A botched drug raid that ended the life of a 92-year-old woman in a hail of police gunfire is drawing questions from House members about the use of informants.
Police burst into Kathryn Johnston’s Atlanta home last fall using a no-knock warrant they obtained by lying to a judge about drug activity there, according to prosecutors.
Afterward, when they realized their mistake, the officers tried to cover their tracks, and one has admitted planting drugs in the house and coaxing a street-level informant to go along with their story, according to court papers.
A host of influential black House members said the case highlights widespread misuse of police informants, and they pledged to address the issue in Congress.
"I see the shooting and killing of Ms. Johnston as one piece of a larger puzzle," said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. "We must utilize every means at our disposal … to ensure that this kind of injustice never, ever happens again."
Lewis joined House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, D-Mich., and other lawmakers in a meeting Wednesday with the Rev. Markel Hutchins. The Atlanta civil rights activist has acted as a spokesman for Johnston’s family.
Hutchins also met with attorneys with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and with staffers for several senators. The meetings came as attorneys for Johnston’s niece have filed a wrongful death claim with the city of Atlanta as a precursor to a lawsuit.
"We believe what happened with Ms. Johnston is just the tip of the iceberg and is more symptomatic than coincidental," Hutchins said in an interview. "We’ve got to deal with the culture of police departments in this country … every young black person in America knows there’s a problem with policing."
According to the plea agreements for two of the officers involved, police working on a tip from a suspected drug dealer falsely claimed that a secret police informant — Alex White — had witnessed a drug deal at Johnston’s home so that they could get a no-knock warrant.
In the Nov. 21 raid, plainclothes narcotics officers burst into Johnston’s house unannounced. Johnston fired one errant shot at the intruders, hitting no one, and the officers responded with 39 shots, five or six of which struck her.
After searching the home and finding no drugs, the officers tried to cover up the mistake, prosecutors said. One officer handcuffed the dying woman and planted three bags of marijuana in the basement of her house. He then called White and told him to pretend he had bought crack cocaine at the house, court papers say.
White, who traveled to Washington with Hutchins to meet with lawmakers, said in an interview that he never would have known that his name was used to obtain the warrant had the raid not turned fatal.
Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia called the Johnston shooting a "terrible situation" but said it doesn’t necessarily reflect on the practices of all officers.
"If you’re asking me for a broad indictment of the Atlanta Police Department, I’m not going to give a broad indictment," Isakson said. "But when something like this happens it should cause us to review and make sure it’s not systematic."
Two officers involved in the raid have pleaded guilty to manslaughter, violation of oath and other charges and are awaiting sentencing. A third officer still faces charges.