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Thing is, it's doubtful that kind of reform will come from either a local or a federal investigation. The Johnston family is probably right to assume that the Fulton County DA's office lacks the detachment and authority it would need to investigate colleagues, superiors, judges and even its own conduct in prosecuting drug crimes. But it's doubtful that federal investigators will do much beyond addressing the conduct of the individual officers, mostly because it isn't their job to make policy. Even if it were, the same federal government that raids medical marijuana clinics and prosecutes pain specialists isn't likely to come back with recommendations for sweeping drug policy reforms.
When 57-year-old Harlem resident Alberta Spruill was killed in a botched drug raid after a bad tip from an informant in 2003, the city of New York faced many of the same questions Atlanta faces today. Despite public outcry, a rash of media stories and investigations, and promises from the city to change its ways, it wasn't long before police were knocking doors off their hinges, and new reports of "wrong address" raids again popped up in the newspapers.
If Kathryn Johnston's death is going to be a watershed moment in the way Atlanta conducts its drug policing, the city will have to do better than New York (and, frankly, just about every other city in the country). Reforms need the teeth of enforcement mechanisms, the accountability that comes with transparency, and they need to grant review boards broad jurisdiction and subpoena powers. These reforms will have also to come from policy makers, at the insistence of their constituents. Advocates will have to see them through to implementation without losing interest, or developing outrage fatigue.
Anything less, and within months it will be back to business as usual.
Radley Balko is a senior editor of Reason.