A string of fatal police shootings in the Atlanta area prompted civil rights activists Wednesday to urge the city of Atlanta and the neighboring suburb of DeKalb County to establish powerful civilian review boards to investigate complaints of police misconduct.
The Rev. Joseph Lowery, convener of the Coalition for the Peoples' Agenda and co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said the review boards should have a professional staff and the power to subpoena.
"The police should be absolutely accountable to the citizens for whom they work," Lowery said.
Public confidence in police departments in both jurisdictions has been shaken in recent months.
In November, Atlanta police shot and killed an 88-year-old woman, Kathryn Johnston, during a drug raid on her northwest Atlanta home.
In the last year, DeKalb officers have shot and killed 12 suspects -- nearly all were black men.
A civilian review board, Lowery said, was vital in restoring trust in local law enforcement.
Atlanta already has a Civilian Review Board that examines allegations of excessive force, serious bodily injury or death resulting from the action of police officers. But the board, formed in 1996, has not reviewed a case since 2002. It has no subpoena power and requires citizens to file a complaint and waive their right to sue.
Beverly Isom, spokeswoman for Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, said the mayor would consider Lowery's proposal.
In DeKalb County, police internal affairs units investigate all shootings involving law enforcement and then decide whether to hand them over to the county's district attorney's office.
The county's chief executive, Vernon Jones, issued a brief statement Wednesday saying he would also consider creating a citizen review board: "I respect Dr. Lowery for his experience and commitment to empower the quality of our lives," he said.
A number local and federal organizations are examining the recent shootings. In Atlanta, the FBI is already investigating the shooting of Johnston. In DeKalb, the district attorney's office is investigating the 12 lethal shootings by police officers.
The Justice Department, along with the FBI, is also gathering information about the case, but has yet to open a federal investigation. According to the National Assn. for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, 71 of the nation's 100 largest cities have citizen review mechanisms.
Richard Rosenthal, who serves as an independent monitor of police and sheriff's departments in Denver, said even more important than subpoena power is that the review board have unfettered access to police department records.
"You can issue a subpoena to interview an officer, but you can't make them talk," he said.