Members of Brookhaven’s Social Justice, Race and Equity Commission suggested an independent review process and called for more detail in reports for complaints filed against police officers during a May 5 meeting. 

Brookhaven created the SJREC in September of 2020, following months of protests against police brutality. The commission is meant to address issues of race and diversity in the city and review the city’s mission statement, policing practices, hiring practices and contracting practices. 

During its May 5 meeting, the commission’s Policing and Continuum Use of Force Subcommittee reviewed the complaint process along with records of complaints filed against police officers from recent years. Subcommittee Co-Chair Shahrukh Arif suggested the possibility of creating a citizen’s review board or another process that would allow community stakeholders to independently review complaint data and see if there are any patterns represented in that data. 

“There’s no independent review that ever happens. It’s all within the Brookhaven Police Department,” Arif said. “Is there an opportunity to have an independent review of these sorts of things?”

A spokesperson for the BPD said that review of complaints against police officers is handled internally, but all of the department’s review processes, including the review process for how complaints are processed, are independently reviewed every three years by auditors from the Georgia Law Enforcement Certification Program. 

According to a document provided by the BPD, a complaint can be issued in person, by mail, by email or by phone. The complaint is documented and reviewed by the “lowest appropriate organizational level and as quickly as possible.” Then, a decision is made as to whether there is sufficient evidence of the complaint and if disciplinary action is necessary.

According to data provided by the BPD, from 2016 to 2020 there were 230 complaints filed against officers. Of those 230 complaints, 93 or 40.4% were found to be “unfounded,” meaning the BPD said they had sufficient evidence to prove the incident did not occur. Forty-eight, or 20.9%, of the incidents were sustained, meaning the BPD found enough evidence to prove the incident occurred. 

Fifty-one complaints were “not sustained,” meaning the BPD could find no evidence to prove the allegation either way. Twenty-six complaints were “exonerated,” meaning the incident occurred, but BPD found “actions of the employee were consistent with the law and Department policies, rules, regulations, and practice,” according to BPD’s website. Eight incidents were marked as a policy or training deficiency, which means the incident occurred, but BPD decided additional training or a policy revision would be sufficient to keep it from happening again. 

Four complaints were listed under “no action taken.” A spokesperson for BPD said the department uses this classification when they are unable to identify the accused officer and cannot investigate further. 

Commissioners also expressed concern over the disparity in the amount of detail for different complaints. 

“Some of the quality of the write-ups seemed a little insufficient,” said Commissioner Conni Todd. “I’m wondering, did they just kind of cut and paste and pull a little bit of the information, or what?”

According to Todd, who said she looked over complaints from 2018, some of the reports would say that a supervisor had reviewed body camera footage, but not include detail about what that footage showed. She also said she did not see race listed in any of her reports.

“There was no race component on the part of the complainant, the officer, or the suspect,” Todd said. “I would say for our committee, that might be important information to know in order to establish whether there are patterns.” 

Arif said he noticed that some of the complaints he reviewed had race listed if it seemed pertinent to the complaint in question. For example, if the complaint alleged an officer had racially profiled someone, race would be listed in the write-up. 

Co-Chair Monique Hudson said even if race didn’t play a role in the complaint itself, that data would be necessary for the commission to look for patterns of discrimination. 

“To see that a lot of the [complaints], regardless of what the incident is, that are unfounded happen to have Black complainants would be relevant for this committee,” she said. “Regardless of whether there was an inherent racial component to the complaint being made.” 

The subcommittee also discussed how cultural differences could come into play when citizens interact with police. Two of the types of allegations that can be brought against an officer are “inappropriate contact and rudeness,” said Commissioner Zaki Anwer. Viewpoints that certain cultures have on when it is appropriate to touch someone, or what is considered rude, could influence complaints. 

“You can have different perspectives on rudeness. You can have different perspectives on inappropriate contact, especially in a multicultural city like Brookhaven,” Anwer said. 

According to BPD data, from 2016 to 2020, 9.6% of complaints received had to do with inappropriate contact and 29.1% had to do with rudeness. Anwer suggested that moving forward, it might be helpful to teach officers about “propriety that certain cultures have on contact and rudeness.” 

“Different backgrounds lead to different behaviors, and sometimes not everybody will be able to understand and associate with those behaviors,” he said. “So it’s sometimes important to learn and appreciate the differences.”

Todd agreed, and said the need for inter-cultural intelligence would be an important factor, as well as reckoning with the white supremacist roots of policing. 

“The police, quite frankly, [were] created to track down slaves that escaped. So let’s start with that generational impact on both the trauma to police officers who could actually do that … and then there’s also trauma on the other side, especially for Black people,” she said. “We’ve grown to normalize what should and shouldn’t happen based on a white lens.”

Sammie Purcell is Associate Editor at Rough Draft Atlanta.