The phone call came, as many life altering ones do, unexpectedly. I had made it home with the three kids after a long day on the job as the Chief of the Narcotics Unit in the Atlanta District Attorney’s Office. “Three narcotics officers have been shot” my co-worker blurted. “Going into a house to execute a search warrant”.
I raced to the hospital. My three friends were each in separate rooms off of the Emergency Room, surrounded by family and a sea of blue uniformed colleagues. Each would be okay. But not the occupant of the house they were entering. She lay dead at the scene, an elderly woman who had been frightened by the commotion of the police tearing down her door and had fired one round at them from a rusty old gun. She died in a barrage of gunfire following her one errant shot.
Community outrage and calls for action against the police department came in the following days. In reaction, my own outrage was born. I knew these guys. I worked with them. I bought their wives baby gifts and gave them my extra tickets to sporting events. They had integrity of the highest nature. I was positive they had nothing wrong. It was a terrible tragedy that the lady had died, but when police officers are lawfully doing their job and someone shoots at them, they are justified in returning fire.
Then came the slow leaking rumors from the FBI investigation. Things were not looking good. Apparently those officers I knew so well had lied to a judge in order to obtain that search warrant. They had sworn that a confidential informant bought drugs from that house, when in fact he did not. Lies built upon lies. They then planted drugs at the scene after things went bad.
Left adrift with dozens of other colleagues of theirs, the emotions began to surface. Disbelief, anger, betrayal, sadness. How could we not have suspected anything? Guilt. Could we have prevented this? Doubt. How can we ever trust our instincts again? Sympathy. For the families of the officers and the elderly woman. I attended meetings at the police department to help rewrite the standard operating procedures. The unspoken obstacle was that it is impossible to fashion a procedure that prevents lying.
A grand jury returned an indictment for murder against two of the three officers. It was announced that the two had worked out plea deals to spend ten or twelve years in prison. The police chief announced he was transferring every single officer in the narcotics unit and every supervisor in the chain of command. All of the drug cases began falling apart in court. It was like a war zone in the courthouse as defense attorneys adopted the new corruption defense. I struggled through the days, sometimes feeling physically ill from the stress of it all.
Over the months, I slowly came to the realization of the truth of my situation. It was not that I thought the criminal justice system always worked. I knew better. It was not that I thought cops never lie. I knew better. I had arrogantly, and I now realized, mistakenly, assumed that I would always know the difference. I was wrong and the realization was painful.
Finally, I sat in Lieutenant Gibbs’ office and cried. She is my friend who was in charge of the narcotics unit and was packing up her office because she had been transferred. I searched my soul. Could I go on in this job? Could she? Lieutenant Gibbs got out her bible. She opened it to the book of Esther, where the police chaplain had directed her. We are in a place for a reason, she told me. These guys were on a collision course with disaster. We could not control their actions. However, we are the people that God put in place to deal with just such a time as this. To help everyone through. To rebuild. To restore the public faith in the police department and the justice system. We must answer our call.