By Greg Bluestein, The Associated Press
ATLANTA — Hundreds of arrests made by the Atlanta Police Department could be vulnerable to legal challenges, prominent defense attorneys say, after an audit showed dozens of officers lost their arrest powers because they failed to meet state training requirements.
The audit showed at least 51 of Atlanta’s 1,800 or so officers lost their powers of arrest because they failed to complete at least 20 hours of training each year as required by state law. The department wouldn’t release the names of the officers, but the tally could grow as investigators work to finish reviewing 600 remaining files.
“We’re aware of this situation and we’re taking it seriously,” said Atlanta police spokesman Carlos Campos. “We’re moving aggressively and efficiently to fix it.”
The training flaws could jeopardize criminal convictions as well as pending cases, said defense attorney Page Pate. He said attorneys could readily challenge the convictions of suspects they arrested without a warrant by challenging the officer’s training background. And search warrants signed by officers who lost their arrest powers are also vulnerable to legal challenges, he said.
“If we had a client whose house was searched by one of these officers, then you could challenge,” he said. “And if you could throw out a search warrant, especially in drug cases, that usually ends the case.”
Atlanta police administrators realized the problem late last year when a training supervisor noticed that officers coming back from extended leaves often had training issues that needed to be addressed. But it’s unclear why the full extent of the training lapses wasn’t revealed until results of an audit were released in August.
“Right now we’re really focusing on a fix rather than a post-mortem on how it happened,” said Campos. “The fact is we’re here, and that’s what we need to focus on.”
The department has ordered a quarterly review of all records, and is working to complete the review of the department’s roughly 1,800 officers. Some 26 of the 51 officers were removed from the streets to clear up the training lapses, and officials are working with the other 25. Clerical errors in the records of 250 other officers were quickly fixed, Campos said.
Meanwhile, the department’s attorneys are bracing for an onslaught of challenges once the review is complete. However, they say they don’t expect many convictions to be overturned.
“I don’t think it’s going to be as easy as some suggest. We certainly take the position that the arrests will hold up,” Campos said. “But we’re aware that there may be some challenges, and that will be up to the courts. But it’s far more complex issue than just saying, ‘The arrests are no good.”’
University of Georgia law professor Ron Carlson said such challenges would be an “uphill battle” for defense attorneys who would have to clear several legal hurdles, including proving the officer was unable to determine probable cause for an arrest because of the training lapse.
“There may be a few that are out there where those circumstances don’t necessarily coalesce,” said Carlson, who specializes in evidence and criminal procedure. “Those are the ones that are ripest for a challenge. There is a chance that a few fish will make it through the net.”
Steve Sadow, a defense attorney based in Atlanta, said he agreed. He said he would tend to focus his energy on challenging pending cases, since overturning a conviction is more unlikely.
“The criminal defense lawyer’s emphasis will be pending cases, although some will try to reopen closed cases,” he said. “But that’s like trying to push a rock up hill.”
The review comes as The Associated Press revealed that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation is probing a rural police department over training issues. The GBI said it’s investigating a deadly shooting involving an East Dublin police officer who had gone more than a year without mandatory training on the use of deadly force. Records show the officer should have lost his arrest powers several months before the May 2010 shooting.
The Atlanta audit showed the officers failed to get at least 20 hours of training each year covering department policies and other police matters, a requirement put on the books in 1990. The state also requires at least one of those hours to be on the use of firearms and another on when to use force.
Experts say police certification agencies in some other states play a proactive role in alerting police departments and officers when training lapses occur.
In Georgia, however, the Peace Officer Standards and Training Council requires the officers and law enforcement departments to track the training. Executive Director Ken Vance said officers are told on the first day of their training that they are responsible for maintaining the 20 hours of training.
He said there’s no easy way to determine which officers haven’t complied because the council’s computer system can’t handle it. The system is upgrading its software next month, but in the meantime officials look at compliance by a case-by-case basis.
Roy Bedard, a law enforcement consultant who’s been involved in Georgia training cases, said these types of lapses often happen in smaller cities but shouldn’t take place in major departments like Atlanta.
“Georgia kind of relies on each officer to maintain their own certification. That’s a huge problem waiting to happen,” said Bedard. “And at the end of the day, they’re going to have to change it.”