One in three recent Atlanta Police Academy graduates have criminal records

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution | October 12, 2008
By Tim Eberly

Keovongsa Siharath was arrested in Henry County on charges he punched his stepfather.

Jeffrey Churchill was charged with assault in an altercation with a woman in a mall parking lot.

Calvin Thomas was taken into custody in DeKalb County on a concealed weapons charge.

All three are now officers with the Atlanta Police Department.

More than one-third of recent Atlanta Police Academy graduates have been arrested or cited for a crime, according to a review of their job applications. The arrests ranged from minor offenses such as shoplifting to violent charges including assault. More than one-third of the officers had been rejected by other law enforcement agencies, and more than half of the recruits admitted using marijuana.

“On its face, it’s troubling and disturbing,” said Vincent Fort, a state senator from Atlanta. “It would be very troubling that people might be hitting the streets to serve and protect and they have histories that have made them unqualified to serve on other departments.”

But Atlanta police say it’s not so simple. Officials have been trying without success for more than a decade to grow the department

to 2,000 officers, an effort hurt by this year’s budget crisis. With competition for recruits intense among law enforcement agencies, Atlanta has had to make concessions.

“We would like, in an ideal world, to see every applicant with a clean record, but obviously that’s not reality,” said Atlanta police Lt. Elder Dancy, who runs the department’s recruitment unit. “I don’t think you’ll find any departments who hire only applicants with squeaky-clean records.”

Three decades ago, a police officer with a criminal record was much less common than it is now, said Robert Friedmann, a criminal justice professor at Georgia State University. But times have changed and many agencies have had to relax their hiring policies, Friedmann said.

Other local police agencies have hiring guidelines similar to Atlanta’s. Police departments for Cobb, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties don’t hire recruits with felony convictions but do hire those with misdemeanor arrests, on a case-by-case basis.

Dancy would not divulge all of Atlanta’s restrictions but said the department won’t hire anyone with felony convictions, or those with convictions for obstruction of justice, sex or domestic crimes.

Even so, police documents show that many of their recruits have blemishes on their records.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, through an Open Records Act request, asked in mid-August for the job applications of the Atlanta Police Department’s two most recent graduating classes. The department provided 36 applications for police recruits who graduated June 10 and Aug. 4. All the graduates are currently Atlanta police officers.

The most revealing portion of the application is a questionnaire that includes some probing questions:

Have you ever used marijuana?

Have you ever been with a prostitute?

Have you ever driven under the influence of alcohol or drugs?

And: Have you ever been physically arrested or cited with criminal charges?

Twelve out of 33 officers — 36 percent — said they have been arrested or cited with a criminal offense.

“It does not mean they’re not a quality candidate,” Dancy said, adding that the department runs criminal background checks on all recruits. “It just means they made a mistake in their past.”

Officer Siharath was taken to the Henry County Jail in December 2005 after an altercation with his stepfather at his family’s home in Stockbridge, according to a police report.

Siharath, then 24, returned home to find his stepfather moving his belongings back into his mother’s house. He told his stepfather to leave, but the older man refused, the report said.

They argued, then Siharath pushed the man onto the floor and punched him in the head, the stepfather and Siharath’s mother told police. The battery charge against Siharath was later dropped in court.

Siharath could not be reached for comment on the incident, and Atlanta police would not make him available for an interview.

A decade earlier, Officer Thomas was arrested during a traffic stop in DeKalb County on charges of having a concealed weapon, he wrote in his job application.

The officer asked Thomas “if I had any weapons in the car, [and] I stated yes,” he wrote. “The officer asked where, and I told him under the seat. I was arrested for a misdemeanor — carrying a concealed weapon.”

Thomas, who paid a fine and spent a year on probation, declined to comment for this article.

Officer Churchill wrote that he was arrested in December 1995 on a charge of fourth-degree assault. Without getting into much detail, he wrote that he got into an argument with a woman in a mall parking lot, received two years of probation and an order to pay a $71 fine. Churchill could not be reached for comment on the incident, and Atlanta police would not make him available for an interview.

Friedmann, the criminal justice professor, said he “would have hoped the number [of recruits with prior arrests or criminal citations] would be lower.”

He and another criminal justice professor, Peter Fenton of Kennesaw State University, say the arrest numbers are not as significant when three factors are considered: the severity of the incident, how long ago it happened and whether it resulted in conviction.

With those factors considered, “your numbers will probably drop to about half of that,” Friedmann said.

The AJC could not analyze all those factors because recruits sometimes gave incomplete answers on the application.

Fenton, a former Cobb County police officer, said he was more concerned with the AJC’s next finding: Twelve out of 33 graduates — 36 percent — acknowledged that they had been rejected by other law enforcement agencies, including some in metro Atlanta.

“That, frankly, is more troubling to me — especially when these people have been rejected by multiple agencies,” he said.

Three officers’ rejections stemmed from failing the psychiatric or psychological portion of police agencies’ screening processes. Others were turned away because they failed lie-detector tests or offered conflicting statements about issues such as drug use.

Dancy said those issues raise red flags, but what matters most is whether recruits can pass the Atlanta Police Department’s tests and interviews.

When asked whether the department was getting top-shelf candidates, Dancy said, “as long as those applicants meet the guidelines, then we feel like we are hiring the type of officers who are [fit to be] Atlanta police officers.”

Officer Mark Moore applied for jobs with other police agencies before graduating from the Atlanta Police Academy. He tried to get a job with Atlanta police in 2004 but was rejected. He also failed a written test for the Knoxville police.

When he applied to another police department in 2002, “their psychologist deemed me to be ‘psychologicaly incompatable’ [sic] for the L.A.P.D.,” he wrote in his Atlanta job application.

Moore declined to comment when reached by phone.

More than half the graduates admitted using marijuana, though many said they did it only a few times during their high school or college years.

News researchers Nisa Asokan and Sharon Gaus and former data analyst Megan Clarke contributed to this report.