Sometimes, the system works.
Matthew Johns, a former Atlanta cop who kicked and choked a surrendering suspect until he was unconscious after a car chase in September 2016, was sentenced to 20 years in prison on Monday. He will serve at least five years, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. Johns had pleaded guilty to eight charges in July, including three counts of aggravated assault and two counts of making a false statement.
It's noteworthy that Johns is being held to account for his actions only because that sort of thing seems so rare when police are involved.
"The criminal justice system did exactly what concerned citizens demand of it: fairness, transparency, and action," said Paul Howard, Fulton County's district attorney, in a statement. Howard stressed that Johns was brought to justice without the use of a special prosecutor, without widespread public protests or demonstrations, and with his fellow police officers agreeing to testify against him.
All of which is exactly what should happen in the wake of an attack like the one Johns perpetrated in 2016. According to the DA, Johns and other Atlanta cops were in pursuit of a suspected stolen vehicle along Interstate 75. Another police car struck the suspected stolen vehicle and caused it to crash. When it did, 15-year-old Antraveious Payne exited the passenger side of the crashed car and surrendered to police with his hands up.
Johns "ran toward the young male and proceeded to kick him in the head [three] times while he lay prostrate upon the ground," according to the Fulton County DA's office. Payne was rendered unconscious and suffered a serious concussion that required him to be hospitalized. The attack was captured by the dashcam of John's police cruiser.
Johns was fired from the police force about nine months later, in July 2017. He was indicted by a grand jury in October 2018 and pleaded guilty in July.
In his statement about the guilty plea, Howard noted that Johns' fellow police officers "viewed the dashcam" footage and had agreed to testify against him if the case had gone to trial.
The outcome in Atlanta stands in stark contrast to so many other cases of police brutality, from the death of Eric Garner at the hands of New York City cop Daniel Pantaleo—who was fired earlier this month but won't face criminal charges—to the death of Daniel Shaver, who was killed by former Mesa, Arizona, cop Philip Mitchell Brailsford in 2017.
In those high-profile cases, like in many others, the police departments stood up for the obviously egregious actions of their members. Brailsford was acquitted of second-degree murder charges in part because Sgt. Charles Langley, who witnessed the killing, defended his actions to the jury. After Pantaleo's firing in New York, Pat Lynch, president of the city's branch of the Police Benevolent Association said "the job has been dying; and today, the job is dead." All because one cop was somewhat held accountable for literally killing a guy over some untaxed cigarettes.
There are many structural impediments to holding police officers accountable when they commit criminal acts, from qualified immunity laws to the cozy relationship between cops and district attorneys. But a big part of the problem is that good cops will defend bad cops, simply because they are all cops.
The Atlanta Police Department deserves credit for holding its own members accountable—and for upholding the law. It's unfortunate that qualifies as news.