Complaint alleges cops kept surveillance docs offsite, destroyed records
by Robin Kemp
4/8 9:20am CORRECTION: delete line from previous draft re: no indication who is representing city
Forest Park City Councilmembers Latresa Akins-Wells and Dabouze Antoine have filed separate personal injury lawsuits in Clayton County Superior Court, seeking an unspecified amount in damages for emotional distress stemming from alleged illegal surveillance of their homes and movements over several years by the department’s defunct VIPER (Variable Intensive Patrol and Enforcement Response) Team.
Both civil suits allege the city, former Police Chief L. Dwayne Hobbs, and five other officers and command staff who are no longer with the force–Interim Police Chief Jamie Reynolds, Deputy Chief George T. “Tommy” Orr, Lt. Timothy Pigate, Cory Cloud, and Chris M. Waltrip–spied on the councilmembers from 2013 to 2018. The suit alleges one count each of invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent supervision, and breach of legal duty, Antoine and Akins-Wells are seeking jury trials and an unspecificed amount in general and punitive damages and fees.
On April 2 in both cases, both sides agreed to a second stipulation, giving the plaintiffs until May 6 to respond to the councilmembers’ allegations. Brian R. Dempsey and Richard A. Carothers are representing Reynolds, Orr, Pigate, Cloud, and Waltrip. Sun S. Choy withdrew as defense counsel for the five officers and is representing the City of Forest Park only. Frances L. Clay is representing Hobbs.
Both councilmembers had successfully lobbied to fire Hobbs as chief. They say they did not learn of the alleged surveillance operation until one year, two interim chiefs, and one permanent chief after the fact. Both interim chiefs–Jason Armstrong and Reynolds–had served with the VIPER team at some point. Armstong is not named as a defendant in either suit.
The lawsuits have sat quietly in the courthouse since the January as a larger related investigation reportedly involving multiple agencies continues. How the case is related to the lawsuits and who it targets have not been disclosed, as that case could go before a grand jury.
“Humiliation, embarrassment, fright and outrage”
Akins-Wells and Antoine say that, when they learned of the operation, they suffered “injury in the forms of feelings of humiliation, embarrassment, fright and outrage” because of the defendants’ alleged “extreme and outrageous conduct.” They also say the city is liable because it carries an insurance policy covering the acts of its employees and blames the city council on which they sit “and various city managers [who] failed to exercise reasonable diligence in supervising Chief Hobbs and the operations of the FPPD.”
In both complaints, filed January 4, Akins-Wells and Antoine allege the officers tracked their movements, went through their trash, and set up cameras outside their homes., causing Akins-Wells “severe mental and emotional distress” when she “learned that she had been under near constant surveillance and subject of a fishing expedition into all aspects of her private life.” The suits also allege that records of the VIPER Task Force’s activity were stored on a computer away from police headquarters, then illegally destroyed.
The suits allege the city, through Hobbs, “operated an illegal, undercover task force for the sole purpose of monitoring the activities” of Akins-Wells and Antoine, “prior to and after [they were] elected to serve on the Forest Park City Council.” Akins-Wells learned of the alleged surveillance in September 2019, after Hobbs’ replacement, Police Chief Nathaniel Clark “uncovered evidence of the illegal task force.”
The 2010 and 2011 annual reports by FPPD describes the VIPER Team as “a supplement to regular patrol shifts providing valuable additional manpower in problem areas and during peak call volume hours. Made up of four patrol officers and a Patrol Lieutenant, this unit is also instrumental in curbing gang and drug activity in the city. In 2010 the Unit seized over $30,000 worth of Narcotics, $152,691 in cash and 10 vehicles.” Cloud was the lieutenant at the time; Waltrip, MPO Freeman, then-Sgt. Yermack, and then-Ofc. Simmons were his subordinates. In 2012, the VIPER team had added two more officers, McClelland and Clayton, seizing “over $748,764 worth of narcotics, $24,030 in cash, ten vehicles.”
In 2013, the year the team is alleged to have begun surveilling Antoine and Akins-Wells, FPPD’s annual report did not include a gallery of VIPER team members and did not describe how the team was staffed. That year, it seized “over $4,705 worth of narcotics and $32,454 in cash.”
The councilmembers’ allegations against Hobbs, VIPER team
Among the allegations of fact in the lawsuits, which are nearly identical:
- “The City maintains liability insurance covering the acts and omissions of the individual defendants giving rise to Antoine’s [sic] claims and has waived sovereign immunity up to the limits of its liability insurance policy based on a theory of respondeat superior.” The councilmembers had notified the city January 10, 2020 they were planning to sue and offered to settle out of court for $1 million each.
- Akins-Wells is a native of Forest Park. Antoine is a naturalized citizen from Haiti who moved to Forest Park in 2011 and works as a paraprofessional at the Ash Street Alternative School. “In 2013, Antoine announced that he was going to run for mayor in a special election. He went to city council meetings and other events.” During his campaign, Antoine allegedly “noticed the FPPD patrol officers would slowly drive by him as he walked to work each morning” and “received repeated phone calls from FPPD officers asking him to come down to the police station.” At one point, “A female detective came to his school and asked to see Antoine. She asked to see his passport so that she could confirm he was a United States citizen.” After Antoine lost the special election, he ran for councilman in Ward Two and won, taking office in 2014. Like Akins-Wells, he has been reelected twice and has been a vocal critic of both Hobbs and FPPD.
- Stating that the city manager “had a duty to monitor and supervise the conduct” of the police chief in Forest Park, the suit notes Hobbs also served twice as acting city manager during his 22 years as police chief. The suit alleges that, “During his lengthy tenure as Chief of FPPD, Hobbs witnessed the demographic transformation of Forest Park that ushered in a new class of Black candidates for public office” and that “Chief Hobbs perceived the transformation of Forest Park into a majority Black community with Black leadership as a threat to his control over the FPPD and his influence over the affairs of Forest Park.”
- Hobbs formed the VIPER team in 2009, “a secret surveillance unit…to investigate and target Black candidates and elected officials” that he allegedly “intended to use…to gather information he could use to discredit and undermine Black candidates and elected officials.”
- The suit also alleges that Reynolds, Orr, Waltrip, Pigate and Cloud “were members of the VIPER team and conspired with Chief Hobbs to investigate Black candidates and elected officials in Forest Park” and that they “knew or should have known that the VIPER team was created for an unlawful purpose and involved activities that constituted violations of state and federal law.”
- Since at least 2011, Akins-Wells “began looking into the discriminatory practices of Chief Hobbs and the Forest Park Police Department” after Black residents complained they had been racially profiled during traffic stops. “In part because of these allegations,” the suit continues, “Akins-Wells decided to run for the city council seat in Ward 4.” Akins-Wells then “campaigned to change the culture and leadership at FPPD….publicly discussed her suspicions that FPPD maintained a quota system and targeted African Americans….[and] discussed complaints of low morale among employees and that Chief Hobbs was rarely at FPPD headquarters.” She was elected Ward 4’s first Black councilmember, took office January 1, 2012, and has been reelected twice. “From 2012-2018, Akins-Wells was an outspoken critic of Chief Hobbs and FPPD,” the suit continues, accusing him and the department of racially profiling Black people, “particularly for minor drug offenses.” In 2013 when John Parker resigned, and again in mid-2016, Akins-Wells opposed Hobbs’ appointments as interim city manager.
- After Akins-Wells publicly stated that she and members of her family had been racially profiled when pulled over on drug stops, “a local newspaper [Clayton News-Daily] investigated whether FPPD disproportionately arrested African Americans for minor drug offenses.” (Transparency note: the reporter was Robin Kemp, now with The Clayton Crescent.) “The investigation revealed that more than 80 percent of arrests for misdemeanor possession of marijuana between 2015 and 2018 involved African Americans.” After the story came out, Akins-Wells “publicly called for Hobbs’ resignation or termination as Chief of Police” and “lobbied her colleagues on the Council to terminate Chief Hobbs,” which they did in Fall 2018.
- “Unbeknownst to Akins-Wells,” the suit alleges, “Hobbs retaliated against her for her persistent criticism of FPPD by deploying the VIPER team to conduct a secret investigation, including ongoing surveillance, into Akins-Wells’ personal life and activities….[with] neither probable cause nor even reasonable articulable suspicion to believe that [she] was involved in criminal activity.” When the other officers asked Hobbs why they were investigating Akins-Wells, the suits allege, “Chief Hobbs would only say that a confidential source had informed him that [Akins-Wells and Antoine] involved in criminal activity.” The team then allegedly surveilled both councilmembers “from 2013 at least until Chief Hobbs’ termination in 2018” by “following [them] in unmarked vehicles and observing [them] as [they] went about [their] private business, watching and monitoring [them] when [they were] involved in wholly private activities inside and within the curtilage of [their homes], at public activities with constituents, and other routine activities, monitoring [their] online activity on [their] personal social media accounts, and conducting trash pulls and rummaging through [their] trash.” In Antoine’s case, the team also allegedly “investigat[ed] his involvement in non-profit organizaitons.” The team also allegedly mounted cameras outside [their homes] to record activities outside, within the curtilage of her home and activities inside their [sic] homes visible through exterior windows”– without a search warrant or probable cause.
- The suit also alleges Hobbs “routinely pulled FPPD other officers, including the individual defendants, from legitimate law enforcement tasks such as routine patrol and criminal investigation” to track Akins-Wells, Antoine, “and other Black politicians.” The suit alleges Hobbs “diverted resources and funds, including video cameras capable of storing hours of recordings, computers stored at his office location to review video and other recordings, and unmarked patrol cars” to surveil the councilmembers “and other Black politicians over a period of years.”
- The city “had an independent duty to ensure that records created during the performance of a public duty and paid for by public funds were maintained in accordance with a retention schedule.” Several weeks after the suit was filed, the Forest Park City Council voted to adopt the Georgia Archives’ schedule for records disposition. In addition, the defendants “had a legal duty to maintain records of their law enforcement activities,” but, the suit alleges, “(r)ecords of the secret investigation and surveillance…including handwritten notes, texts, reports, video and audio recordings were created during the performance of a public duty and paid for by public funds of Forest Park and, therefore, constituted public property and a record of public acts.” However, the suit contends the officers “knowing that their investigation…was illegal and an abuse of their authority as law enforcement officers, intentionally and routinely destroyed hand-written notes, text communications, surveillance video and other material to avoid detection. The legal duty to [preserve] public records exists for the benefit [of] all citizens, including Akins-Wells.” As a result, according to both lawsuits, the councilmembers are “unable to fully ascertain the scope of the intrusion upon [their] private life and affairs, thereby exacerbating the degree of mental anguish, anxiety and fear [they have] experienced upon learning of the illegal investigation and surveillance program.”
The councilmembers’ attorney, William J. Atkins, filed the suits on January 4, with the defendants’ attorney, Frances L. Clay, asking the court on February 5 for more time to respond to the complaints and filing an Entry of Appearance for Hobbs.on February 9. The Akins-Wells case is before Superior Court Judge Aaron B. Mason. The Akins-Wells case number is 2021CV00035 12; the Antoine case number is 2021CV00053 10.
The Antoine case was brought before Superior Court Judge Robert L. Mack, Jr., who recused himself February 11. It was then reassigned to Superior Court Judge Geronda V. Carter on February 16, who recused herself February 23. On March 1, the case was reassigned to Superior Court Judge Shana Rooks Malone.
Outside investigation sent to GBI, district attorney
The alleged surveillance came to light a year after Hobbs was fired by the City Council in a 3-2 vote along racial lines. Hobbs’ attorney reiterated his client’s position that his department had not engaged in racial profiling and said his client would have no further comment, given the investigation underway. Akins-Wells and Antoine had pushed for Hobbs’ firing just one month before he was to have retired. Akins-Wells made the motion to fire Hobbs, which Antoine seconded. Antoine then moved that Captain Jason Armstrong serve as interim chief, a motion Akins-Wells seconded. Armstrong became the city’s first Black interim chief on the spot. By December, the city had removed Armstrong with no explanation and made Reynolds interim chief. Armstrong went on to become police chief of Ferguson, MO in June 2019.
Hobbs’ replacement, Forest Park Police Chief Nathaniel Clark, asked the consulting firm Mauldin and Jenkins to do an audit of the department. The city hired a PR firm to issue a press release in October 2019 that alleged “systemic financial mismanagement [and] surveillance of Forest Park City Council members.”
In the press release, the city alleged that “members of the now-disbanded VIPER Task Force physically followed, watched, monitored and photographed the two councilmembers. Pole-mounted cameras near homes were utilized and activities by the councilpersons were notated. In addition, their curbside garbage bins were emptied, contents collected and reviewed and, in some instances, processed as potential evidence.” However, according to the city, “the surveillance turned up no evidence to back “unsubstantiated allegations that the two [Akins-Wells and Antoine] were involved in voter fraud and illegal drug activities.”
Top brass fired
Hobbs’ former assistant, Susan Ridling, and Maj. Chris Matson were fired after the investigation, which alleged Ridling had “reported that she was directed, in violation of the City code, to cash thousands of dollars in checks without accounting records for the cash,” and that Matson allegedly had sold officers thousands of dollars’ worth of training ammunition without proper cash controls, admitting that about $1000 to $1,200 was unaccounted for, but that Hobbs had approved of his handling of ammunition funds.
Ridling, a Forest Park native who’d worked for the city since 1994 almost straight out of high school, moved up the ranks, becoming executive assistant to the mayor and city manager before transferring to FPPD in 1992. There, she served as senior assistant to the chief of detectives until 1996, when she was promoted to Hobbs’ executive assistant, “(managing) the administrative offices of the Chief of Police, overseeing payroll, purchasing, crime analysis and information technology” and “a staff of two administrative assistants and two senior assistants.” She now works for the City of Hampton as an administrative assistant.
Matson, who had initially resisted the Clayton News’ Open Records requests about small-quantity marijuana arrests, came to FPPD in 1992 after five years with the Peachtree City Police Department. During his tenure, he worked in nearly every capacity in the department (“communications operator, patrol officer, specialized traffic enforcement and accident investigation officer, detective, and motorcycle officer,” as well as police, firearms, and Taser instructor. Matson was heavily involved with Neighborhood Watch, Triad (a safety and social program especially for senior citizens), and the Citizen Police Academy, which gives residents a chance to go behind the scenes of police work over several weeks. In December 2020, Matson told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Joshua Sharpe, “I think every police department should do their best to incorporate all races and ethnicities and sexes….We tried for many years to do that.”
Mayor Angelyne Butler later said “we are unaware” of who had made the original allegations against the councilmembers, who said they thought they had been racially profiled as the only Black members on council. The police department issued Antoine and Akins-Wells an apology, while Hobbs’ attorney denied his client’s motives were racially motivated. A third Black councilmember who held office during the surveillance, former Ward 3 Councilwoman Maudie McCord, was not targeted.
In September 2018, city officials began pressuring Hobbs to retire amid Akins-Wells’ public allegations of police racial profiling and mumbled discontent among some longtime white residents about the city’s first Black mayor and majority-Black council.
The council voted 3-2 along racial lines to fire Hobbs in October, a few weeks before he was to have retired and soon after a Clayton News investigation revealed more than 80% of small-quantity marijuana arrests from 2015 to 2018 had been of African-Americans. When the council had voted three months earlier to decriminalize small-quantity marijuana possession, Akins-Wells said during the meeting that she and family members had been racially profiled, and Antoine 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.” In July 2018, Hobbs had denied councilmembers’ allegations that FPPD engaged in racial profiling.
DA Mosley confirms related probe
Clark forwarded the results of the outside investigation to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation in October 2019. The GBI later sent them to Clayton County District Attorney Tasha Mosley. The case may or may not go before a grand jury. However, the COVID-19 judicial emergency put all grand juries on hold through September 10, 2020. Last October, Chief Justice Harold Melton gave the go-ahead for remote grand jury proceedings. Clayton County Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Geronda V. Carter has said grand jury trials could resume as early as May. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that case would be taken up right away–or at all.
“We are working with other agencies that might have worked on this investigation and still are working on the investigation,” Mosley told The Clayton Crescent. “It is not over and involves multiple state agencies. We don’t have a timetable of when it will come to a conclusion.”
Councilmembers each sought $1 million settlement offer
On January 7, 2020, Akins-Wells and Antoine held a press conference at Edmond Lindsay and Atkins, announcing they were planning to sue the city unless it settled out of court for $1 million apiece. Here’s raw audio of that press conference.
At the time, Akins-Wells said, “It hurt me more than anything. That’s where I grew up. I went to elementary, middle and high school there … and I’m fighting against this type of thing. I knew that some things was going on in that department and I tried to put my hands on them, and I feel like maybe that’s why… but it hurt me. This is where I grew up, this is where I’m raising my kids.”
Antoine, who is Haitian, said police also had come to the school where he worked prior to being elected and asked to see his passport: “She looked at it, said ‘It looks just as good as mine,’ and handed it right back.”
Their attorneys alleged that, “without reasonable suspicion, probable cause or any sort of warrant, Chief Hobbs, perhaps with the knowledge and support of other government officials in Forest Park, abused government resources to investigate two elected African American council members who challenged his leadership.”
A change of heart
Akins-Wells had initially opposed Clark’s selection as chief “when we have someone at home that was overqualified for the position, someone whose roots are here in Forest Park” [Interim Chief Jason Armstrong, who became Ferguson, MO’s police chief after Forest Park passed him over].
Akins-Wells also had criticized what she said had been a lack of transparency in Clarks’s selection: “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.”
Later, Akins-Wells said Clark had approached her and Antoine to inform them of the alleged surveillance, which she said they had not known about.
Since then, Akins-Wells has praised Clark’s performance as chief and both City Hall and FPPD have grown more secretive under Clark’s tenure.
Clark has served in dual administrative roles–twice–while also serving as police chief: first, as interim city manager, after the council fired former city manager Angela Redding; then, in the newly-created position of public safety director, which also places him over the Fire Department.
Since arriving, Clark has ended the Neighborhood Watch meeting that used to take place monthly in Municipal Court, a move unpopular with citizens who had attended regularly. He also locked the public out of the building altogether, requiring citizens to state the reason for their visit through an intercom and discuss their problem with whatever officer talks to them through the security grid barring the front door.
This week, the city reopened its facilities–including City Hall and the council chambers– on April 1, and FPPD says it will host the first in-person Neighborhood Watch meeting since the pandemic, in person, in the courtroom at 320 Cash Memorial Blvd., on April 14 at 6:00 p.m. (FPPD will require face masks and temperature checks and provide hand sanitizer.)
And on Thursday at 4 p.m. and Friday at 10 a.m., respectively, the city council and URA are poised to approve $42.11 million in bonds this week for capital improvements. Among those improvements: a new combined City Hall, police-fire headquarters, and fire station on Forest Parkway.