In Atlanta: The Worst-Case Scenario


Two police officers in the Kathryn Johnston case have pled guilty of manslaughter. They face 10 and 12 years in prison, respectively. They pled in exchange for testimony about the "culture of corruption" among narcotics officers in the Atlanta Police Department.

As I've written before, I'm not particularly fond of felony murder in principle, so I think this is an appropriate charge. And if the plea helps to uncover more fundamental problems with the way Atlanta police its drug crimes, all the better. And it looks like it's doing exactly that.

We now know that Kathryn Johnston fired only a single bullet, through the door as police were trying to break in. They responded with a storm of bullets, which apparently both wounded Johnston and the officers themselves. When they realized their fatal error, they planted cocaine and marijuana in the woman's home. They then pressured an uninvolved informant to testify to having made controlled buys at Johnston's home to cover their tracks.

The New York Times is now reporting that the officers have told federal investigators that their behavior was not out of the ordinary. That corruption, planting evidence, and giving false testimony are routine at APD. That's not surprising. The only way these officers could think they'd get away with all of this is if they were operating within a system that routinely allows for—or even encourages—such behavior. APD's focus on arrest numbers and professional rewards for the big bust apparently incentivized such short cuts.

It's also important to remember that it's possible we wouldn't know any of this were it not for the uncooperative informant who admirably refused to help the cops cover their asses. Had he gone along with the plan, much of the public may well still think Kathryn Johnston was a geriatric dope pusher, and that her death was unfortunate, but a justifiable use of force by the raiding police. The failure here is not just with these three police officers. It's with their supervisors who failed to provide adequate oversight. It's with the prosecutors who failed to ask the right questions. And it's with the judges who, according to an investigation by the Atlanta Journal, routinely signed off on these types of warrants with no scrutiny at all.

Of course, much of the blame belongs on drug prohibition itself. We shouldn't be so naive as to think that this kind of corruption is limited to APD. A couple of dozen news stories prior to this case alone should quell such notions. More fundamentally, the very nature of narcotics policing lends itself to corruption. That's not to say all narcotics cops are corrupt. But it is to say that they often have to break the very laws they're paid to enforce in order to enforce them. The job begins, then, with a rather awkward approach to the rule of law. If your job is to buy and sell drugs in order to catch people who buy and sell drugs, it's a short leap to justifying other extra-legal shortcuts to catch the bad guys, too.

Finally, this case should serve as yet another reminder of just how dangerous and volatile these police home invasions really are, and why we should stop using them to serve search warrants for nonviolent crimes. They offer no margin for error. That they're used primarily in drug policing, which as noted is fraught with bad incentives and possibilities for error, is particularly absurd. To listen to some defenders of these tactics, the difference between Kathryn Johnston's death being an outrage or an unfortunate but justified police action comes down to nothing more than the legality of the warrant—that is, if the warrant had been legal, then Johnston had no right to defend her home. This is preposterous. There are multiple scenarios under which the warrant could have been legitimate, yet Johnston still innocent. This is what prosecutors said in the Cory Maye case, too. The warrant was legal. Therefore, he had no right to defend his home. Nevermind that self-defense is going to be the natural reaction any time someone violently breaks into your home in the middle of the night. Or that the lack of oversight, transparency, or real scrutiny in narcotics policing can routinely lead to legal but mistkaen warrants on the wrong people.

Kathryn Johnston obviously didn't know that the invaders forcing their way into her home were police. She had the right to defend her home. That's true now that we know that the drugs the police claim to have found in her home were planted. But it would have been just as true if she were, say, a medical marijuana user. Or if someone had been using her porch as a drug perch without her knowledge.

This case also ought to remind us not to automatically trust police accounts of what transpired during one of these raids, and reinforces many of the recommendations I've made, including that forced-entry raids be recorded in an untamperable video format.