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ATLANTA -- Police Chief Richard Pennington pleaded for calm in print and in person yesterday as residents protested the death of an 88-year-old woman who was gunned down in a shootout with narcotics officers.

"This tragic incident has shaken this community to its core, and the residents deserve honest answers," Pennington wrote in an editorial in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "But I must ask for patience and calm as we get to the bottom of the events of Nov. 21."

That evening, according to police accounts, plainclothes officers stormed the house of Kathryn Johnston, whose age was previously reported as 92. They had obtained a warrant that didn't require them to knock, and they were looking for drugs. Johnston was fatally shot by officers who have said that they were returning her gunfire. Three officers were struck; none of their wounds was life-threatening.

Yesterday morning - a day after Pennington turned the investigation over to the FBI - Johnston's friends and family gathered for her funeral.

After sundown, more than 300 people, including members of the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense, gathered at Lindsey Street Baptist Church in Johnston's traditionally black northwest Atlanta neighborhood to vent their frustration.

Pennington, standing near the altar in his blue uniform, listened calmly as scores of people stepped to a microphone to vent their frustrations.

"You need to talk to your people, man, because they're killing us!" shouted Benjamin Hayes, 34.

Pennington bowed his head. "I've got your concern," he said softly.

Afterward, he told a reporter that he understood the community's frustration. "They were upset. ... I felt they had to take their anger out on someone. I'm a big boy," he said.

Since the shooting, questions have arisen about the officers' story. In their application for the warrant, police officers said they watched a confidential informant buy drugs from Johnston's modest, yellow-brick house. But this week, a man who claimed to be the informant told a local TV station that police had asked him to lie.

"They were going to pay me just to cover it up," said the man, who was not identified. "They called me immediately after the shooting to ask me, I mean to tell me, `Here's what you need to do. You need to cover our ass' - and that's exactly how he said it, you know? `It's all on you, man.'"

In the newspaper article, Pennington acknowledged that "many people are understandably suspicious that the Atlanta Police Department is trying to cover up the facts surrounding this case," but he promised that the "complete truth" would be revealed in the federal investigation.

Pennington has placed seven narcotics investigators and a police sergeant on paid leave. He also said the department will review its policy on "no knock" warrants, as well as the use of confidential informants.

Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin said that turning over the case to the federal government was an "honest attempt to be transparent."

"The community deserves the truth, and I am confident that this will be accomplished through the thorough investigation," she said.

Like Johnston, Pennington and Franklin are African-American. But many of the people who attended the funeral and protest saw her death as part of a familiar black encounter with institutional racism: Edward O. DuBose, the president of the Georgia State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, called the incident an example of "police brutality and lawlessness against African-Americans."

Concern over police shootings was running high in the Atlanta area before the incident. This month in suburban DeKalb County, prosecutors asked a grand jury to review police investigations of 12 fatal officer-involved shootings since Jan. 1. Nearly all of the suspects killed by the county police were black. A protest over those shootings is planned for today.

Jenny Jarvie and Richard Fausset write for the Los Angeles Times.

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