by Robin Kemp

Former Forest Park Police Chief L. Dwayne Hobbs has filed suit in the U.S. District Court of Northern Georgia against the City of Forest Park, alleging that city officials fired him based on his race. The suit also alleges the city has fired eight other white employees; that councilmembers falsely claimed FPPD’s VIPER Unit targeted two councilmembers for racial reasons; and that city officials made false claims that Hobbs “leaked confidential information” about both “investigations of unlawful racial profiling by police” and “negotiations into his retirement to media sources.” In addition, the suit says, the allegations against Hobbs “were repeated publicly, disseminated to multiple media sources, and were the subject of false complaints to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation” and that Hobbs was denied the chance “to clear his name through a pre-adverse action hearing.”

Read the lawsuit:

Forest Park Mayor Angelyne Butler, noting the litigation was pending, told The Clayton Crescent, “Mr. Hobbs’ allegations are a complete and utter farce.”

A tale of two chiefs

On July 2, 2018, the previous city council voted to decriminalize small-quantity marijuana possession, a move that was unpopular with some law-and-order whites in the city. During the meeting, Councilmembers Latresa Akins-Wells and Dabouze Antoine, who are Black, accused the Forest Park Police Department of racial profiling during traffic stops and harassing Blacks who had small quantities of marijuana.

In an interview about two weeks later, Hobbs said that he personally opposed decriminalizing marijuana possession under one ounce but would uphold the new law. He also denied that FPPD engaged in racial profiling, pointing to community outreach programming, noted that marijuana possession charges may not have been the main reason for an arrest, and took issue with Antoine’s comment during a council meeting that white meth users were not being arrested.

Antoine had said, “Yes, it is a race thing. There are more meth houses than pot houses, and the meth heads are telling me this. So it is a race thing. I know what time it is.”

Former Forest Park Police Chief L. Dwayne Hobbs, who also taught criminal justice at Clayton State University

Hobbs responded, “Recently, one of the councilmembers mentioned something about meth houses. Well, I’m not aware of any meth houses, nor has that councilperson ever called me and said, ‘I have information that there’s a place,’ which we could investigate. Most of our drugs we find on traffic stops. The problem with drugs here is that I know there’s meth users, because we arrest them, and you can tell. I don’t know where they’re getting it.”

The Clayton Crescent’s reporter, Robin Kemp, then a crime reporter for the Clayton News-Daily, requested records of FPPD’s traffic stops from 2015 to 2018. That investigation, which began in July and ended in October after protracted negotiations over the Open Records Request, found more than 80 percent of FPPD’s arrests for marijuana possession under one ounce during that time had been of Black people.

The story also pointed out the city’s racial makeup according to 2010 Census figures: 37.7% Black, 19% white, 34.3% Hispanic of any race, and 7.9% Asian.

Former Forest Park Police Maj. Chris Matson

At the time, FPPD Maj. Chris Matson responded that the numbers “could be skewed” because “Hispanic” denotes ethnicity, not race, and because the majority of Forest Park’s population is Black.

Matson said that FPPD required annual Bias Based Profiling training and that the department “conduct(s) numerous in-car camera reviews monthly of uniform patrol officers. I cannot recall ever finding an officer in our department who was found to be racially profiling people. We have a few complaints a year where people allege that they were racially profiled. All complaints are reviewed by no less than 5 command level officers, including Internal Affairs.”

Then-Councilwoman Sandra Bagley also questioned whether other charges made during arrests would affect the pot-possession numbers and said she did not believe that FPPD engaged in racial profiling.

“Never, at any time, was any surveillance initiated or conducted by the Forest Park Police Department under the direction of Chief Dwayne Hobbs that was based, motivated, continued, or driven by any racial or other improper motive.”

Lance LoRusso, Dwayne Hobbs’ attorney

Akins-Wells saw the data differently: “Wow. I’m glad you got the evidence because it basically proves what I’ve been saying all along, that blacks are being profiled. That’s not a basis for any decision, but it’s happening and people need to know it is happening. Wow, wow, wow. That’s crazy.”

Forest Park City Councilman Dabouze Antoine

After what ostensibly had been a fiery executive session (based on comments during the open meting), the council then voted 3-2 to fire Hobbs the day he was to have received a November retirement package. Councilmembers Antoine, Akins-Wells, and Kimberly James voted in favor of firing Hobbs; Councilman Allan Mears and former Councilwoman Sandra Bagley, who are white, voted against his termination.

Forest Park City Councilman Allan Mears

Butler, Akins-Wells, James and Bagley all added written statements to the record about Hobbs’ termination and public reaction to it. Butler and James attacked the media. Mears said Akins-Wells had “no business” going to departments instead of the city manager if she had issues with rank-and-file city employees. Akins-Wells said city employees have every right to come to her with issues under the city charter. Antoine, who is Haitian, said that FPPD had come to his place of employment and asked to see his U.S. passport (which he produced).

Several citizens spoke about Hobbs’ dismissal, with Edrea Davis directly addressing the city’s racial climate: “As far as the racial issue, everyone knows that Forest Park has changed a lot and had a lot of racial issues in the town,” adding that, just because Blacks and other minorities had been “treated badly, I want white people to understand that even though some of the governing body is African-American doesn’t mean they are going to be unprofessional, mean, and racist…Don’t think that because we were treated badly that we will treat people badly.”

After Hobbs was fired, Hobbs’ attorney, Lance J. LoRusso, said, “Any and all surveillance operations conducted by the Forest Park Police Department during his tenure as chief of police were initiated and conducted lawfully in accordance with prevailing standards of law enforcement. Never, at any time, was any surveillance initiated or conducted by the Forest Park Police Department under the direction of Chief Dwayne Hobbs that was based, motivated, continued, or driven by any racial or other improper motive.”

The council voted to appoint Capt. Jason Armstrong, who is Black, as interim police chief. During his brief tenure, Armstrong, a proponent of community policing, instituted a Cops in Barber Shops listening program. In December, he was replaced as interim chief by Maj. Jamie Reynolds, who is white. Mears said Armstrong had been removed for allegedly “showboating”–drawing too much attention to himself.

Chief Jason Armstrong of the Ferguson, MO Police Department served briefly as Forest Park interim police chief, the first Black person to head the department.

On March 27, after media queries and Open Records Requests about the selection process, City Attorney Mike Williams issued a press release announcing Nathaniel Clark, the police chief of Fort Smith, AR, as the “sole finalist” for the chief’s position. In 2002, Clark had been fired from the chief’s office in Pine Bluff, AR following accusations of sexual harassment. In response, Clark filed a federal lawsuit against the city, alleging racial discrimination, eventually settling out of court for an undisclosed amount. Clark also had worked for the Fulton County District Attorney’s office as an investigator, as well as for the Albany Police Department and U.S. Treasury Service.

Williams said that there had been “47 or 48” candidates in the nationwide search by The Mercer Group. The press release arrived at the News-Daily after the end of business on the same day that the city would have had to reply to an Open Records Request for the top three finalists.

Forest Park City Councilwoman Latresa Akins-Wells

At the time, Akins-Wells said she was “not in favor” of appointing Clark because of the way the city had handled the search. “Not when we have someone at home that was overqualified for the position. Someone whose roots are here in Forest Park….The entire process wasn’t done right if you ask me. The employees weren’t considered and neither were the citizens. We work for the citizens. They elect us. How can we make a decision that is going to affect them and not let them voice their opinions, at least. I don’t like secrets. I like to be transparent and this entire process was a secret. This is something the people should have a say or at least an opinion in and they weren’t given that option.”

At the April 15 council meeting, Redding asked the council to name Clark. Akins-Wells made the motion to approve, with James seconding. Antoine asked Clark, “Convince me.” Clark responded by listing his experience, adding that he was a proponent of “community first policing.” The council voted unanimously to appoint Clark. Butler swore in Clark in May. Two weeks later, she held a ceremony in the Hartsfield Community Center to introduce the new chief to the public.

Forest Park Police Chief Nathaniel Clark

An outside auditor brought in when Clark took over as chief later found Matson allegedly had sold thousands of rounds of training ammunition to officers for cash and that Hobbs’ assistant, Susan Ridling, said she had been directed to cash “thousands of dollars in checks without accounting records for the cash.” A search of both Clayton County and federal online court records show no civil or criminal charges had been filed either by or against Ridling or Matson in the matter as of press time. Multiple sources have told The Clayton Crescent that Matson is contemplating legal action against the city.

Soon after, Clark informed Akins-Wells and Antoine that they had been the subjects of a nearly three-year undercover investigation by FPPD during the administration of former Mayor David Lockhart, who is white and has left the city. The surveillance allegedly included cameras affixed to telephone poles near the councilmembers’ homes, task force members tailing the councilmembers’ travels, and going through household garbage. Bagley said at the time that she was “shocked to hear about these allegations. They have been referred to the GBI and I am awaiting the results of their review. Our new chief of police, Nathaniel Clark, is diligently working to straighten out a number of issues that have come to light at the Police Department.”

In October 2019, Butler issued a formal apology on behalf of the city to Antoine and Akins-Wells. In January, Akins-Wells and Antoine held a press conference to announce that they were each contemplating suing the city for $1 million.

Here’s audio from the press conference at the law offices of Edmond Lindsey & Atkins LLP.

The GBI did its own investigation into the matter, then turned over the results to the Clayton County District Attorney’s office in May. Nothing new has been released on the case since then, although the ongoing COVID-19 judicial emergency may affect the ability of any grand jury to consider the matter.

Armstrong went on to become police chief of Ferguson, MO, where in 2014, riots had broken out over the police shooting of Michael Brown. Armstrong later said, “I would just like to say thank you to the Forest Park Police Department and the Forest Park community for embracing me for the last 18 years and allowing me to grow as a person while serving the community. Forest Park will always hold a special place in my heart.”

“…even though some of the governing body is African-American doesn’t mean they are going to be unprofessional, mean, and racist.”

Edrea Davis, resident

What’s in a name?

Elaine Corley (center) promotes Forest Park’s 2nd Annual Easter egg Hunt, ca. 1964

Two of the last acts of the majority-white city council under the Lockhart administration were to name the community center after Frank Brandon and the recreation center after Elaine Corley, longtime fixtures of the city’s white power structure. Corley had built Starr Park and the city’s rec center and programs on what she said had been a swamp. The council’s move angered some residents and Black councilmembers.

When the city inaugurated Butler as Forest Park’s first Black mayor and Kimberly James as the new Ward 1 councilmember replacing Tommy Smith, the balance of power tipped from white to Black for the first time in over a century since the city’s founding.

One of the first orders of business of the new majority at the Jan. 2, 2018 meeting was to take Corley’s name off the rec center and rename the community center after the late Leonard B. Hartsfield, Jr., who had been active in Forest Park’s historically-Black Rosetown community. Here is video of the Hartsfield family at the unveiling in February 2018:

The family of Leonard B. Hartsfield, Jr. unveils his name on Forest Park’s community center, February 2018. (Video: Robin Kemp)

Akins-Wells represents Ward 4, which includes Rosetown. She made the motion to rename the community center in Hartsfield’s honor. James seconded the motion.

Bagley said she thought it would be more appropriate to name a street in Starr Park after Hartsfield because of his involvement in youth baseball, adding, “I believe this is a retaliatory effort and I would like to see this resolution tabled.”

Wells replied that naming the rec center after Hartsfield was not retaliatory, but that naming it after Brandon had been.

James made a motion to take Corley’s name off the rec center, saying she thought the rec center should not have a person’s name on it. The motion seconded by Akins-Wells and passed by the same 3-2 vote. Corley had been instrumental in creating Starr Park and the city recreation program.

“They call me a racist. I’m not a racist.”

Frank Brandon

Brandon told The Clayton Crescent, “There was no other reason (for the renaming) except racial, because I was the one who took that whole dilapidated building and made it into a community center. But of course, because I’m white, they (mayor and council) took it down. They wouldn’t give me a rationale. Systemic racism goes both ways.”

In 2014 and 2015, Akins-Wells and Antoine had voted to remove Brandon as city manager after having directed Brandon to produce a departmental audit. Then-Mayor David Lockhart vetoed those attempts.

Brandon added, “They call me a racist. I’m not a racist.” He added that he was a student of history and that he didn’t understand why Black residents didn’t appreciate his pointing out that some African tribes had sold others into slavery.

Politics makes strange bedfellows

In August 2018, Butler officiated at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for Cummins Diesel at Gillem Logistics Center. Brandon and the Urban Redevelopment Agency had been major players in transforming the abandoned and contaminated Army base into a warehousing and logistics hub, even before Butler was elected.

“These are the kinds of stories we want to make sure to get out about Forest Park,” Butler said during the event. “Once again, we have to redirect and recreate the narrative here. We have big businesses here. That’s what we want to continue to attract. And they’re thriving.”

In June 2019, Butler and Brandon praised each other during a public event Butler billed as the inaugural “State of the City” address, touting a four-star hotel for Forest Park’s run-down Main Street, as well as a Hollywood film studio and another “major company” at Gillem Logistics Center. Butler said that, if she and Brandon could put aside their personal differences for the good of the city, then anyone could, and exhorted the crowd of 150 local dignitaries to join her in that effort.

By January, Brandon, along with the entire Urban Redevelopment Agency, had received letters from Butler alleging “dereliction of duty” before the city dissolved the board. The move came after the board refused to sign off on a $20 million bond request for a new public safety complex. The Butler administration had wanted the bonds issued to cover a police station on Forest Parkway. Clark and other officers have complained about rats and insects at the decaying police headquarters a block from the Waste Management transfer station. The city added on Starr Park improvements and a new fire station, which Buckholts said was news to him at the time.

Brandon, who called The Clayton Crescent to talk about the Hobbs case Thursday, pointed to Census Bureau statistics from 2019, saying a story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about Hobbs’ filing suit was “totally incorrect” for stating that Forest Park is “mostly black.”

The story, by the AJC’s Joshua Sharpe, stated, “The northern Clayton County city of 20,000, nine miles south of Atlanta, is mostly Black.”

Although Brandon said he did not have the exact date for figures he quoted, the July 1, 2019 U.S. Census population estimate for Forest Park matches the figures Brandon gave. It shows the largest single group by race or ethnicity is African-Americans at 45% of the population, validating Sharpe’s statement in the AJC piece:

Source: U.S. Census Data, July 1, 2019 population estimate for Forest Park, GA

Brandon said Hobbs’ firing was “systemic racism from our black brothers and sisters. It’s not right. It’s out of control. We as a white, Asian, Hispanic, we have no say-so in this city.”

Forest Park City Councilman Hector Gutierrez

In January 2020, Hector Gutierrez, the city’s first Hispanic council member, took the Ward 3 seat formerly held by Bagley.

Gutierrez, who said of Redding’s firing, “I vote how they tell me to,” quickly found his feet and has made a point of supporting the Black community, taking part in neighborhood cleanups and an anti-racism march, as well as pushing for greater inclusion of Spanish-speaking residents in routine city communications.

Gutierrez took office the night the council voted to fire Redding and replace her with Clark. Among those present during the January 6 swearing-in was political operative Kevin Thomas, a Jonesboro resident and former chair of the Clayton County Democratic Party, who stood in the back of chambers taking photos. Thomas had told Kemp during Forest Park’s November 2019 vote count, “Don’t put me in your paper.”

In 2012, Thomas had run for and lost a bid to represent Georgia House District 77’s then-incumbent Darryl Jordan. In 2014, Thomas had tried to get the City of Morrow to hire his firm, Capital Connections, at $42,000 to lobby for Morrow at the Georgia Assembly. The council voted against the proposal. The year before that, Thomas and Viet Tran, a business associate who was elected to Morrow’s city council, had approached the Forest Park city council about a similar arrangement. Thomas and Tran’s company was Progressive Affairs, Inc., according to the Clayton News-Daily’s Cailin O’Brien. Forest Park at that time also turned down Thomas’ services, according to O’Brien, although city minutes for December 2013 do not include Thomas, Tran or Progressive Affairs.

When Thomas approached the Forest Park dais after Redding had been fired, he handed envelopes to councilmembers. Redding yelled, “That’s exactly what you think it is.”

As Hobbs had previously done, Clark then served as both police chief and interim city manager for several months.

Changing of the guard

At that first meeting in 2018, the new council and mayor shook up a lot of other things:

Other white department heads who have retired under the Butler administration have been replaced by Black candidates. Longtime Fire Chief Eddie Buckholts was replaced by Don Horton, while Corley was replaced by Tarik Maxwell. Public Works Director Jeff Eady reportedly was escorted from his office and replaced by Bobby Jinks sometime between May 4, when Eady talked about the city’s ongoing discussions with Waste Management before council, and May 18, when Jinks’ name appeared as Interim Public Works Director on council minutes. (The city has not given a public reason for Eady’s departure.)

Since Butler came on board, the city has seen other firsts, such as its first Black female firefighter and first Black female police lieutenant. Lamesha Richardson joined Forest Park Fire in October 2019, after eight years with EMS. Kelli Flanigan, who serves as the police department’s public information officer and has run community programs like the police cadets, Citizens Police Academy and the now-defunct Neighborhood Watch program for years, was promoted from sergeant to lieutenant in July.

However, to say, as some white citizens have claimed, that city officials have put Blacks in charge of every department is inaccurate. Finance Director Ken Thompson is white (he replaced another white finance director, Mike Blandenburg, who Redding had asked to resign in 2018 for alleged accounting discrepancies), as is Economic Development Director Bruce Abraham.

Forest Park Fire Chief Don Horton

The Butler administration has been slow to respond to media requests about candidate selections or appointees. Clark’s candidacy was particularly sensitive, given the allegations against Hobbs and the department. As a result, other than a small group of handpicked community members that excluded members of the media, the general public had no idea who was in the running for the position as top cop, the candidates’ qualifications and experience, and had no chance to make their thoughts heard or to do their own due diligence about who would enforce the law in their community. More recently, the search for a new fire chief reportedly resulted in an offer to a woman who turned down the offer before the city named Don Horton to the post. In both cases, different sources told The Clayton Crescent that highly-qualified internal candidates had been passed over.

Alfred Barker (standing, right) is sworn in as Forest Park’s new city manager May 18, 2020. The chambers were closed to the public and the meeting was held by teleconference due to city COVID-19 policies.

The search for Redding’s replacement, Alfred Barker, also was held close to the vest. Barker’s candidacy did not appear on the May 4 council agenda. However, Antoine made a motion during the meeting (held via Zoom) to amend the agenda to add Horton’s appointment. Butler told Antoine the item first required an executive session. Akins-Wells seconded Antoine’s motion and was joined by Gutierrez in voting to add it. Councilmembers James and Mears voted no.

Some whites have privately expressed dismay at the new balance of power. In recent years, Forest Park has gone from a farm town run by whites (a town that, in some official documents, sometimes spelled its name with two Rs, as in the Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest and that, as recently as the Obama Administration, has had residents belonging to the Klan), to a majority-Black Atlanta suburb with a Black mayor, city manager, police chief, fire chief, solicitor, municipal court judge, and council majority. Today, Forest Park is an overwhelmingly diverse community where people know their neighbors and many neighborhoods are integrated. It’s a place where church groups regularly distribute free food and kids of all races march in the annual Christmas parade (that used to feature a John Birch Society float). It is also occasionally the scene of the kind of “polite” racial animosity from some whites that is typical of many Southern communities. The changing racial and ethnic makeup of the city, along with the passing of local institutions like Anne and Bill’s Restaurant due to COVID-19 and a family dispute, has prompted some white residents to move.

While it’s impossible to generalize about entire races of people, some white citizens openly engage in elliptical references to “thugs,” “some people,” and “you people” in reference to Black citizens or recent demonstrations about police using excessive force against Black people, both on social media and in public forums like city council meetings. Such references do not always appear in the official minutes. Often, these comments are followed with overt disavowals of “I’m not a racist.”

A Forest Park resident demonstrates for Black lives outside the rec center named for retired Parks and Recreation Director Elaine Corley, June 6, 2020

This summer, two anti-racism demonstrations took place in Forest Park: one by a local student that drew city officials, including Gutierrez and Clark, and another by a Black family that, after joining demonstrations against police brutality in downtown Atlanta, had “had enough” and held up signs outside the rec center.

In the past year, four widely-publicized incidents in Clayton County have brought the larger issue of racial bias in law enforcement to Forest Park’s doorstep:

  • FPPD’s disbanded VIPER Unit’s surveillance of Antoine and Akins-Wells remains in play as the city awaits the results of a grand jury investigation. Court records show neither council member had filed suit as of press time.
  • A white woman, Hannah Payne, remains free on bond more than a year after attempting a citizens’ arrest and pulling a gun on Kenneth Herring, a Black man who was having a medical emergency, on the outskirts of Forest Park. Payne, whom a 911 operator had told not to follow Herring, claims Herring shot himself in a struggle over the gun. Critics have complained about the case’s repeated continuances and pointed to black defendants who are denied bond in similar cases. Former District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson, former ADA John Fowler, and Herring’s widow, Christine, have said that Payne was acting as if she were a police officer.
  • Rayshard Brooks, who appeared disoriented during a police encounter in Atlanta, indicated that he thought he was near the Home Lodge Motel in Forest Park. Critics say Atlanta Police, who determined that Brooks was under the influence, could have given Brooks a ride home or have him call a ride.
  • Roderick Walker was beaten by at least one white Clayton County Sheriff’s Deputy after asking why he had to show ID as a passenger during a traffic stop. The incident prompted a protest outside the Clayton County Jail. Walker is suing for civil rights violations.

Double standards

The mayor of Ottawa, Canada, Charlotte Whitton, once famously remarked, “Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.”

Butler is well aware of the historic nature of her position as the city’s first Black mayor, as well as the underlying racial friction in the city.

“As the first person of color to become mayor of this great city, I accepted this role knowing from the genesis that I am not at liberty to make mistakes or behave as my predecessor. 

Forest Park Mayor Angelyne Butler

She pointed out a double standard that she faces in comparison to Lockhart, who in May 2017 wielded firearms and barricaded himself inside his Ash Street home when FPPD responded to a disturbance there:

Lockhart later said he had had a bad reaction to mixing an alcoholic beverage with medication.

In June 2017, Lockhart, who had presented himself as a family-values mayor, was videorecorded hanging out at Rumours Gentlemen’s Club on the edge of the city, wearing a bra and staggering into other patrons:

The club was the same location as the former Crazy Horse, whose owner, the late strip-club kingpin Jack Galardi, sued the City of Forest Park to the tune of $70 million over an adult entertainment ordinance. (Rumours’ general manager, David Rashmir, who also ran the Crazy Horse, regularly hands out donations like Thanksgiving turkeys and girls’ athletic team sponsorships.) The city later reached a settlement with Galardi Enterprises, allowing the club to stay open.

Butler beat Lockhart by nearly a 2-to-1 margin in a race that saw 1,228 votes cast in this city of more than 20,000. Butler ran on “creating a new narrative” for the city, starting with hiring a “competent” city manager.

Forest Park City Councilwoman Kimberly James

Soon after, Smith, who had been ousted from Ward 1 by James, alleged that James and Butler had traded alcohol for votes during the race. James told WSB’s Nicole Carr the claim was “a flat-out lie.” Smith filed suit in Clayton County Superior Court, alleging that and other election improprieties. Judge Aaron B. Mason threw out the case.

Forest Park Mayor Angelyne Butler

“As mayor, I have to accept the praises and criticism associated with this role,” Butler said. “As the first person of color to become mayor of this great city, I accepted this role knowing from the genesis that I am not at liberty to make mistakes or behave as my predecessor. 

“In life, you can either view the glass as half full or half empty.  Subconsciously, we are conditioned to immediately point to the negative and I know I am under the biggest of microscope(s). However, I am consciously choosing to focus on the positive.  I want to thank the community for holding me to a higher standard.  To me, it says they desire more and it calls me higher.  That is a great compliment both to me and the city I serve.”

As for those who hearken after “the good old days,” Butler said, “Some people want change, but are unwilling to change.  I can assure you my intentions are pure and anyone who believes otherwise needs to reevaluate their intentions. It reminds me of a valuable lesson my father taught me, ‘a person’s commentary is often a direct reflection of themselves.’   More so, just because something is done that another person may not agree with, does not mean said decision is unethical.  It simply means that there is a difference of opinion, and that is okay.”

Hobbs, who started at FPPD in 1973 and worked his way up the ranks, is seeking back pay and benefits, damages, and attorney’s fees, as well as reinstatement as chief of police.

 

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