Torpy at Large: What did APD learn from the Eagle gay bar fiasco?

How to make a really bad training video

Everyone in the working world must undergo training to stay current on their jobs. Sometimes, that continuing education is evocative and interesting and improves your skills.

But often, that process is a joyless, mind-numbing exercise in tedium that turns minutes into hours.

Atlanta police officers are currently undergoing the latter, trying to meet a training deadline that ends next week. The cops are logging into computers to watch a turgid and interminable training video that teaches them about legal searches and seizures. 

When it comes to law enforcement, hardly anything is more basic and vital. 

But the product rolled out by the police force, which was court-ordered, shows either a departmental disdain for learning, or a city law department’s thumbing its nose at a pesky lawyer named Dan Grossman, who, like a terrier, grabbed hold of the city’s ankle eight years ago and hasn’t let go.

Let’s go back to the start.

In September 2009, during the last (real) mayoral election, Atlanta police raided a gay bar on Ponce de Leon Avenue and made ham-handed policing a red-hot campaign issue.

A couple dozen cops, including those from the now-defunct Red Dog unit, descended on the Atlanta Eagle looking for both sex and drugs.

They found neither.

While looking, they pushed around the 60-some patrons and employees, forcing them to the floor for up to an hour, calling them nasty names, searching them, taking their driver’s licences and running their names for warrants.

A lawsuit filed by Grossman sought an apology and carried a demand — that the department undergo new training concerning search and seizure law because it was clear many officers hadn’t a clue what was kosher and what wasn’t.

A few months later, the law department under a new mayor, Kasim Reed, refused to cut a deal on the suit, vowing to fight on. Reed, who campaigned on a “muscular” approach to fighting crime, apparently didn’t want to look like a 97-pound weakling when his police force was getting sued.

But eventually, in late 2010, even the city’s lawyers knew they had a steaming mess of a case that might cost the city millions.

“The police violated amazingly basic things at the Eagle that any first-year law student should know,” said Grossman, adding that the raid “showed us that this isn’t isolated. This was their standard operating procedure. They were violating the law all over the place.”

Usually such searches were in black barbershops or black restaurants or black lounges. Perhaps the gay bar raid was a new twist on an old story.

With the lawsuit settlement came a mayoral apology and a city vow to conduct proper training as to when cops could legally go through people’s pockets, cars and homes. Oh yeah, the city had to pay some $1.5 million in settlement, payments it wouldn’t have had to make if city officials at the start had simply said, “Sorry.” And did the proper training.

Well, all these years later one can argue whether proper training has happened. Cops certainly tell me that.

In 2015, Grossman, the terrier at the city’s ankle, started barking and tugging at Hizzoner’s pant cuff, saying the department still hadn’t committed to proper training. A judge told Atlanta to get it done. A two-year deadline for that training ends next week and cops are currently dragging themselves in these days to endure the video.

“It’s terrible,” said Ken Allen, a retired cop who works for the police union and has talked to many officers who have taken the test. “They turn on the video, pay no attention to it and then answer the questions.

“The supervisors say it’s painful to watch. From our perspective if you had scenario training — watch two scenarios and what is right? What is wrong? And why? That would catch people’s attention. You could actually learn something.

“I want them to do it right, not just try to clear liability for the city.”

Lt. Steve Zygaj, the union’s current president, has fielded many complaints from officers.

“He’s just reading it,” Zygaj said of the training officer. “You have to do it to learn it. It’s like learning to fix a transmission. You’re better watching a YouTube. Get 50 people in a room and have a scenario and ask people, ‘What just transpired?’ It’s like real life. It will stick in your head.”

The city, in a statement, said it disagrees with Grossman’s and Allen’s characterization. The video is state-approved training and, in fact, the city had to overcome “obstacles” from the plaintiffs’ lawyers, said the city.

Let me break in here. According to Grossman, the judge said the plaintiffs’ lawyers were supposed to sign off on the training. They have not. In fact, they objected to it.

But please, let the city continue: “The city will soon roll out a world-class training (video) that satisfies the court’s orders in the (lawsuit). The city’s 75-page script for the new training is complete and video production is imminent. Until the new training is launched, the city is utilizing existing training materials which comply with the (court) orders. It is a shame that the plaintiffs’ lawyers are not interested in making substantive contributions to the training to make our police force even stronger.”

The current video — the one that the city lawyers and training cops came up with after all these years — has a training academy sergeant standing behind a podium reading case law and dozens and dozens of Power Point presentations.

The officer is game enough in his droning presentation, but it seems pretty clear the poor fellow drew the short straw at the academy and was stuck doing the presentation.

He talks about “exigent circumstances,” cites “Terry v. Ohio” (repeatedly!), talks about subsections of law, ICIS (whatever that is), how to fill in pull-down boxes in computer programs.

It is an hour and a half of my life I will never get back. And I doubt any officer got through it happier and smarter.

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