Amid nationwide protests against police brutality, Mayor Lynn Deutsch has called for a “dialogue” in Dunwoody regarding racism. Already some residents are calling for better transparency in internal investigations of the local police department through such mechanisms as a citizens review board.

“It’s really important to have that dialogue, but how you do it when you’re not in person makes an already complex conversation harder,” said Deutsch, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic making large, in-person gatherings unsafe.

Mayor Lynn Deutsch, left, speaks with resident Tanis Singleton at a June 2 City Hall protest against racism and police brutality. Singleton’s daughter, Lydia Singleton-Wells, organized the protest and is calling for some police transparency reforms. (File)

Deutsch gave a speech about her tentative plans to make Dunwoody more inclusive at a June 11 faith-based protest at Brook Run Park organized by activist Lydia Singleton-Wells. Another protest organized by Singleton-Wells at City Hall June 2 drew praise from Police Chief Billy Grogan.

Singleton-Wells, who wants to become a community liaison between the city and residents, has organized two protests in the city and continues to push for reform within the police department, specifically regarding racial profiling and transparency.

Like all police departments, DPD has a process for filing and reviewing complaints against officers. However, as some recent and older cases show, the documentation is not always available and it is possible for officers to resign without a record of possible or pending sanctions.

A racial profiling claim Singleton-Wells recently made to DPD was investigated by the chief, the mayor and the City Council and ruled unfounded, but without documentation due to its informal nature. And in a case that drew press attention about three years ago, a former Dunwoody officer cost the city $187,000 in settlement payments — without admission of wrongdoing — after being sued four times for alleged unconstitutional searches at traffic stops. The officer resigned in good standing before he faced what Grogan said were possible sanctions.

A racial profiling allegation

Singleton-Wells, who has met with Deutsch and Grogan about her reform ideas, brought up a recent allegation of racial profiling during the June 15 virtual city council meeting. She said she had not heard back about the complaint she told to Grogan.

“This tells me Dunwoody PD is not killing black lives with use of force but has no problem harassing and intimidating black lives,” Singleton-Wells said at the meeting.

But Grogan said the investigation found there was no profiling.

Dunwoody Police Chief Billy Grogan.

Grogan supplied Singleton-Wells with the body camera footage from the incident and responded to her complaint, and he said he did not find the officer in violation of racial profiling. Official complaints against officers can only be filed by individuals involved in the incident, Grogan said.

Since the individual did not file his own complaint, Singleton-Wells’ allegation does not constitute an official complaint and has no documentation, though Grogan as well as the mayor and council evaluated the incident.

Singleton-Wells said a local restaurant assistant general manager told her at a protest that DPD officers approached him as he was closing the restaurant late one night. Officers asked what he was doing because he was in a handicapped-accessible parking spot in front of a closed restaurant late at night, according to the body camera footage Singleton-Wells posted on her social media. He explained he worked at the restaurant and confronted the officer about stopping him because he is Black.

“When an allegation of racial profiling is made from a simple contact like that, it really diminishes those real instances where racial profiling could be happening,” Grogan said. “We certainly want to take all those complaints seriously but nevertheless want to be cautious when an allegation like that is made.”

Singleton-Wells said she feels the mayor and the police took the complaint seriously. Though she does consider the incident racial profiling, she said “it’s really important to address the problem and not the person.”

Lawsuits over searches

Four separate lawsuits in 2016 and 2017 against former officer Dale Laskowski allege unlawful searches during traffic stops.

Norcross resident Jermaine Muhammad, who filed the first lawsuit, said he felt racially profiled during the 2013 traffic stop. The city settled the lawsuits without admission of wrongdoing or liability.

Laskowski voluntarily resigned from DPD in 2017 and now works for Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office, according to his Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council personnel records. Laskowski could not be reached for comment through the Sheriff’s Office.

No internal investigation was documented in regard to the first three lawsuits, according to Laskowski’s exit and internal investigation documents obtained through an open records request, nor did he receive any documented reprimands.

“That is case in point of what we’re looking at that is taking place throughout law enforcement in America,” said Muhammad, who used to own a barber shop in Dunwoody. “It’s this allegiance to this White power class of protecting only a particular group of the public.”

Two other men, Daniel Green and Joseph Anderson, also sued Laskowski for unlawful search and seizure for incidents that happened in 2013. No drugs or weapons were found in any of their cars, according to the lawsuits.

All three men are Black.

The lawsuits did not allege racial profiling because that’s a more difficult claim to prove, said attorney Mark Bullman, who represented the three men. Instead, he said the evidence of the unlawful search was “so clearly unconstitutional that was the basis we focused on.”

Based on video evidence, Muhammad’s lawsuit alleges Laskowski said “he just looks like the kind of guy … he would try to run or something.”

“Obviously, through the lens of White supremacy, I look like someone who is going to run,” Muhammad said. “I look like a criminal. I look like someone who belongs behind bars — through the lens of White supremacy.”

Before the lawsuit, Muhammad filed an official complaint with the department after the traffic stop for his cracked windshield turned into a search for drugs or weapons.

“They were in defense from the very beginning,” Muhammad said about the city’s handling of the case. “They were very adamant this was done by the books and no violation of any procedure or protocol.”

A log of Laskowski’s incidents, including compliments, complaints and use of force, lists Muhammad’s complaint as “complaint citizen not found,” which Grogan said means it was unfounded. No other documentation shows how the officers investigated the claim.

In 2016, Gary Brown submitted a complaint of racial profiling against Laskowski after a traffic stop. After an internal review of the incident, DPD found that claim unfounded, according to a letter to Brown.

Another lawsuit was filed by Colton Laidlaw alleging Laskowski conducted an unlawful search and was settled in 2017. Laidlaw’s lawsuit was the only one that garnered a documented internal investigation, according to Laskowski’s records. He was found in violation of four department policies, according to a memorandum to Laskowski from Grogan, two of which relate to the process for handling evidence. The other two were violations of the code of conduct, including not following procedure and unbecoming conduct.

“The most recent lawsuit highlights a pattern of conduct by Officer Laskowski which has brought about a loss of confidence in him as an officer in the service of the City of Dunwoody,” the summary of his pre-adverse action hearing states.

Though Grogan found Laskowski to be in violation of four department policies, he was never sanctioned because Laskowski resigned before those actions could be decided upon, Grogan said. Grogan declined to comment further.

No exit documents acknowledge the pending policy violations or settled lawsuits. Muhammad said Laskowski should have been fired.

“You’ll have certain departments that will allow those loose cannons to remain in their department,” Muhammad said. “Then you’re only inviting corruption into your department. Eventually it’s going to be a liability.”

Reform discussions

Muhammad suggested a citizen oversight committee with diverse participants as a way to check police power. During a June 15 Dunwoody City Council meeting, another resident suggested a citizen review board, which would also review complaints against officers instead of just having supervisors internally complete the review.

Deutsch said she has heard that suggestion from a few residents but feels “leery” about the effectiveness of the option.

Organizer Lydia Singleton-Wells speaks to attendees at a June 11 Brook Run Park protest and prayer event, where Mayor Deutsch decried systemic racism in healthcare and called for discussions about inclusion. (File)

“We already have a lot of committees in the city of Dunwoody that don’t have functions or do anything,” Deutsch said. “We have to create committees with meaningful work to do.”

She said she is considering a mayor’s advisory committee to move forward with citywide conversations about inclusivity and diversity. She’s also looking to Decatur’s “Better Together” community initiative started in 2015 as an example of what Dunwoody’s conversations could be like.

During the same June 15 council meeting, Singleton-Wells suggested having all officers give business cards with their names so people could identify them to file complaints. Councilmember John Heneghan said Dunwoody’s website could list police staff members with their name and picture, unless they work undercover, so residents know the officers.

“It’s a matter that police officers are part of the community, employed by the city and paid by the residents,” Heneghan said. “The City Council of Dunwoody has worked very hard to incorporate our police department into the community itself.”

The mayor and council are not involved in the daily management of the police department, but Heneghan said they will review complaints “from time to time,” and Grogan is also forthcoming with investigation materials about the incidents.