In Brief: Justice in Atlanta

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January 13, 2011

It felt like something out of the 1960s. A police unit in SWAT gear raided a gay bar, forced staff and patrons to lie face-down on the floor, amid broken glass and spilled beer. The police frisked the men, hurled epithets and ran background checks—all without a warrant or even a reasonable suspicion that any of the customers had engaged in illegal activity. No drugs, weapons or outstanding warrants were found. No patron was even arrested, and the city of Atlanta would eventually concede in writing that none of our clients was personally suspected of any criminal activity.

When news of the Atlanta Eagle raid case came out, it shocked the community, exacerbated by the APD's stunning and cavalier public assertion a month later that such police conduct was standard operating procedure. The effect on the city was so profound that city brass really couldn't defend the police conduct—even though they tried for more than a year. Mayor Kasim Reed eventually apologized in a press conference. But what made the difference was the incredible bravery and selflessness of our clients, who overcame fear and intimidation and were willing to serve as plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit to publicly denounce the horrendous police harassment they suffered and to seek meaningful change. As a result, after more than a year of litigation, we achieved an important settlement that included comprehensive police reforms. It will protect not just people who go to the Eagle or who go to gay bars, but everybody who lives in or visits Atlanta.

The Eagle was no isolated incident. You may recall our recent case in Johnson City, Tenn., in which police publicized the names and pictures of men arrested in a public sex sting operation, contrary to usual police procedure. Lambda Legal sued the police department on behalf of one of the men, who lost his job because of the publicity surrounding his arrest. The case was resolved in January 2010, and the Johnson City Police Department implemented a new nondiscrimination policy and instituted staff training to prevent a similar situation in the future.

Because of cases like the Eagle raid and Johnson City, and because we continue to see cases of police abuse, government inaction and government funding of discrimination, we decided to expand Lambda Legal's priority areas to include government misconduct. For years, Lambda Legal has been on the case. When outrageous antigay police conduct occurs, we at Lambda Legal will do all we can to ensure the police and the government do not overstep their bounds.