Balko On The Johnston Case

Radley Balko of The Agitator brings up some interesting points on the Kathryn Johnston case. As Jason Pye pointed out yesterday, there are still a lot of ways that the punishments that are likely warranted and the lessons that need to be learned might not come to fruition. Balko explains it quite well:

There are some concerns, here, though. First, Johnston’s family is upset because the DA’s charges may upend the federal investigation. Local crime enforcement is generally preferable to federal enforcement. But civil rights cases (via the 14th Amendment) are a bit different. Johnston’s family may have a legitimate gripe. If the failures that led to her death are as thorough and system-wide as they appear to be, political pressure, cronyism, and conflict-of-interest may prevent the DA’s office from conducting a complete investigation.

Second, and somewhat related, it’s important that these charges don’t allow public officials in Atlanta to dismiss Johnston’s death as the result of a few bad apple cops. There were systemic failures, here.

Atlanta officials need to look at the system that allowed these narcotics officers to think they could get away with making up an informant, then attempting to cover it up. A cop’s not going to try something like that in a system that has the proper oversight and accountability. Officer Tesler, for example, had previously lied about an automobile accident he was involved in, but got off with barely a slap on the wrist. It’s imperative that a police officer be trustworthy. As the Johnston case shows, his word — on an affidavit for a search warrant, for example — can literally mean life or death. Why was he not fired? Why was he allowed to continue work on narcotics cases?

More broadly, the entire country needs to have a conversation about drug policing. The informant system is too ripe for abuse. Not because all police officers are dishonest, of course. Nor are even most of them. But the confidentiality we grant to drug informers — judges and prosecutors sometimes don’t even know who they are — allows for the few cops who do take shortcuts to get away with it. Anyone think this is the first time there’s been a phantom informant in Atlanta? Hell, many of the same narcotics cops conducted a similarly botched raid on the same block just a year earlier.

Kathryn Johnston, and the people of Atlanta, deserve a full and fair investigation of this case. It’s unclear whether the DA will have the inclination or the ability to provide that in a way that impartial federal investigators could.

But beyond that point, are the procedures the police used in Atlanta good procedures? Do they achieve their objective in a effective way, without a lot of collateral damage? I, and most observers, would say no. This case shows a nearly top-to-bottom negligence, and it’s being passed off like it’s simply a few rogue bad apples. It needs the intervention of a legal team well versed in civil rights and high-stake matters, such as, on behalf of those affected by this display by the police.

The use of paramilitary-style raids to fight an unwinnable War on (Some) Drugs is the root problem. The actions of these cops are just a tragic symptom. Let’s cure the disease, not just treat the symptoms.

  • Edrea Davis

    Great commentary! It is important for the public to recoginize that this is not a unique case. The difference here is Kathryn Johnston’s age, and the fact that there was not another person in the house to pin something on. If she had a husband, son, nephew or roomer, they would have been “Sam” and locked up today.

    Logic will tell you that you could not get this many police to jepordize their life and livelyhood if this rogue activity were not a common practice that they knew they would get away with. Additionally, the DA and judges are aware of these corrupt tactics but have their own interests in making busts, so they continue to keep the system afloat. It’s sad that while police corruption like this is commonplace across the nation, it took the death of a 92-year-old woman to make the issue “sexy” enough for the media.

    The officers involved with this case will take the weight for a criminal justice system that is severly broken.