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Compliance issues doomed Avondale Estates Police Department’s accreditation

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Compliance issues doomed Avondale Estates Police Department’s accreditation

Krystal Kvinge holds a sign during a peaceful protest in Avondale Estates for Black Lives Matter and 21st Century Police Reform sponsored by Avondale Alliance for Racial Justice on August 8, 2020. Photo by Dean Hesse.
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This story has been updated.

Avondale Estates, GA — The city of Avondale Estates set out to receive accreditation for the city’s police department through the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police in August 2020.

For about a year the agency was seemingly on track to complete the process. But behind the scenes, the assessment team uncovered issues so problematic that they stopped the assessment early.

The city on Sept. 20 announced the department did not receive the accreditation. The scathing report produced as a result of the failed accreditation attempt led to the ouster of the city’s police chief and the resignation of an official managing the accreditation.

“Accreditation has been identified as a top priority of the city to ensure the city’s police department is operating with the highest standards deemed essential for the efficient and effective operation of law enforcement agencies,” the announcement from the city says. “The city remains steadfast in its commitment to the community’s well-being and safety and will continue to pursue accreditation. Additionally, the city will explore enlisting a third-party expert to review all police standard operating procedures.”

The city initiated the accreditation process amid activists’ calls for an independent, third party review of the police department and calls to adopt the 21st Century Policing Implementation Guide. The City Commission began conversations about evaluating the police department’s policies and procedures in June 2020.

Following the damning report about the police department released on Sept. 20, the city announced Police Chief Lynn Thomas is retiring and City Manager Patrick Bryant has accepted the resignation of the department’s accreditation manager, Lt. Duanne Thompson.

Thomas was appointed as police chief in 2016. Prior to his promotion within the department, Thomas was cleared of wrongdoing in the shooting of an unarmed man.

Capt. Paul Conroy, a long-time veteran of the Avondale Estates Police Department, is serving as the acting chief of police.

The city on Sept. 20 released the final report from the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police. Assessment Team Leader Valerie Johnson said in the report that she would feel “irresponsible recommending certification for the [Avondale Estates Police Department], based on the number of compliance issues and the amount of work still needing to be done to bring the agency’s policies up to standard.”

The assessment summary states that the assessment team met with Thompson, Thomas and Conroy, as well as other personnel during the on-site visits. The visits included a tour of the police department, including the property and evidence areas, and a tour of the DeKalb County 911 Center.

During the first day of the assessment, “50 files were sent back for repair, due to an overwhelming lack of documentation,” the report states. The certification process reviews the department’s policies and makes sure that they can provide proof that the department is following its own policies, according to the city. The report identified the department has 139 standards.

“The returned items indicated that the police department did not have the required proofs of compliance (such as reports, letters, videos, memos, pictures, etc.) to confirm that it was following department policies,” a spokesperson for the city said.

The review took place on Aug. 9-10. The assessment team educated the department about each compliance issue and worked with the accreditation manager to find solutions for the missing documentation.

“The Assessment team’s communication of these issues to the Certification (Accreditation) Manager was met with indifference or sarcasm, as well as comments that the Mock team had not identified these issues as problematic,” the reports says.

Some corrections were made, although during the second day of the assessment, the team expressed concerns regarding the department’s progress. At about 3 p.m. on Aug. 10, the assessment team stopped their work.

“There were still over 30 files out for repair, and the Assessment team had not been able to review 100% of the compliance files,” the report states. “The inability of the agency to repair files in a timely manner, in conjunction with what appeared to be an apathetic attitude toward the Certification process by the Certification Manager contributed to the decision to end the assessment.”

The report additionally states that the assessment team met with Thomas to express concerns about the agency’s progress. It appeared that was the first time Thomas had seen the compliance files and “he did not appear to be surprised or overly concerned, upon seeing the condition of the files or hearing the explanation,” according to the report.

The assessment team additionally told Thomas that Thompson’s demeanor and comments about the certification process were concerning and recommended, in the future, the department may consider having a different accreditation manager.

“The Chief did not react, when the Assessment Team explained, in detail, the negative comments the Certification Manager had made, during the assessment,” the report states.

The report says Thomas and Thompson told the Assessment Team that the department completed a mock assessment and that the mock team had not identified any issues as problematic.

Each time that was mentioned, the assessment team said it would be difficult to believe the mock team did not find any issues with the lack of documentation. The assessment team did not review or request the mock assessment notes.

According to the city, Conroy will immediately begin making corrections to the compliance files to prepare the department to go through the certification process again once it is able to reapply.

The report from the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police found compliance issues in the property and evidence areas, saying they were not properly secured. The property and evidence storage room was located in a hallway, near the elevator. The door was a locking metal door, however, it was not equipped with an alarm system. There is one camera inside the storage room that is motion activated.

It was unclear if the motion sensor on the camera would immediately alert personnel when activated. Thompson said the command personnel can get alerts on their phones, but it was unclear if the alert process is actively being used.

The assessment team learned that property and evidence was the corner room in the hallway and was next to a storage closet. Three of the four walls are made of sheetrock. The fourth wall is backed by the outside of the building.

“This meant three of the four walls of the storage room were made only of sheetrock and could potentially be easily penetrated. There were no cameras in the hallway surrounding the storage room,” the report says. “The Assessment Team explained with the accessibility of the PD floor by City Hall personnel, lack of cameras and alarm systems, and the sheetrock construction of the walls; there was security concerns regarding the storage area.”

Assessment Team Leader Valerie Johnson recommended the department reinforce the walls of the storage room with chain link or some other caging to add an extra layer of protection. Thompson rejected that suggestion, the report says.

“The Certification Manager then argued the city would likely have issue with the cost of such a project, and said ‘it will be a pain in the ass to move all that crap out of these and put that up and then move it all back in,'” the report says. “The Certification Manager said he did not believe the walls would be reinforced ‘any time soon’ because of the budget.”

The department’s temporary storage area for property and evidence included a single, large mailbox type fixture and a small locked refrigerator. The assessment team learned that items too large to fit inside the mailbox opening were put on top of the mailbox until Property and Evidence Custodian Sgt. Brendan Beatty retrieved the items. The process was the same for after hours situations.

Officers did move a locking cabinet into the area for larger items, and personnel are to lock the items in the cabinet and drop the key in the mailbox, the report notes.

A storage area for bicycles and other large items was found to be accessible to all personnel, had no lock, and there was no means of securing the items in place. Thomas did purchase and install an anchor, chain and lock for the space in order to lock any bicycles in place.

Following the release of the report, the city said it is working with the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police to ensure the evidence room is secured in accordance with the standards outlined for certification. A budget amendment will be proposed to the City Commission to make sure funds are available for any costs associated with the improvements, according to the city spokesperson.

“The city is deeply disappointed that the certification process was not approached with the professionalism that was demanded to meet this rigorous process. The improvements will be made immediately to address the outlined issues,” the spokesperson said.

As for next steps, City Manager Patrick Bryant will recommend the City Commission hire a qualified third-party consultant to review the police department entirely, including policies and procedures, policing protocols, equipment, security protocols and staffing levels.

“Less than 20% of all the law enforcement agencies in the state of Georgia have been certified by the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police,” Bryant said. “The city elected to pursue the certification to go above and beyond the normal operating standards and to ensure the police department is among the best of the best. The city has the utmost confidence that the Acting Chief of Police and the officers on the police force will continue to maintain a safe and secure environment for our community.”

Following the retirement of the police chief and the resignation of the accreditation manager, the Avondale Alliance for Racial Justice urged the city to move quickly in finding a third-party consultant to review the police department. The AARJ has been advocating for the consultant since last fall.

“We stress the need to assess for any racial bias that may be evident and the impact our policing is having on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color residing in, working in, visiting or traveling through Avondale Estates,” the group said.

The group also views the change in leadership as an opportunity to reshape how the department operates.

“We urge the Avondale Estates leadership team to direct the AEPD to move towards a community policing model with an emphasis on transparency, problem-solving, accountability, and community building,” the group said.

Here’s the group’s full statement about the leadership shakeup in the police department and the accreditation report:

PRESS RELEASE

FROM: AVONDALE ALLIANCE FOR RACIAL JUSTICE

DATE: 9/21/21

A RESPONSE TO RECENT EVENTS IN THE AVONDALE ESTATES POLICE FORCE

Avondale Alliance for Racial Justice (AARJ) urges the City of Avondale Estates to move quickly to follow-through in hiring a third party Consultant to not only review procedural and compliance issues, but to evaluate law enforcement practices, application of our policies, and the impact of Avondale’s policing practices on the broader community. We stress the need to assess for any racial bias that may be evident and the impact our policing is having on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) residing in, working in, visiting or traveling through Avondale Estates.

AARJ appreciates that Avondale Estates leadership has been willing to listen to our concerns and that they undertook the State Accreditation process to evaluate the police department’s policies, procedures and compliance. The failure of the Avondale Estates Police Department (AEPD) to achieve accreditation and the feedback they received during the process was very concerning. We believe, however, the subsequent changes in leadership will allow Avondale Estates to reshape the police department’s culture and bring in a new mindset under fresh leadership. We urge the Avondale Estates leadership team to direct the AEPD to move towards a Community Policing model with an emphasis on transparency, problem-solving, accountability and community-building. More information about our concerns and anti-racism activities can be found at AA-RJ.org.

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