FOREST PARK — Forest Park City Council members Latresa Akins-Wells and Dabouze Antoine are planning to sue the city and Police Department over FPPD surveillance of their homes and movements, and are making an offer for the city to settle, according to their attorney.
At a press conference Tuesday morning at the law firm of Edmond, Lindsay and Atkins, Akins-Wells wiped tears from her eyes while Antoine put his arm around her shoulder. Also present were firm partner Keith Lindsay and members of the Clayton County NAACP, including President Cheryl Synamon Baldwin.
“We’re not here feeling good about the situation. It’s a horrible situation,” said Dr. Roderick Edmond, the council members’ attorney. Edmond, who said the case had national implications, said former Forest Park Police Chief Dwayne Hobbs “had set up almost like a task force for the prior four years to survey, spy and really do a stealth surveillance of these two African-American city council people.”
As for claims that the police were looking for drugs or absentee ballots, Edmond said the allegations were “specious,” likening them to “people just throwing crap on the wall and see what sticks.”
The firm handed out copies of an ante litem notice of intent to sue the city of Forest Park and the Forest Park Police Department, sent by certified mail to Mayor Angelyne Butler.
The lawsuit could be filed sometime in the next six months, Edmond said, although he did not yet know whether it would be in state or federal court or both. “If there are federal issues, they will be brought in federal court,” Edmond said, adding that depended on where the evidence takes them.
The notice gives the city 30 days to respond to Antoine’s and Akins-Wells’ “separate demands to resolve all of their individual claims for payment of $1,000,000.” However, it would be incorrect at this point to say they were suing the city for $1 million, Edmond said.
“It was our understanding that there’s a $1 million policy that applies to each act,” he explained. “With that being said, it is pro forma and almost perfunctory that in these kind of cases, you just ask for policy limits and it is rare that policy limits are negotiated. They have basically made an initial offer of settlement for any prospective claims of a million dollars.”
Akins-Wells said “at least 12” officers had been assigned to the task force, which has since been disbanded. Akins-Wells said, “It hurt me more than anything,” then began crying. “That’s where I grew up. I went to elementary, middle and high school there ... and I’m fighting against this type of thing.”
She continued, “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.”
The firm alleges 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.”
Both council members have said they feel the department under Hobbs took racially-motivated actions, pointing to traffic stops near Hispanic churches on Sundays and a Clayton News investigation into allegations the department disproportionately arrested African-Americans for small-quantity marijuana possession. The News found that over 80 percent of those arrests between 2015 and 2018 were of African-Americans.
Antoine said “My heart is broken....if this is what they’re doing to elected officials, what are they doing to regular citizens?”
“As a young African American man in the South, I am very sensitive to racial profiling,” he added in a prepared statement. “When I wondered if I was being followed, it scared me. Was I going to be arrested? Were the police going to set me up to be convicted of something I did not do? I did not know for sure what was happening. It was a horrible way to live.”
Antoine also said Forest Park Police came to his job at a local school before he took office and asked to see his passport, which he happened to have on him that day.
“She looked at it, said ‘It looks just as good as mine,’ and handed it right back,” Antoine said.
Edmond said, “We have placed the Forest Park Police Department on notice. The specific claims in the lawsuits that we file will be dictated by the information available at the time and will expand during the discovery phase of the lawsuits. We expect the GBI investigation to provide much more context.”
The council appointed Police Chief Nathaniel Clark as interim city manager Monday night. Clark did an internal investigation that uncovered the surveillance and passed it along to the GBI for review.
Baldwin said the Clayton County NAACP has gotten complaints about the Forest Park Police from other community members.
“I received a call from a white citizen who did not want to tell me his name,” but that he had told her, “’Ms. Baldwin, I just wanted to let you know what they say about blacks being pulled over is true” and that he had seen this from his window.
Baldwin said the man did not want to identify himself out of “fear for his family.”
“Obviously, this could devolve into a tremendous civil rights matter,” Edmond said.