ATLANTA — When you see lights and hear sirens, you get out of the way knowing first responders are heading to an emergency.
But a Channel 2 Action News Investigation found Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed routinely travels in the same way, using flashing blue lights and screeching sirens.
Channel 2's Lori Geary spoke with law enforcement officials who said it is a clear violation of the law.
Geary and a team of Channel 2 producers and photographers spent weeks examining the mayor's trips in his city-provided SUV.
They found Reed rushed to non-emergency events as though someone's life was on the line.
Geary got a tip from a source in state law enforcement asking her to look into Reed's practice of rushing to events with lights and sirens blaring.
Right away, Geary found no matter where the destination, Reed's security detail, who are Atlanta Police Department officers and drive him in the SUV, find the fastest way. %
Channel 2 cameras captured the mayor's GMC Tahoe arriving at a presidential debate viewing party in northwest Atlanta with blue lights and sirens.
On another morning, Channel 2 cameras saw Reed rushing down North Avenue to Ponce City Market with blue lights and sirens as he arrived for a Google Fiber launch party.
On a different day, Geary and multiple Channel 2 cameras saw Reed leave City Hall and drive to Buckhead with blue lights and sirens on the entire way.
Geary and her team saw the mayor pull out of City Hall and immediately turn on his lights and sirens. The mayor's vehicle then stopped in the middle of Central Avenue in Downtown Atlanta while the mayor talked with a person on the street.
From there, the truck approached an intersection and forced another vehicle to move forward so the mayor could run a red light. The mayor then got on the I-75/85 connector, drove up Georgia 400, then crossed over Peachtree Street -- all with lights and sirens on.
Reed's final destination was a Government Affairs Speaker Series on East Paces Ferry Road in which he was the keynote. He arrived 30 minutes past the start time of the event.
Geary showed some of the video to Vincent Champion. He is the Southeast Regional Director for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, and has decades of law enforcement experience.
"To use the lights and sirens the way he's using them, to clear the intersections to get through, is not legal in the state of Georgia by statute," Champion said.
Champion says other members of the Atlanta Police Department have been suspended for improper use of lights and sirens.
"It just appears he's picking and choosing when he wants to be in a hurry and when he doesn't. The reality is they're violating a policy. (It’s) not only a policy, but a Georgia state statute, a law," Champion said.
WHAT THE LAW SAYS
Geary looked up the state code.
O.C.GA 40-8-94 says:
"Any authorized emergency vehicle may be equipped with a siren, whistle, or bell capable of emitting sound audible under normal conditions from a distance of not less than 500 feet, but such siren shall not be used except when such vehicle is operated in response to an emergency call or in the immediate pursuit of an actual or suspected violator of the law, in which latter event the driver of such vehicle shall sound the siren when necessary to warn pedestrians and other drivers of the approach thereof."
"It's right and it's legal," Reed told Geary.
Geary requested a sit-down interview multiple times, but Reed declined. So Geary asked him questions at an event.
"You need to speak to our city attorney because they have a different interpretation of the law," Reed told Geary.
But when Geary requested an interview with the city's attorney, she declined.
Anne Torres, Mayor Reed's director of communication, sent Geary a statement:
“The Atlanta Police Department’s (APD) Executive Protection Unit is responsible for ensuring and monitoring the safety of Mayor Kasim Reed. Police Department personnel assigned to the Mayor’s Executive Protection Unit receive specialized training in driving based on maintaining security as well as safety. In addition, APD must evaluate threats to the Mayor’s safety based on the information presented, and make strategic decisions to guarantee the security of the Mayor, including measures to facilitate his safe transport as he conducts business on behalf of the City of Atlanta. When necessary, state law authorizes APD to use blue lights and/or sirens, in its discretion, as a security tactic to help keep the Mayor and the citizens of Atlanta safe.”
"I'm not going to discuss my personal security. Multiple mayors have used blue lights to move throughout the city of Atlanta," Reed told Geary.
Geary talked with Reed's predecessor, former Mayor Shirley Franklin. She told Geary she couldn't remember a time, if ever, she used blue lights and sirens during her eight-year tenure.
Geary sat down with Atlanta Police Chief George Turner to ask about the practice.
"I'm confident in the people that are assigned to this detail and the reasons that they've used to be able to use the blue lights to move our mayor," Turner said.
Turner, who was appointed by Reed six years ago, says the mayor has received thousands of threats since taking office.
"If you are concerned about his safety and he's getting threats, why stop in the middle of the street with blue lights and sirens?" Geary asked Turner.
"I wasn't in the car," Turner said.
The chief did not give us specifics about security threats, but says he puts trust in the officers who escort the mayor and his wife.
"I am absolutely comfortable with what you've shown me," Turner said. "I believe that our officers have the discretion that they need to move our mayor the way that they need to move him in and out of traffic."
Turner pointed out that other dignitaries, including the President and Vice-President of the United States, use blue lights and sirens.
"The fact is we are not doing anything different than other administrations around this country," Turner said.
One administration that says it does not use lights and sirens for non-emergency travel is Georgia's governor.
At the groundbreaking for the new Mercedes-Benz Headquarters in Sandy Springs, both Gov. Nathan Deal and Reed were in attendance. But they arrived in very different ways.
Deal arrived with no lights or sirens and stopped at the red light.
About 18 minutes later, and 5 minutes past the start of the 10 a.m. event, Reed arrived with blue lights and blaring sirens.
Geary asked Deal how often he uses his lights and sirens.
"We rarely ever have to use our lights," Deal said. "I can't remember when we last used it."
Deal referred Geary to his security detail, Lt. Colonel David Herring with the Georgia State Patrol.
"It is not our protocol to do that." Herring told Geary.
Herring told Geary he would only turn them on for a natural disaster, riots or some other emergency.
Geary asked Herring if state law was clear on the issue of lights and siren use when it comes to elected officials.
"It is. It sure is," Herring said.
"There is no special privilege to utilize the emergency vehicles to get from meeting to meeting. It would have to be an emergency," Herring told Geary.
Geary asked Reed why it was important for him to turn on lights and sirens, and not the governor of Georgia
"You've gotten your time. You got the interview you wanted," Reed told Geary.
Cedric Alexander heads up Dekalb's Public Safety Department, and told Geary he rarely uses blue lights and sirens, even when heading to crime scenes.
"We can only activate lights and sirens under situations where you're responding to an emergency call," Alexander told Geary.
"What's going to happen when the time they blow one of these lights and there's an accident? Who is at fault at that point?" Champion asked.
MAYOR REED’S SOLUTION TO GRIDLOCK
Dave Fedack lives in Douglas County and commutes to downtown Atlanta for work.
He is so fed up with gridlock he's written letters to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution calling on Reed to do something about it.
"My commute lasts an hour without traffic, and with traffic, I leave two hours before work every day," Fedack told Geary.
Geary showed Fedack video Channel 2 cameras captured that appeared to show Reed doesn't have to deal with traffic.
In the video, Reed is seen riding on the shoulder of a completely gridlocked I-20 east ramp onto the connector with blue lights on during rush hour.
Geary confirmed from a press release that he was on his way to an Atlanta Police Department breakfast at the World Congress Center.
"He could leave a little bit earlier like the rest of us do," Fedack told Geary.
Geary showed Fedack video of Reed on different days on the downtown connector, on Georgia 400, traveling to news conferences, job announcements, groundbreakings, and debate watch parties. All non-emergency events. All using blue lights and sirens.
Geary asked Fedack if Reed should have special privileges because he's the mayor.
"No, I think he should be held to the same standard that we all are," Fedack said to Geary.
"What I've done is to use a technique that many people in my job have used to go to multiple events during a small frame of time. But the bottom line is you don't know what I'm doing. You don't know what emergency it is," Reed told Geary.
"Let me tell you something. My security team moves me through the city of Atlanta at multiple events at one time as you well know. There are some times in the evenings when I will have two, three four events within 30-40 minutes of one another," Reed said.
Capt. Mark Perry with the Georgia State Patrol says unless there's a specific security concern or emergency, officers cannot turn on lights and sirens.
"No police officer or public safety official has an exemption in law to use lights and siren to drive code or above the speed limit just to make up time or just to make an appointment," Perry told Geary.
Cedric Alexander says his department treats their use as a public safety issue not just for his officers but for all drivers.
"It's just the right thing to do, right? To follow the law and to follow policy because if I can't do that then how can I ask my men and women inside the Police Department to do that?" Alexander told Geary.
"He feels privileged and that he can do that and get away with it, that his presence is so important that we're all going to get out of the way and allow him to make his event when we're trying to get home to our families," Fedack said.
Cox Media Group