Turkey Seeking New Gravy Train, or Misunderstood Geek?

“People may not like his style” begins the Atlanta Journal Constitution’s denouement of the Chief Pennington years.

As if the crime-weary public has been complaining all along about the cut of Chief Pennington’s jib, not the fact that he poo-poohed the rising crime wave, turned on his own officers, and stopped doing his job.

But implausible deniability has been the newspaper’s line on crime ever since the public started demanding, say, a chief of police who takes all home invasions equally seriously and doesn’t take his marching orders from two-bit activists, or pull a Houdini for months on end.

It’s not that writers Bill Rankin and Bill Torpy are particular fans of the Chief, or any cop — the paper’s biases run to offenders.  But when Pennington started parroting the paper’s “Crime? What crime, you stupid hysterics?” line, he became an occasional ally on the side of print journalists and against the public.

Consider this line his going-away gift from the fourth estate:

Pennington often comes across less as the chief of police and more as the CEO of the APD.

Really?  I always though he came across less as the chief of police because he gets into bed with Al Sharpton types, not because he’s some sort of Bill Gates in blue.

He brought in a data-driven system that gives a real-time count of the arrests and crimes taking place, enabling police to react quickly to emerging trends. Crime rates fell. Those numbers, Pennington said, are what count.

Yes, crime rates fell.  Before they started to rise precipitously, of course, a phenomenon the chief and his mayor blamed on public insensitivity to criminals, rather than criminals’ insensitivity to the public.

Murder rates indisputably did fall before and during Pennington’s time as chief.  But should Pennington claim credit for any part, let alone all, of that particular drop in that particular category of crime?  Important factors left unmentioned in the AJC article more than explain the drop in murder rates in Atlanta over the chief’s tenure.

  • First and foremost, a very specific subset of gentrification displaced violent crime outside the city limits, more or less entirely explaining the drop in murder rates.  Immediately prior to Pennington’s installation as chief, and concluding during the first years of his tenure, Atlanta’s Renee Glover literally razed the housing projects where and around which most murders and other gun crimes occurred.  They shut them down and moved the residents out — the most dysfunctional households going to Clayton County, where former Atlanta Chief of Police and current Clayton County Commissions Chairman Eldrin Bell must be wondering exactly what he did to deserve such magnetic fate.  Back in Atlanta, no more Grady Homes: no more murders at Grady Homes.  Want to know how extreme this change was?  Ask any cop old enough to remember the bad old days.  Or, conduct a longitudinal study mapping violent crime trends (murder, aggravated assaults, crime related-hospitalizations) against the relocation of public housing populations, and mention it in the newspaper when the chief tries to take credit for the drop in murders at Grady Homes.

Or don’t.

  • Another factor in the drop in murder rates was simple burn-out.  Crime was already dropping across the board when Pennington arrived in Atlanta.  Everyone rode that trend.  Atlanta was already poised to move into a lower tier of the city-by-city crime stats by the time Pennington arrived.
  • Then there’s investigation and punishment.  You know, incarcerating recidivists?  Sentencing enhancement?  This is an interesting subject and one that has not been researched enough.  Four specific trends in crime investigation and sentencing doubtlessly impacted the worst of the worst among the criminal classes just as Pennington took charge.  First, the (delayed) implementation of DNA testing and databasing finally lopped the top off rape rates by incarcerating some of the most prolific offenders for longer than the five minutes they used to spend cooling their heels in the can.  Second, sentencing reform for the most violent crimes raised the consequences for murder for everyone except juveniles.  Third, sentencing reform for gun crimes resulted in longer sentences for armed adults and even some juvenile offenders.  Fourth, technology — not just DNA, but vast improvements in crime scene processing and emergency room care, underwent a real mini-renaissance in the past ten years.  All of these factors slash the violent crime rate because small numbers of hard-core recidivists are responsible for a big percentage of all crimes.  When you remove just one of them from the streets for, say, armed robbery, you can prevent multiple future events.

So was Pennington a participant in these universal trends?  Sure.  Did he maximize the Atlanta Police Department’s ability to participate in them?

That’s the real question, and the answer is no, for reasons of personality, conduct, politics, and ethics — in other words, leadership.  Leadership was the real thing Pennington was supposed to bring to the table, leadership of his troops and leadership for the public that was paying him, and he failed both of those fundamental missions.  He even failed, according to many, at implementing the very “smart policing” techniques that were supposed to be his strength.  Data driven policing and computer crime mapping techniques are only as good as the people in charge.  If you don’t have a Bratton, or at least somebody who acts as a leader with his own women and men, then the very techniques that make policing more efficient can turn into sophisticated tools for hiding real crime statistics — or worse:

Critics say his focus on numbers created a quota system that led cops to cut corners. The police shooting of Kathryn Johnston, 92, in 2006 came about because narcotics officers were pumping up their warrants and arrests, critics say.

“The Atlanta Police Department does not have a quota system,” Pennington said after narcotics officers were arrested for the raid.

It was after the fatal narcotics raid that Pennington fundamentally betrayed his command.  He could have taken the high road, defending the performance of good cops, cooperating in the investigation of what went wrong, and taking responsibility for his own role in Johnson’s death, as any good leader would do.  But instead, he made political hay, denied any personal fault, threw good officers under the bus for political expediency, and, unforgivably for a chief of police, jumped into bed with the anti-cop activists.

At that moment, Shirley Franklin should have removed him from a job for which he was no longer even bothering to show up.  In fact, the best thing that might be said about Pennington after 2006 was that he wasn’t around very much, because when he was in Atlanta, he was just as likely to be doing something to undermine the force.  In a replay of Bill Campbell’s final days, the cop shop on Ponce de Leon took on that Colonel Kurtz vibe.

By 2008, Shirley Franklin was well on her way to Kurtzing out, too, and Pennington took an increasingly frenetic series of powders:

Pennington’s personal calendars, obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through the Georgia Open Records Act, show that the chief attended conferences in Honolulu; LasVegas; Sun Valley, Idaho; Philadelphia; Dallas; Washington; Los Angeles; Phoenix; Miami; Pasadena, Calif.; Boston; New Orleans; and other cities.

And the excuses he offered for failing to do his job grew as obscure as his travel schedule:

Pennington said he tried to connect with the rank and file early on. He held luncheons with groups of 30 officers to field their questions and gauge morale. Later, he went to roll call after hearing complaints about him not attending. But officers did not ask him questions, worried it would get back to their bosses.  “So I said, ‘Why am I going to roll call if they won’t talk, won’t say anything?’” he said.

Maybe he should have kept going to roll call, instead of going to Aruba, because it was his f*##!g  job, right?  Even if the mean kids wouldn’t sit next to him in the lunchroom.

Then the crime wave hit, and that’s when the mayor and the chief of police really lost their marbles.  Only they didn’t really lose anything: it is the public that lost.  They’re laughing all the way to the bank.


So, yes, people didn’t like Pennington’s style, but it was never a simple issue of taste, or emotions, as insinuated, unfortunately, by the AJC.  Voters aren’t children needing reassurance when serious crimes occur: people wanted Pennington to be in town because they were paying his salary and expected him to be doing his job:

Pennington said he left capable aides in charge and raced back in times of crisis.

“I don’t take a lot of vacation,” he said. “No, I don’t feel like I was out a whole lot because, you know, I took the required training opportunities I had.”

“[T]he required training opportunities I had.”  Well, isn’t that what it’s all about?  A chest-full of merit badges and holiday tan lines while the average cop had nobody in his corner as he faced down thirteen-year-olds armed to the teeth?

For every way that Pennington was bad for Atlanta, Atlanta was bad for Pennington.  Something about the toxic political culture of this town — the entitlement culture of its members-only ruling class — took a top cop with a decent reputation and dissipated his promise, like many before him.

In the final analysis, the job of the chief of police is very simple: he must lead his officers.  Not waste his time skipping around the country jockeying for political points in other arenas, nor paving a personal path to the next cushy payday.  Nor, it should go without saying but apparently must be said, hob-nobbing with anti-cop activists who make their green fomenting dangerous hatreds towards men and women in blue.

In that, Richard Pennington failed, atrociously.  And that’s all that really matters now.


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