Dunwoody Police Chief Billy Grogan sees no structural racism problems in his department, he told a mostly White crowd during an Oct. 1 “Mayor’s Meetup” event at Brook Run Park.

The event, where Grogan gave a presentation about police policies and procedures, was the first step in the city’s racial dialogue that Mayor Lynn Deutsch promised in June at a Black Lives Matter event, the city told the Reporter. That dialogue had been delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Deutsch said. Neither Deutsch nor Grogan called the event a “racial dialogue,” and it was not advertised as such, either.

They did not acknowledge any structural racism in the city or suggest any policy changes to fix possible racial problems, instead focusing on what the police department is already doing to combat racism in policing. Some residents were more concerned about the sexual harassment complaints and a lawsuit that the city faces because of messages sent between a former lietunant and a handful of former and current officers. Grogan declined to comment on those complaints because of the “pending litigation.”

Dunwoody Police Chief Billy Grogan gives a presentation about the department’s policies and procedures during an Oct. 1 event at Brook Run Park. (Erin Schilling)

About 30 residents came to the event, which was posted to the city’s YouTube channel here on Oct. 5.

Activist Lydia Singleton-Wells, who organized two Black Lives Matter events early in the summer, said it was “a good first step.”

“I think they’re open to hearing creative ideas, and that’s a good thing,” Singleton-Wells said. “I’m looking forward to Dunwoody’s future and their openness to learning new things.”

Police policies and procedures

Grogan gave a similar presentation to the crowd as he gave to the City Council during a June meeting. Grogan condemned the video of the Minneapolis police officer killing George Floyd by kneeling on his neck, saying that the department already bans all neck restraints except in deadly-force situations.

“I’m concerned about people generalizing the bad actions of police officers in one community and suggesting or believing that is how all police officers conduct themselves,” Grogan said to the audience. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Grogan said potential police officers go through thorough background checks and must be willing and able to have a relationship with the people in the community. They also go through more training than state requirements, Grogan said, which includes implicit bias, mental health, firearm and police legitimacy training.

In terms of use of force, Grogan said, officers are required to try de-escalation tactics first and must intervene if a fellow officer is using excessive force.

Grogan said he sees structural racism in police departments that lack body cameras for their officers, which DPD has, or departments that have police unions, which DPD does not have. He did not mention any potential structural racism problems in DPD.

Singleton-Wells asked what Grogan was doing to combat structural racism within the department, and he said he was “researching these issues” and pointed to the implicit bias and police legitimacy training as solutions.

“It’s helpful to understand and be aware that all of us carry prejudices inside of us based on our upbringing or where we were brought up,” Grogan said. “The important thing as a police officer is for us to recognize that but not let those biases influence our decision-making.”

Audience members at the Oct. 1 “Mayor’s Meetup” event in Brook Run Park were mostly White. (Erin Schilling)

DPD’s officer demographics are mostly representative of the city population, Grogan said.

Thirteen percent of officers are Black, compared to 12% of the city’s population, according to data from the city and U.S. Census estimates for 2019. Thirteen percent of officers are Latino, compared to 9% of the population. About 68% of DPD officers are White, which over-represents the 52% of White people in the city’s population. Only 3% of officers are Asian, which under-represents Asian people in Dunwoody, who make up 17% of the population.

“Out of all the officers that came, there was only one African American officer,” said Singleton-Wells, who has criticized the city government for not being representative of the diversity of residents. “I think that’s just something that people aren’t thinking of. If there’s officers who are coming, it needs to be a diverse range of officers who attend.”

There appeared to be fewer than five people of color at the event, and Singleton-Wells said that shows the city needs “more creative ideas” on how to get people of color involved in the city.

Sexual harassment lawsuits

Residents Joe Hirsch and Heidi Nagel asked Grogan about the three sexual harassment complaints and one lawsuit involving former Dunwoody Police Lt. Fidel Espinoza and other police department officials, which Grogan did not answer.

“The reality is something really bad is happening in the department that nobody is talking about,” Nagel said in an interview. “How can we take what he’s saying that all of these trainings are working, if in fact someone who was promoted several times in the department and led community policing efforts was sexually harassing others?”

The lawsuit, filed July 7 by former officer Roger Halstead, claims that Espinoza sexually harassed him and demanded sexual materials in exchange for work benefits, then arranged for a retaliatory firing and blackballing by other departments.

The three other complainants have filed notices of intent to sue. Civilian transport officer Brian Bolden claims Espinoza bullied and sexually harassed him and falsely accused him of theft, and former officer Austin Handle claims misconduct and retaliation against him from the department’s command staff. Officer Bryan Castellanos alleged Espinoza also sexually harassed him by sending and demanding sexual photos and videos.

Police Chief Billy Grogan issued an investigative report that ruled the substance of Halstead and Bolden’s claims to be untrue or unproven, and the city denied all Handle’s claims in a written response. Some residents felt an external investigation should have been done into the accusations because Grogan is also named in the lawsuit.

Hirsch asked two questions to Grogan about why he didn’t know about the alleged sexual harassment and why he completed the investigation, which Grogan declined to answer.

“Do you allow citizens arrested by Dunwoody police to be in charge of their own investigations?” Hirsch asked Grogan, who responded simply with “no.”

Nagel said the lawsuit and complaints were an “elephant in the room.” She asked Grogan if he was doing anything to “change the culture” of the department because she said it seemed like the officers who alleged the sexual harassment were afraid to speak up.

Grogan declined to answer that question as well, citing “pending litigation.”

Nagel said she was disappointed Grogan deflected her and Hirsch’s questions, especially since her question wasn’t specifically about the lawsuit.