A botched drug raid in 2006 resulted in Kathryn Johnston's death
Reforms have helped bridge the divide between community and police
Before #BlackLivesMatter became a trending hashtag, before names like Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald and Walter Scott filled national headlines, before protesters took to the streets of Charlotte and Baltimore, Atlanta Police had a moment of reckoning.
Several officers killed an elderly woman named Kathryn Johnston in a botched drug raid. Johnston’s death, which occurred 10 years ago this week, forced the Atlanta Police Department to undergo a major series of reforms.
But did reforms actually change anything? We revisited the case – talking with officials, activists, and police about the shooting – to see how Johnston’s death impacted Atlanta.
On a rainy Tuesday evening, two days before Thanksgiving 2006, Kathryn Johnston, a lively 88-year-old black woman, was inside her yellow brick ranch at 933 Neal Street. Her family was planning to come by for their annual feast.
Why did Kathryn Johnston die?
Johnston had lived near English Avenue since the late ‘80s. Since then, the historic neighborhood where black working-class families once prospered had fallen on hard times. It became known as the “The Bluff” and had turned into the South’s largest open-air heroin market, according to the FBI.
Johnston, used to the drugs and prostitutes, felt unsafe after an elderly woman had recently been raped. A friend came over to clean her old .38 revolver. She wouldn’t be taking any chances.
Around 7 p.m., eight Atlanta Police officers approached Johnston’s property without warning. They pried off burglar bars attached to the wooden door and used a ram to bust inside. Johnston, who had grabbed her gun, fired a single shot that zipped past the police. APD officers unleashed a hail of gunfire, 39 bullets in total. Five pierced her body.
“They shot her down like a dog,” Sarah Dozier, Johnston’s niece, told reporters outside Grady Memorial Hospital.
It was a botched drug raid that went horribly wrong – police knowingly acted based on false pretenses, and then tried to cover up their actions.
Johnston’s death grabbed international headlines, prompted a civil rights probe, and led to a congressional hearing. Three APD officers pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy to violate civil rights resulting in death. They went to prison.
“People in communities of color believed officers in certain APD departments operated as a band of thugs,” civil rights attorney Mawuli Davis said. “The exposure was too much to turn a blind eye.”
Following Johnston’s death, local officials pledged to review practices and make reforms. It all happened years before police shooting victims’ names were popularized into hashtags – all while hundreds of other minority men and women became victims of police brutality. A decade later, the department’s changes have largely spared Atlanta the anger and conflict that followed police-involved deaths in such cities as Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland.
“Her killing was heart-wrenching and tragic,” said former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, who oversaw the changes after Johnston’s death. “The expressions of horror helped all of us in Atlanta refocus on the value of human life.”
’A complicated set of errors’
On the afternoon of November 21, 2006, narcotics officer Jason Smith was feeling pressure to meet his unwritten quota of nine arrests and two executed search warrants each month, federal investigators learned while interviewing APD officers. According to a report from the Atlanta Citizen Review Board, Smith and two other APD officers – Gregg Junnier and Arthur Tesler – told federal investigators such quotas were in place. APD has long denied such a policy was ever enforced.
The three officers detained a suspected drug dealer named Fabian Sheets, according to court filings. After a search turned up nothing of substance, Smith planted marijuana near Sheets, which a canine officer then found, an FBI investigation revealed. Faced with the threat of a lengthy prison sentence Sheets told the officers he knew of a kilo of cocaine that could be found inside a shoebox at 933 Neal Street – Johnston’s address.
The tip had the potential, if true, to yield one of APD’s biggest seizures of the year. The officers submitted paperwork for a “no-knock” search warrant – which would permit them to enter the house without warning. A judge quickly approved the warrant. The raid was on.
There was just one problem: The paperwork said a man named “Sam” had sold two $25 baggies of crack to a confidential informant at 933 Neal Street. That informant, a drug dealer named Alexis White, didn’t actually buy the drugs. White told federal investigators he was asked to make a buy for APD, but he couldn’t get there in time because he didn’t have a ride.
The plain-clothed officers busted down the door anyway.
After Johnston’s death, they planted marijuana in the slain woman’s home. Smith, Junnier and Tesler tried to persuade White to cover for them, the FBI found, even paying him $100 and getting him to sign a backdated voucher for the fake drug purchase.
Soon, it all unraveled. White, fearful of retribution from officers for failing to corroborate their story, reached out to a TV reporter to expose the officers. It would lead to a joint investigation among state and federal authorities.
“It was such a complicated set of errors,” Loyola Law School professor Alexandra Natapoff said. “It was a terrible yet perfect example of all the things that could go wrong.”
In 2009, all three APD officers were sentenced for conspiracy to violate civil rights resulting in death and received prison sentences between five and 10 years, along with three years of supervised release. They had to pay a total of $8,180 to cover Johnston’s funeral costs.
“This is a sad day in the law enforcement community,” Gregory Jones, the FBI’s lead special agent on the investigation, said in a statement. “Few crimes are as reprehensible as those committed by police officers who violate the very laws they have sworn to uphold.”
The city of Atlanta eventually paid $4.9 million to settle a lawsuit filed by Johnston’s family following her death.
’They blew it up, started over’
George Turner, who today is the APD police chief, headed up recruitment and training efforts at the time of Johnston’s death. The Atlanta native, raised in a public housing project a few miles away from Johnston’s house, was dismayed to watch the relationship between police and residents fray following the raid.
“It was really an extreme black eye for our city,” the 35-year APD veteran recalled.
By 2008, FBI investigators had found that systemic problems that extended beyond three “rogue” officers. There was a widespread “culture of misconduct” that plagued much of the department, investigators said.
Then-APD Chief Richard Pennington would ultimately reassign his remaining narcotics officers, rebuilding the unit from scratch. He expanded the unit from eight members to 30 members. Each received rigorous training. The shake-up followed a pledge to review policies surrounding the use of informants and the use of “no-knock” warrants.
“They did not take it lightly,” Georgia State University criminal justice professor Dean Dabney said. “They blew it up, started over and put their best people in charge – ethical leaders who cleaned up messes.”
In addition, Johnston’s death prompted city officials to establish an independent board of citizens tasked with reviewing allegations of police misconduct. Lee Reid, the board’s executive director, said the entity has both investigated complaints against officers and helped shape policies including body camera procedures.
“If there’s one good thing to come out of Kathryn Johnston’s death, there’s a greater commitment to holding APD and officials accountable,” Reid said.