Union City forced out its embattled police chief, but city officials tried to keep his involuntary departure hush-hush last month amid allegations he helped cover up a 2011 fatal shooting by one of his officers.
The stakes are high regarding Charles Odom’s abrupt New Year’s Eve exit from the police department where he worked for 25 years. His departure could trigger a state investigation into his tenure as chief, including questions about whether he covered for Officer Luther Lewis after he fatally shot an unarmed 19-year-old, Ariston Waiters, twice in the back.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Channel 2 Action News investigation last May reported new evidence that raised doubts about the official story put out by the Union City Police Department. Within days, Waiters’ family and supporters protested at city hall and called on city leaders to fire Odom.
Waiters’ mother, Freda, said she is happy and grateful that the chief is finally gone, but the city’s reticence to discuss the circumstances surrounding Odom’s departure does not surprise her.
“Since day one all the way until now, no one has been totally honest,” she said. “So why expect the truth now?”
When a police officer’s job status changes in Georgia, that officer’s department is required to report that to the state agency that certifies police, the Peace Officer Standards and Training Council (P.O.S.T.). If the officer is fired or resigns in lieu of termination, that triggers a P.O.S.T. review and, if warranted, a full-blown investigation.
P.O.S.T. launched an investigation of Lewis last year after he was fired from a new police job at the Savannah Airport Commission. Lewis allegedly failed to disclose details of the Waiters shooting when he applied for his new job. P.O.S.T. will likely take action on his certification next month, according to P.O.S.T. Executive Director Ken Vance.
Odom, who on Feb. 1 went to work with the Georgia Public Safety Training Center as a training specialist, declined to be interviewed for this story.
After the AJC/Channel 2 raised questions early last month about Odom’s departure, P.O.S.T. started reviewing how it was reported to the agency. P.O.S.T. records show that Union City sent in a form that listed Odom’s departure as a retirement, effective Dec. 31. But AJC/Channel 2 learned he left after he was told he would not be reappointed by the mayor and city council in January. Odom sent an email to officers on Dec. 31 announcing his retirement.
When reporters initially contacted Mayor Vince Williams in early January, he was cagey about Odom’s status, but when pressed he said Odom was still the chief. On Jan. 8, the city denied a public records request for any documents related to his departure, including a resignation letter.
Williams last week acknowledged that Odom resigned after the two men met in late December and the mayor told him the city was going in a new direction. Williams said the papers were mistakenly filed early with P.O.S.T. before Odom’s official separation date of Jan. 11.
On Jan. 21, the city appointed former Fulton County Police Chief Cassandra Jones as interim chief until Odom’s permanent replacement is found.
Williams initially said the decision to not reappoint Odom was unrelated to the Waiters shooting. But later he acknowleded the allegations against the chief played a role. They were “not a major factor; it was a factor in the back of my head,” he said.
“The trust was no longer there,” Williams said last week.
P.O.S.T.’s Vance spoke to the mayor last week and asked the city to file an accurate record of Odom’s departure.
“We’ve requested a new separation form reflecting those dates and the reason for the separation,” Vance said.
Once P.O.S.T. receives the corrected separation form and it reflects his resignation in lieu of termination, the agency could begin reviewing the chief’s actions after the shooting.
Odom is alleged to have told officers, years after the shooting, that Luther Lewis should be in prison and the chief took care of it. A former lieutenant, who was the first supervisor on the scene, arriving moments after the shooting, told the AJC/Channel 2 that Odom directed him not to write a statement about what he witnessed at the scene. The lieutenant, Chris McElroy, said he never thought the shooting was right and that the story Lewis told him at the scene differed from the official account that later emerged.
Lewis has maintained that he had no choice but to shoot Waiters because the teen, who was laying face down on the ground, grabbed his gun. But McElroy said Lewis told a different story in the moments after shooting, never mentioning a struggle for his gun.
The department never conducted an internal affairs review of the shooting, assistant chief Lee Brown told reporters last year.
Other officers reported prior questionable incidents involving Lewis, but when the AJC/Channel 2 sought internal affairs records, there were none in the files turned over by Odom’s department.
After the news organizations’investigation last year, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard reopened the case and presented it to a second grand jury. After two days of testimony, Lewis closed out the proceedings with a lengthy, emotional statement that helped convince grand jurors to clear him for a second time.
Howard and the Waiters family asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate and that probe is ongoing.
“We are looking forward to the results of that investigation,” said Marcus Coleman, a community activist who is working with Freda Waiters. “Once we met with U.S. Attorney (John) Horn, we were able to walk out of there with the confidence of knowing that this is not over.”
Williams also sent a letter in August to Horn requesting he review the new allegations swirling around the shooting. He says he wants the truth, whatever it may be, to come out.
“It was an incident that still haunts many of us in this city because a life was lost, but we’re certainly doing the best we can to make sure we clean up our police department,” Williams said.