When the City Council finally voted 14-0 to accept the resolution that the city pay more than $1 million in a monetary settlement and change policies within the police department, Calhoun breathed deeply and stood up to hug his attorney, Dan Grossman. There were tears in his eyes. Fourteen months after his nightmare began, it now seemed to be over.
A court-mandated gag order remained in place at GA Voice press time Dec. 7, prohibiting anyone involved in the lawsuit from discussing specifics of the settlement. All that was made public in the city resolution was the city would pay out $1.025 million to be kept in an escrow account of Lambda Legal, a nonprofit legal agency that worked with Grossman and the Southern Center for Human Rights to sue the city for violating the constitutional rights of the patrons of the gay bar on Ponce de Leon Avenue.
The resolution also stated, “the Atlanta Police Department has agreed to take certain actions in regards to their standard operating procedures.”
How the money will be divided and the exact changes the APD will make to its standard operating procedures are not known, and will not be known until presiding federal Judge Timothy Batten signs off on the settlement and the gag order is lifted.
From the day the plaintiffs filed the federal civil lawsuit in November 2009, there was a mandate from the attorneys and plaintiffs that the city offer an apology. No apology is included in the resolution the city council passed and it remains unknown if one will be received after all court documents are made public.
The lawsuit settlement also does not fully resolve all of the fallout from the raid, which shocked LGBT Atlantans and drew comparisons to the 1969 raids on New York City’s Stonewall Inn that sparked riots and the modern gay rights movement.
The police department has not yet released results of its investigation into complaints filed with the APD Office of Professional Standards about the raid, and the independent Citizens Review Board also continues to investigate police actions that night.
And while the APD and city leaders have taken steps to rebuild trust with Atlanta’s gay community, including appointing a second police LGBT liaison officer and an LGBT citizen advisory panel, the wound caused by the raid could take years to heal.
Blue ribbon panel never used
On Oct. 28, at the gay Stonewall Bar Association’s awards dinner, Mayor Kasim Reed was the keynote speaker and announced he would form a blue ribbon panel to help mediate between the city and the Atlanta Eagle plaintiffs’ attorneys.
Grossman shared a testy exchange with Reed during a July LGBT town hall forum and argued that money was not why the plaintiffs sued the city.
Everything could have been solved quickly and easily, Grossman has stated in the past, if the city simply apologized to the men in the bar that night and agreed to change police procedures. When the blue ribbon panel was announced, Grossman was skeptical.
“The mayor doesn’t need a blue ribbon panel to talk to me about settlement, all he needs is a telephone,” Grossman said at the time.
However, the panel idea turned out to be fruitless, as it never even had time to meet.
Lawrie Demorest, a lesbian attorney with Alston & Bird, was hand-picked by the mayor to be part of the blue ribbon panel.
The panel was actually still being formed when the settlement was announced late Dec. 3.
“They apparently resolved it before we met,” she said this week.
Demorest said the mayor called her the weekend after the settlement was agreed upon to thank her for her willingness to serve.
“If the plaintiffs agreed to it they are obviously happy with the changes that will be made,” Demorest said. “Hopefully they will be effective and something like this won’t happen again.”
Citizens Review Board also investigating Eagle raid
Cris Beamud, executive director of the Atlanta Citizens Review Board, said the opinions of the CRB about the raid have been made very clear through its investigations of a dozen complaints filed by those in the bar that night.
“We sustained the allegations of false imprisonment — the board has been pretty clear on its opinions [on how the bar raid was handled],” she said.
Chief George Turner has never responded to the CRB’s recommendations about the raid. City policy requires him to respond within 30 days.
And while a lawsuit has been ongoing during the CRB’s actions, there are no exceptions cited in city policy that allow Turner to ignore the 30-day requirement of responding to the CRB, Beamud said.
“He’s not in compliance,” she said.
While the CRB conducted its own investigations of complaints filed by Atlanta Eagle patrons and employees, the board also voted to have Beamud and her staff investigate the supervisors involved in the raid and what roles they played. The CRB stated at meetings it wanted to ensure that officers following orders were not the ones to take the heat and that supervisors running the operation should also be held accountable. That report is complete, Beamud said.
The report is being distributed to board members this week and they will likely take up the issue in January, she said. She declined to release any information about the report until it is made public next month.
Bartender barred from lawsuit?
Chris Lopez, a former Atlanta Eagle bartender who was one of the Eagle 8 arrested the night of the raid, has gone public via Facebook and Twitter claiming he was kept from being part of the lawsuit against the city.
Shortly after the news broke on Dec. 3 that a settlement had been reached in the Atlanta Eagle lawsuit, Lopez posted to his Facebook profile that it is “nice to know others will profit from me going to jail.”
He also claimed “the main lawyer would not include me and another employee…even with both of us going to jail…funny thing too, he got fired two weeks before me.”
Lopez and doorman Ernest Buehl were laid off from the Eagle in recent weeks. Co-owner Richard Ramey said it was due to hard economic times.
Dec. 7, Lopez filed a complaint with the city of Atlanta’s Municipal Clerk seeking $250,000 for “false arrest, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution for which I find the city is liable.”
He claims in his filing that he was kept out of the lawsuit despite repeated attempts to be part of it. He also states in his filing that he was told that the employees arrested would have to wait after their trial before joining the suit. The Eagle 8 went to trial in Municipal Court in March for permit violations. Charges were dismissed against Lopez and three other defendants including Buehl, while Judge Crystal Gaines found three others, including co-owner Robby Kelley, not guilty.
Grossman declined comment on Lopez’s comments, citing the gag order as well as attorney-client privileges. Buehl did not return a call seeking comment.
But criminal defense attorney Christine Koehler, a member of the Stonewall Bar Association, said Lopez does not have the same footing in making a claim against the city as the plaintiffs named in the suit.
“The plaintiffs were not accused of any criminal charges,” she said.
And while the charges against Lopez were eventually dropped, she said that the police did have arguable probable cause to arrest him because he was an employee where illegal activity was believed to be taking place.
The police never believed the patrons did anything illegal and instead searched them and held them for more than an hour while running background checks — a direct violation of civil rights, she said.
“The police said, ‘We’ll violate their civil rights to see if they have broken the law while we’re here,’” she said. “So they conducted illegal searches. The police did not even have reasonable suspicion to search them [the patrons].”
Robby Kelley, who is co-owner of the bar, is named as a plaintiff in the lawsuit as part of Ramey & Kelley, a Georgia corporation owning the Atlanta Eagle. Kelley, who was also arrested the night of the raid, owns the bar with Richard Ramey.
Koehler said Kelley was likely not being named individually in the lawsuit for the same reason as Lopez.
Lopez remains hopeful and said he expects the city’s legal department to respond to his claim within 30 days.
Glen Paul Freedman, chair of the Atlanta Police Department’s LGBT Advisory Board, said he is glad to hear a settlement has been reached, but curious to know what changes will be made to police procedure.
“It’s a Catch 22,” Freedman said. “I feel the individuals deserve something, but on the other hand this settlement is coming from taxpayers’ money. This is quite a large amount of money.”
The 14-0 vote by the council in accepting the settlement also sends a strong message to the city and the APD, Freedman said.
“I think it shows the council understands the situation and they wouldn’t have voted for it if they didn’t believe it was the right thing to do,” he said. “It sends a very clear message — the city council is saying the APD needs to change its policies.”
From searches to settlement
Controversy over police raid of Atlanta Eagle spanned more than a year.
Sept. 10 — The Atlanta Eagle is raided by the Atlanta Police Department, including members of the Red Dog Unit, on a Thursday, its once popular “Underwear Night.” Eight people are arrested, including employees and dancers. They are charged with operating and working at an adult establishment without the proper licenses. The police say the raid was part of a months-long investigation into allegations to Mayor Shirley Franklin of public sex taking place in the bar. Of the some 60 patrons in the bar that night, no one was charged with illegal sex or with drug possession. In the days following the raid, numerous political candidates, including Kasim Reed, running for mayor, call for an investigation into the police actions.
Sept. 14 — Several patrons of the bar the night it was raided, including arrested employees, file official complaints with the Atlanta Police Department’s Office of Professional Standards. They allege they were forced to lie face down on the floor of the bar including some being cut by broken glass on the floor, were treated roughly including being kicked and shoved by officers with the Red Dog Unit and had anti-gay slurs hurled at them. The OPS investigation has not yet been released to the public more than a year later.
Sept. 13 — Hundreds of people gather in the Atlanta Eagle parking lot to protest the raid.
Sept. 14 — Key commanders and now former APD Chief Richard Pennington hold a press conference to address the controversial raid, stressing they did nothing wrong.
Sept. 19 — Close to 100 people rally at City Hall on a rainy Saturday to protest the botched Atlanta Eagle raid. Officer Dani Lee Harris, former LGBT liaison for the APD, speaks at the rally. The fact Harris was not informed about the raid before it happened causes more controversy between the LGBT community and the APD.
Sept. 22 — Atlanta Pride announces that APD Officer Dani Lee Harris, then the LGBT liaison for the department, would serve as a grand marshal for the parade. This decision causes backlash from Atlanta Eagle owners and patrons in the weeks following the announcement. To try to quell the anger, the Atlanta Pride Committee names the Atlanta Eagle and its staff and patrons as co-grand marshals.
Nov. 24 — Attorney Dan Grossman, Lambda Legal and the Southern Center for Human Rights file a federal lawsuit against the city of Atlanta, Pennington, and 48 individual officers of the APD on behalf of 19 patrons of the bar the night it was raided. The suit claims the patrons had their constitutional rights violated for being searched and detained when they were not suspected of any crime. Since the suit was filed, plaintiffs have said they were interested more in an apology from the city and the promise of the APD revising its policies to ensure no such raid happens again rather than money. The case is Calhoun v. Pennington in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia.
March 11 — The “Eagle 8” — the name given to those arrested during the raid — head to Atlanta Municipal Court with their defense attorney, Alan Begner, to face charges of permit violations. During the course of the trial, Larry Gardner, prosecutor for the Solicitor’s Office, dropped charges against bartender Chris Lopez, manager David Shepherd, doorman Ernest Buehl and Robert Kline. Judge Crystal Gaines found Thadeus Johnson, Robby Kelley and Leandro Apud not guilty, saying the city did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt the men were guilty of the charges. Some 20 supporters of the Atlanta Eagle in court that day erupted in cheers with her verdict. Antonio Benitez, a dancer, did not show up for the trial and a bench warrant was issued for him. This trial date occurred after it had been postponed twice.
March 15 — Discovery begins in Atlanta Eagle raid federal civil lawsuit.
March 17 — The federal lawsuit against the city is amended to name 35 APD officers, including former chief Pennington, rather than 48. Six additional plaintiffs are also added to the original 19. The suit continues to allege the city violated the U.S. and state constitutional rights of the plaintiffs through unlawful search and seizure, false imprisonment, assault, battery and trespass. The suit also alleges the city broke state law by raiding the bar without arrest warrants.
June 10 — The Atlanta Citizens Review Board votes to recommend APD officers Bennie Bridges and John Brock be disciplined for falsely arresting assistant manager David Shepherd during the Atlanta Eagle raid. Shepherd was off-duty and was in his apartment upstairs watching TV when the raid occurred and police came to his door and arrested him.
July 22 — At an LGBT town hall forum called by Atlanta City Councilmember Alex Wan to discuss recent anti-gay crimes in the city, Atlanta Eagle attorney Dan Grossman and Mayor Reed share a testy exchange about the federal lawsuit. Grossman revisits his argument that the city only needs to apologize for the raid to make the lawsuit disappear and could have been settled for no money. Reed argues back that as mayor he is the primary person with fiduciary responsibility for the city. “If there is a path that says that if hypothetically the mayor of Atlanta were to apologize to the GLBT community and that would resolve this without financial impact so the city would move on, I am willing to entertain that now that I am mayor,” Reed said.
Aug. 12 — The Atlanta Citizens Review Board sustains allegations that abusive language, including anti-gay slurs, was used by officers toward the patrons of the bar the night it was raided.
Aug. 31 — Mayor Reed announces the formation of an LGBT advisory board to the Atlanta Police Department. This is part of an effort to bridge the gap between the LGBT community and the police department.
Sept. 9 — The Atlanta Citizens Review Board finds 24 Atlanta police officers guilty of false imprisonment of patrons during the raid. The board also votes to conduct a separate study into the supervisors’ roles in the botched raid to ensure full accountability.
Sept. 29 — Mayor Reed and APD Chief George Turner name Officer Brian Sharp as the department’s second LGBT liaison. Having two LGBT liaisons on the police force fulfills a promise made by Reed when he campaigned for mayor.
Oct. 1 — The first meeting of the Atlanta Police LGBT advisory board takes place.
Oct. 6 — Atlanta Eagle attorneys file court documents alleging the city has destroyed and withheld evidence needed during the discovery phase of the lawsuit. Allegations against the city include that cell phone photos and text messages from officers involved in the raid were erased. Grossman also states in the motion he made site visits to the APD and found thousands of pages of documents relevant to the Atlanta Eagle case that were not turned over by the city.
Oct. 21 — Mayor Kasim Reed speaks to the Atlanta Executive Network and addresses the controversy surrounding the Atlanta Eagle raid and the ensuing lawsuit in a frank and open discussion. He promises a thorough investigation into allegations of destroyed evidence. Reed also states that if the allegations are true that the city will deal with the individuals involved in a public manner.
Oct. 22 — The city responds to the Atlanta Eagle attorneys’ allegations that the city is destroying and withholding evidence, asserting the city has done nothing wrong or illegal during the course of the lawsuit.
Oct. 28 — Mayor Reed is the keynote speaker at the Stonewall Bar Association’s annual awards dinner and announces a “blue ribbon panel” to act as an intermediary between the city and Atlanta Eagle attorneys to try to resolve the case.
Nov. 1 — Atlanta Eagle attorneys fire back at the city’s claim it has not done anything wrong during the discovery phase of the case. Atlanta Eagle attorneys’ state the city made “no specific or meaningful attempt to explain or rebut the most serious allegations” including the destroying of evidence on mobile phones of the officers involved in the raid and destruction of emails between officers involved in the raid.
Nov. 10 — Federal Judge Timothy Batten issues a gag order on the lawsuit and requires parties to meet on Nov. 22 for mediation before Magistrate Judge Alan Baverman.
Nov. 22 — Mediation begins between Atlanta Eagle attorneys and city attorneys.
Dec. 1 and Dec. 3 — The city and Atlanta Eagle plaintiffs enter into mediation talks with a settlement finally reached Dec. 3.
Dec. 6 — The Atlanta City Council votes 14-0 to approve the resolution on the settlement, which includes a $1.025 million payment to the plaintiffs and a mandate that changes be made to the APD’s standard operating procedures. Before the settlement is final, however, presiding federal Judge Timothy Batten must sign off on it. At press time Dec. 7, details of the settlement had not been released and the gag order remained in place.
Top photo: Geoff Calhoun (right), an Atlanta Eagle plaintiff, waits for the Atlanta City Council’s vote on a resolution to settle the federal lawsuit. (by Dyana Bagby)