The Georgia Police Department That Led Arbery Shooting Case Has A Troubled Past

May 13, 2020
Originally published on May 14, 2020 9:37 am

Years before a former policeman and his son were arrested for killing Ahmaud Arbery in February in Glynn County, Ga., the county police had a tangled history of corruption and scandals.

The Glynn County Police Department's track record of protecting its own is coming under scrutiny as the Georgia Bureau of Investigation takes over the case of the shooting death of Arbery, the 25-year-old black man whose killing has drawn comparisons to a modern-day lynching.

"There is not just one prior case. There are many prior cases. And each one is a separate Netflix episode," said Page Pate, a criminal defense attorney in Glynn County.

In 2018, Glynn County Police Lt. Robert Sasser killed his estranged wife and her friend, before taking his own life. The wife's family is now suing the police department because they say authorities failed to intervene before the murders.

Sasser had a well-documented history of problematic behavior. In 2010, he and another officer were involved in a brutal police shooting when they opened fire on a woman who had led the officers on a low-speed police chase. Sasser avoided punishment and remained on the force.

In 2018, the police department also lost its certification with the state because it did not meet basic policing standards. A report by the International Association of Police Chiefs noted that only 12% of the police force was African American, even though African Americans make up 26% of the county's population.

In 2019, the county's drug task force was disbanded. A state-led investigation found extensive misconduct by Glynn County police officers, including one officer who had sex with a confidential informant.

It got worse yet. Glynn County Police Chief John Powell was indicted for perjury and witness tampering four days after the Arbery shooting. The police chief remains on administrative leave.

"We have a history of protecting our own within the legal system. That applies across the board to Glynn County law enforcement. With covering up misdeeds or looking the other way," said Newell Hamilton, Jr., a criminal defense attorney in Glynn County.

There's no dispute that a former Glynn police officer and his son were involved in Arbery's death. Gregory McMichael worked as an officer in the 1980s and an investigator in the district attorney's office until 2019, when he retired.

In a statement to police, Gregory McMichael said he and his son, Travis McMichael, saw Arbery — whom they suspected of break-ins — "hauling a**" down the street and that they began chasing after him. He claims they were acting in self-defense, when Arbery began to violently attack Travis.

A video of the Feb. 23 altercation shows Arbery running when he's intercepted by the father and son. The father is standing on the bed of the truck with a gun. Arbery tries to run around the truck and is intercepted by the son. There is shouting, shots are fired and Arbery crumples to the ground.

County commissioners are defending the police department. They blame the local district attorney's office for the decision not to arrest the father and son.

"I don't see how they expect the police to go cuff these men up when they have been told directly on Sunday and on Monday by the district attorneys' offices not to arrest anybody," Commissioner Peter Murphy told WJXT, a Jacksonville, Fla., TV channel.

But District Attorney Jackie Johnson said neither she nor her office advised the police on whether or not to make an arrest.

"That's so far from the truth. It's just a straight-up lie," she told radio station WIFO on Monday. She said the police and the county commission want to smear her, and that's why they are blaming her for lack of an arrest.

"I think it's retaliation for me being the whistleblower on their police department multiple times over the last year."

But Arbery's family, the NAACP and others are demanding Johnson's resignation. They say Johnson's decision to recuse herself from the case before an arrest was a cop-out.

According to the Georgia attorney general's office, Johnson consulted with George Barnhill — the district attorney from one county over — shortly after Arbery's death.

One day after the shooting, Barnhill wrote a letter to the Glynn County Police Department saying he didn't see grounds to arrest the McMichaels. He also suggested Arbery was to blame for his own death, writing that his "aggressive nature" explained his "possible thought pattern to attack an armed man."

The Glynn County Police Department declined to answer questions for this story, forwarding questions to the Georgia Bureau of Investigations, which declined to comment because the investigation is ongoing.

Arbery's mom, Wanda Cooper Jones, said the police intentionally tried to cover up how her son was killed. She said that the day of Arbery's death, an officer told her that he had been involved in a burglary and the homeowner confronted him.

"I didn't question that at that time because the way that I lived is if authority came and told you anything, you didn't question that because that was authority. And they were put in place to be trusted," she said.

But there is no evidence to suggest Arbery robbed anyone. Minutes before Arbery was shot, a man called the police to report that a black man had entered a house under construction, according to The New York Times.

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr has suggested there was widespread misconduct in all aspects of handling the case, and has asked federal officials to investigate.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As the Georgia Bureau of Investigation takes over the controversial shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery. Questions remain about the initial response by the Glynn County police - in particular, why were there no arrests for months in the black jogger's killing? Emily Green of member station WABE reports that the police department's past is awash in problems.

EMILY GREEN, BYLINE: Long before Ahmaud Arbery was shot while out running, the Glynn County Police Department had a tangled history of corruption and scandals. Page Pate is an attorney in Glynn County.

PAGE PATE: There's not just one prior case. There are many prior cases. And each one is a separate, you know, Netflix episode.

GREEN: Here's a snapshot. In 2018, a Glynn County police officer murdered his estranged wife and her friend. The wife's family is now suing the police department because they say authorities failed to intervene before the murders. That same year, the department lost its certification with the state. The reason? It wasn't following proper protocols. In 2019, the county's drug task force was disbanded. A state-led investigation found extensive misconduct by Glynn County police officers. That included sex with a confidential informant. And then, things got worse.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: New tonight, two Georgia police chiefs and two officers turn themselves in after being indicted. The officers are facing more than a dozen charges, all stemming from an investigation into their dissolved narcotics team.

GREEN: That's from TV station WJXT in March. Glynn County Police Chief John Powell was indicted for perjury and witness tampering four days after the Arbery shooting. The police chief remains on administrative leave.

NEWELL HAMILTON JR: We have a history of protecting our own within the legal system. That applies across the board to Glynn County law enforcement with covering up misdeeds or looking the other way.

GREEN: That's the assessment of Newell Hamilton Jr. (ph), a criminal defense attorney in Glynn County. And he says that's also true for the Arbery shooting. There is no dispute a former Glynn police officer and his son were involved in his death, and that the son shot Arbery. County commissioners are defending the police department. They blame the local district attorney's office for the decision not to arrest the father and son. The father had also worked for the DA. Here's Commissioner Peter Murphy talking to WJXT.

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PETER MURPHY: I don't see how they expect the police to go cuff these men up when they've been told directly on Sunday and on Monday by the district attorney's offices not to arrest anybody.

GREEN: But District Attorney Jackie Johnson says neither she, nor her office advised the police on whether or not to make an arrest. She appeared Monday on radio station WIFO.

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JACKIE JOHNSON: That's so far from the truth. It's just a straight-up lie.

GREEN: Johnson says the police and the county commission want to smear her.

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JOHNSON: I think it's retaliation for me being the whistleblower on their police department multiple times over the last year.

GREEN: But Ahmaud Arbery's family says Johnson's decision to recuse herself from the case before an arrest was a cop - out. The Glynn County Police Department declined to answer questions for this story. Arbery's mom, Wanda Cooper-Jones, vividly remembers what police told her the day her son died - that he had been involved in a burglary and the homeowner confronted him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WANDA COOPER-JONES: I didn't question that at that time because the way that I live, if authority came and told you anything, you didn't question that because that was authority, and they were put in place to be trusted.

GREEN: There is no evidence to suggest Arbery robbed anyone. Meanwhile, the Georgia attorney general has asked federal officials to investigate how the case was handled. For NPR News, I'm Emily Green in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.