by: Jodie Fleischer Updated:
ATLANTA - The Atlanta Police Department has vowed to do a better job monitoring complaints against officers working curbside at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport after a Channel 2 Action News investigation revealed a pattern of complaints.
"I mean, he was out of control. I've never seen anything like that," Paul Sparlin told investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer.
Sparlin was picking up his cousin when he says an officer yelled as the man was approaching Sparlin's truck.
"He stepped off the curb and a cop did not like that, not one bit," recounted Sparlin, "He said, ‘Get back on the curb,’ in a tone that is suitable for scolding a dog."
Sparlin says the officer then reached into his truck through an open window.
Jodie Fleischer began investigating complaints against curbside officers after getting calls and emails from Channel 2 Action News Viewers. To send a tip, email firstname.lastname@example.org
"He grabbed the turn signal and broke it off completely," said Sparlin, who thinks the officer was trying to shift his truck into park.
It cost roughly $300 for parts and labor to fix his turn signal, on top of a hefty ticket.
Sparlin did not know why APD later dismissed the citation, until Fleischer told him. A flight attendant passing by was so incensed with what she witnessed she filed a complaint against the officer.
"He needs some kind of anger management or some kind of counseling and some kind of discipline," said Sparlin.
But Fleischer's investigation found that almost never happens.
She filed an open records request to track airport complaints, and found the department had not compiled them. She had to get a list of every officers assigned to the airport, then search for complaints against each one.
In 95 percent of the cases, investigators cleared the officers, unless they admitted to wrongdoing, or it were caught on tape.
"I think that there is always room for improvement," said APD Assistant Chief Ernest Finley, who oversees command of the airport unit.
After a 2005 video of a woman being body-slammed went viral, Atlanta police vowed to retrain every airport officer. But Fleischer found at least 82 new complaints filed since then. One officer had six complaints.
"No, it's not acceptable," said Finley, who acknowledged that because of the way the department was keeping complaint records, he did not realize the officers' curbside manner was a problem until Fleischer asked about it.
"I appreciate this and I think that it makes me a little more accountable in my interactions with the command at the airport," said Finley.
Lewis Guzman ended up in jail on charges of battery, obstruction and disorderly conduct after he went to the airport to drop off his father and pregnant wife.
"I got out of the car, unloading luggage, saying goodbye, hugs and kisses to the family," said Guzman, "You could clearly see there's a lot of people and a lot of bags."
An officer thought the Guzmans were taking too long and kept ordering Lewis to move the car, but his wife had the keys. He says the officers did not want to hear excuses.
"The other officer came up from behind me and then he hit me," recalled Guzman.
Airport surveillance video and photos from witnesses show Guzman on the ground, pinned between a police bike and an officer.
"He was pressing my face so hard on the bike it was bleeding," said Guzman. "I don't feel like I did anything wrong."
Guzman said he was trying to defend himself.
Before trial, an attorney recommended Guzman plead guilty to the misdemeanors of obstructing an officer and simple battery in exchange for dismissing a felony charge.
"I never thought that I was going to end up going to jail for dropping them off at the airport," said Guzman. "It happens a lot more than people know it."
Randy Comans did not get arrested, but had to pay two tickets he received within a few minutes of each other, even though he was at the airport on official business.
"It's not like I got out of my car and locked it and went inside the airport," said Comans, who works for the State Fire Marshal's office.
Comans was in his marked vehicle with the state logo on the side and was wearing his badge while picking up a visiting instructor for the State Fire Academy when he noticed an officer in his rear-view mirror writing him a ticket.
"I know he had a job to do and all that but there is a way to do a particular job and that's not the type of courtesy you want to present to anybody," said Comans.
Comans says the situation got even worse when he drove to the far end of the terminal and spoke with another officer, who he said was perfectly friendly.
"He acknowledged that I was only going to be there briefly and said just pull the car over to the side and everything would be OK," recalls Comans.
But he says the original officer he encountered saw him pulled over and proceeded to ride his Segway all the way down to the other end to tell him to leave and write him a second ticket.
"Very unprofessional," said Comans. "He was pretty rude and all that, and I was calm, trying not to get in any kind of verbal attack with him."
He says the original officer did not seem to care that the second officer had given Comans permission to pull over.
"I couldn't believe it. I said, ‘This is unbelievable,’" said Comans.
John Richardson couldn't believe how he was treated either.
The friend he was picking up had been waiting outside for about 20 minutes, so Richardson saw her as soon as he pulled up to the terminal.
Airport surveillance video shows she was at his car within one minute and 17 seconds. So was an officer.
"I was like, 'I'm picking somebody up.' He just responded, 'I don't like your tone,’" recalls Richardson.
He says the officer got loud and caused a scene, but Richardson was careful to keep his cool, understanding cars need to keep moving for safety.
But the officer actually stopped him from pulling away to write him the ticket. He got home and immediately filed a complaint.
"I would say just to pay more attention to the complaints. Instead of the officer being told, 'Don't do it again,' maybe they'll be suspended for even a day. Let them be affected. Just as we are affected," said Richardson.
Defense Attorney Lee Sexton has represented several clients who say they were treated too aggressively. He says, in his experience, prosecutors are usually reasonable and will lessen or dismiss many of the charges.
"The officers on many occasions just overreact," said Sexton. "There's a lack of common sense a lot of times being used out there."
He says 80 new complaints is very telling.
"It says that the retraining was not effective, did not happen, or was merely a ruse to satisfy public dissatisfaction with the police," said Sexton, adding that most people don't even take the time to file a complaint.
He was not surprised at the high number of officers exonerated by internal affairs.
"That's inexcusable," said Sexton. "If there are that many complaints against one officer, it's not the citizens that's the problem, it's the officer."
Fleischer found, in several cases, the officer who encountered the driver had another officer write the ticket, making it more difficult to file a complaint and track problem officers.
Sexton, like many of the drivers Fleischer spoke with, presumes the officers working curbside don't want to be there.
"Most police officers that I know would rather be on the road getting real criminals," said Sexton. "They're in a bad mood to begin with, they get out and somebody defies their authority by saying, ‘Officer, wait just a minute.’"
Finley says many years ago officers were assigned to the airport curbside as punishment when they got in trouble for something else, but he says that is not the case anymore.
"Now I look at the number of officers that want to go out to the airport and it's amazing," said Finley. "We have some outstanding folks on the waiting list to go out there."
Finley says the number of complaints has already declined in the past year or two, and he will pay closer attention to complaints going forward, especially when an officer has several alleging aggressive behavior.
"Somebody was dissatisfied with us, so how can we make it right on those moving forward? It's about that positive engagement with a smile and being a little more assertive in a positive way," said Finley, adding that customer service training is constant.
He is researching how much it would cost to outfit the curbside officers with body cameras to record audio and video, which would give an accurate depiction of their encounters with the public and encourage a courteous approach.
As a fellow public servant, Comans says courtesy is important.
"What you say and how you carry yourself, that's a big thing. Especially people in Atlanta for the first time, if that's the first impression they get, that's a very bad first impression,” Comans said.