Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Balko’s Johnston Case Update

Remember the Kathryn Johnston case, the elderly woman gunned down by the Atlanta police department in her own home during a raid that was later found to be fake when the informant that the police forced to take part in the cover up ratted them out? As Radley Balko reports, the reality is far worse and the corruption goes far deeper. Two officers have now plead guilty to manslaughter for Johnston’s death and they are testifying to the staggering corruption in the drug unit of the Atlanta PD. I’ll post a long excerpt from Balko’s post so you can see just how bad it is:

We now know that Kathryn Johnston fired only a single bullet, through the door as police were trying to break in. They responded with a storm of bullets, which apparently both wounded Johnston and the officers themselves. When they realized their fatal error, they planted cocaine and marijuana in the woman’s home. They then pressured an uninvolved informant to testify to having made controlled buys at Johnston’s home to cover their tracks.

The New York Times is now reporting that the officers have told federal investigators that their behavior was not out of the ordinary. That corruption, planting evidence, and giving false testimony are routine at APD. That’s not surprising. The only way these officers could think they’d get away with all of this is if they were operating within a system that routinely allows for–or even encourages–such behavior. APD’s focus on arrest numbers and professional rewards for the big bust apparently incentivized such short cuts.

It’s also important to remember that it’s possible we wouldn’t know any of this were it not for the uncooperative informant who admirably refused to help the cops cover their asses. Had he gone along with the plan, much of the public may well still think Kathryn Johnston was a geriatric dope pusher, and that her death was unfortunate, but a justifiable use of force by the raiding police. The failure here is not just with these three police officers. It’s with their supervisors ho failed to provide adequate oversight. It’s with the prosecutors who failed to ask the right questions. And it’s with the judges who, according to an investigation by the Atlanta Journal, routinely signed off on these types of warrants with no scrutiny at all.

Of course, much of the blame belongs on drug prohibition itself. We shouldn’t be so naive as to think that this kind of corruption is limited to APD. A couple of dozen news stories prior to this case alone should quell such notions. More fundamentally, the very nature of narcotics policing lends itself to corruption. That’s not to say all narcotics cops are corrupt. But it is to say that they often have to break the very laws they’re paid to enforce in order to enforce them. The job begins, then, with a rather awkward approach to the rule of law. If your job is to buy and sell drugs in order to catch people who buy and sell drugs, it’s a short leap to justifying other extra-legal shortcuts to catch the bad guys, too.

Finally, this case should serve as yet another reminder of just how dangerous and volatile these police home invasions really are, and why we should stop using them to serve search warrants for nonviolent crimes. They offer no margin for error. That they’re used primarily in drug policing, which as noted is fraught with bad incentives and possibilities for error, is particularly absurd. To listen to some defenders of these tactics, the difference between Kathryn Johnston’s death being an outrage or an unfortunate but justified police action comes down to nothing more than the legality of the warrant–that is, if the warrant had been legal, then Johnston had no right to defend her home. This is preposterous. There are multiple scenarios under which the warrant could have been legitimate, yet Johnston still innocent. This is what prosecutors said in the Cory Maye case, too. The warrant was legal. Therefore, he had no right to defend his home. Nevermind that self-defense is going to be the natural reaction any time someone violently breaks into your home in the middle of the night. Or that the lack of oversight, transparency, or real scrutiny in narcotics policing can routinely lead to legal but mistkaen warrants on the wrong people.

Kathryn Johnston obviously didn’t know that the invaders forcing their way into her home were police. She had the right to defend her home. That’s true now that we know that the drugs the police claim to have found in her home were planted. But it would have been just as true if she were, say, a medical marijuana user. Or if someone had been using her porch as a drug perch without her knowledge.

This case also ought to remind us not to automatically trust police accounts of what transpired during one of these raids, and reinforces many of the recommendations I’ve made, including that forced-entry raids be recorded in an untamperable video format.

I agree 100%, particularly with his point that this is the rule, not the exception. This goes on in police departments all over the country every single day. Scalia’s nonsense in Hudson about the “new professionalism” of police departments to justify no legal remedy for no-knock raids gone wrong is not just wrong, it’s dangerously wrong.


  1. #1 Leni
    April 28, 2007

    I agree that it is probably the rule as well. Many years ago I lived in Seattle. I did a lot of drugs back then and so did most of my friends. My experience was nowhere near as drastic as the one of above, but all the same elements were there. Corruption, abuse of power, lies.

    My only encounter with the law resulted in my stash being *confiscated* by police. I’d heard about it happening to other people all the time. Not just drugs, money, whatever they wanted.

    In my experience, it was mostly white middle class kids who were dealing to support their own habits. No one carried guns and most of them were too high to care about trying to be criminals. They wanted to listen to cool music and get high and that’s pretty much it. Totally piddly and small time kid’s stuff. And even then the cops were like schoolyard bullies. Except they could put you in prison if you didn’t hand over your money and drugs. Or even if you did. They’d only need a little bit to arrest you. They could keep pretty much whatever they wanted.

    It wasn’t all the police, but there were definitely more than a few of them. The ironic thing is that everyone knew who it was. It was no secret. Two in particular had such bad repuations that when they were transferred to a new neighborhood, several hundred residents protested!

    The real problem is that there is almost no way to redress police corruption because they people they prey on are criminals who can’t call up the station and say “Hi there. My name is Joe Q. Smith and one of your employees robbed me of several hundred dollars of cocaine last night.” The only time it ever sees the light of day is when it ends up with something as insane as the murder of an innocent, elderly woman.

  2. #2 raj
    April 28, 2007

    This is astounding

    Kathryn Johnston obviously didn’t know that the invaders forcing their way into her home were police. She had the right to defend her home.

    Yes she did have that right. For all she knew, the invaders might have been the gang down the street. So much for the “knock and announce” policy that the police at one time were supposed to carry out.

    And, thanks for the update.

  3. #3 386sx
    April 28, 2007

    My only encounter with the law resulted in my stash being *confiscated* by police. I’d heard about it happening to other people all the time. Not just drugs, money, whatever they wanted.

    Same here man. I had heard lots of stories about the “confiscation” thing. Then one day I was walking along and to my surprise a cop pulls up and asked me if I had any firecrackers on me. He said he heard a firecracker going off. Uh huh. And then he proceeded to “search” me. (He didn’t find nothin’, by the way.)

  4. #4 khan
    April 28, 2007

    “The war on drugs” permits/encourages confiscation of cash and cars, even without any actual charges being filed. The police agencies are now addicted to the money (as well as the power).

    And of course, any objections just mean that you don’t want to “protect the children”.

  5. #5 Gretchen
    April 29, 2007

    Radley Balko is my hero.

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