Police procedures at issue

ATLANTA - Neighborhood activists urged lawmakers Saturday to limit police powers in the wake of a shootout that left an elderly woman dead after plainclothes officers stormed her home unannounced using a "no-knock" warrant.

Legislators signaled they may call for tighter restrictions on how police officers use the warrants after Kathryn Johnston died and three officers were wounded Nov. 21 in the shootout during a no-knock search for drugs in Ms. Johnston's northwest Atlanta home. Family members say Ms. Johnston was 92 years old; authorities claim she was 88.

An Associated Press review of all no-knock warrants filed in Atlanta's Fulton County last year found that authorities often give scant detail when applying for the warrants, which are typically used to search for drugs and weapons.

"The war on drugs cannot be turned into a war on the community," said state Sen. Vincent Fort, a Democrat who represents the district where the victim lived.

One possibility raised Saturday was to set tighter guidelines on police use of undercover informants. Another proposal would require police to corroborate evidence from the informants before taking action.

"People throughout Georgia are at risk of excessive police practices," said Brian Spears, an attorney who specializes in police litigation. "And it doesn't have to be this way. The Legislature can take action."

Narcotics officers say they were told by a paid informant that cocaine was being sold from Ms. Johnston's home by a man named "Sam." Yet no cocaine was found in the home, and a man who claims he was the paid informant said he was told by officers to lie about buying drugs at the home.

Police Chief Richard Pennington has said Ms. Johnston's death has led his department to scrutinize all its procedures.

While the hearing focused on Ms. Johnston's November shooting death, several black Atlanta residents testified that other police tactics have prompted widespread fear among law-abiding residents.

One man spoke of how he was thrown to the street and called derogatory names when he was pulled over during a routine traffic stop. Another claimed he was humiliated by police while waiting for friends to buy groceries outside a convenience store in a suburban town just south of Atlanta.

Ivory Lee Young Jr., an Atlanta City Council member, said police need to be given the tools to root out drugs and violence without infringing on citizens' rights.

"We're here because far too often the circumstances we encounter in life force us to change our behavior," he said. "When I get pulled over, I don't move. I keep my hand on the steering wheel because my dad told me, 'Boy, if you want to live, you stay still.'"

Atlanta Police Maj. Joseph Dallas told lawmakers that police struggle to strike "a very difficult balance" between cracking down on crime and protecting innocents.

"The entire police department is right now under a microscope. And I don't mind that," said Maj. Dallas, who oversees police officers in northwest Atlanta. "It's going to find out what we're doing right - and what we're not doing right."