Atlanta’s police recruits: hard to find and hard to keep

One smoked pot. Another lied about his family’s involvement with a gang. A third shot and wounded the boyfriend of a woman he’d befriended on social media.

All three men were in training to become city of Atlanta police officers and were fired after the department learned of their alleged crimes.

Channel 2 Action News found five other recruits who APD fired for criminal or ethical violations in 2016 and 2017. All told, 17 percent of the 362 recruits on APD’s payroll during that two-year period were dismissed or resigned.

The findings come as Atlanta is still 264 officers short of its years-long goal of having 2,000 officers on the force.

“We have an issue with retaining officers that we have now, and we have an issue with recruiting,” said Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore. “I didn’t know we had an issue with the recruits, as well.”

Moore added: “We are … in desperate need to get our ranks up, and (I’m) hoping that we aren’t cutting any corners to do that.”

Three recruits were fired after attending a backyard barbecue, where two of them allegedly smoked marijuana and one fired a gun. The third was accused of lying to a neighbor about the shot coming from his yard.

Another recruit was let go for lying about gang tattoos and another one was accused of impersonating a police officer during a traffic stop. Still another allegedly stole a classmate’s ballistics vest.

Former recruit James Ball was involved in the most serious infraction that led to his firing.

Ball is accused of shooting a man on Superior Drive in Gwinnett County on Christmas Eve. Ball told the 911 dispatcher that he was an off-duty Atlanta police officer, according to the police report.

But at the time, Ball was actually an APD recruit who had not finished training.

APD declined an on-camera interview but said the agency was “selective” about who it brought into its 35-week training program. In 2017, the agency selected only 105 of the more than 1,200 applications it received for officer training.

“While our background screening process is thorough, it is impossible to predict the poor choices some individuals will make once they are hired,” APD said.

“We understand and agree that police officers should be held to a higher standard, and criminal behavior by anyone wanting to become a police officer is obviously unacceptable. But it should be abundantly clear that once these behaviors are brought to our attention, we deal with them swiftly and decisively.”

APD spends an average of $93,667 to train each recruit. The department declined to break down how much it spent on the 63 recruits who quit or were fired, none of whom completed their training.

“You’re not getting your money’s worth if this many people are coming and just being tossed out,” said Vince Champion, southeast regional director for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, who spent eight years recruiting and training police officers.

With Atlanta still short of its goal of hiring 2,000 officers, Champion said the city was “backed in a corner.”

“They’re trying to get more people on the street and they’re not taking the time to make sure they’re getting the right people,” he said.

APD countered that the length of its training program, more than three times the state-mandated 10 weeks, gave ample time to vet and weed out unsuitable recruits.

“It is far better for the Department to identify these recruits, and deal with their behavior now, than to allow them to become police officers and for these behaviors to surface later,” the agency said.

Nicole Carr is an investigative reporter for Channel 2 Action News. Sheila Schutt is a special projects producer at Channel 2.

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