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Atlanta Magazine, April, 2003

I was startled when I saw Richard Pennington out of the corner of my eye. I hadn’t expected the new Atlanta police chief to show up at Lou Arcangeli’s retirement party, but I shouldn’t have been shocked. Pennington had already surprised the city when he brought Arcangeli in from the cold last fall.

It has been nearly five years since then-Chief Beverly Harvard demoted Arcangeli from deputy chief to captain, cutting his pay by $8,000 a year. In image-conscious Atlanta, Arcangeli had committed an unpardonable offense: he told the truth about the police department’s ugly scheme to erase hundreds -- maybe thousands -- of crimes that took place in the Olympic year of 1996.

During Arcangeli’s years in the gulag, many people never stopped believing in him. They gathered at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Northwest Atlanta to say goodbye. One of them was Dr. Peg Ziegler, former director of Grady Memorial Hospital’s Rape Crisis Center, who was at my table. She told me that respectful young cops refer to Arcangeli as “Mr. Integrity.”

In 1997, Arcangeli objected in writing to the police department’s practice of “unfounding” or erasing huge numbers of cases involving the most vulnerable crime victims in Atlanta -- prostitutes, runaways, the homeless -- to make the city appear safer than it was. The practice was deeply cynical because it dropped the cases of poor black people, transients and Mexicans who had been raped, shot, stabbed, robbed or victimized by other crimes.

Arcangeli has gone through hundreds of the unfounded cases. He has never found one that involved a white victim.

Peg Ziegler says the rape victims were targeted twice: first by their rapists, who selected vulnerable victims whom nobody would care about, and then again by cops who never investigated the attacks for the same reasons. Instead, the cases were tossed to make a black administration look good. Because of that, nobody in this politically correct city cared.

Nobody cared, that is, but Lou Arcangeli.

A big man with a broad smile beneath his moustache, Arcangeli is unlike any whistleblower you ever met. Most whistleblowers are far down the food chain. But at the time Arcangeli blew the whistle, he was the city’s No. 2 cop. He was the senior deputy chief and was often acting chief when Harvard went out of town.

He blew the whistle because nobody else had the guts to do it.

He got the guts from Louis Arcangeli Sr., his father, who worked with the military in Huntsville, Ala. The son remembers how his father backed his 1952 Ford into their street to block a neighborhood speeder and tell him not ever to speed around the Arcangeli children again.

Arcangeli’s parents and wife Janet were at the retirement party. So were his nieces and nephews. Arcangeli slyly packed the house with some kids so his fun-loving cop buddies, like emcee J.J. Biello, his best friend, wouldn’t turn the affair into a runaway roast. Still, Biello, a Cherokee County Commissioner who was paralyzed by a bullet while an Atlanta cop in 1987, managed to zing Arcangeli as “the cheapest man God put on earth.”

Lou Arcangeli Jr. started pounding a foot patrolman’s beat in his size 14 shoes in the last days of the counter-culture drug scene on The Strip in Midtown, which was overrun in the early 1970s by Hell’s Angels and Outlaw bikers, latter-day hippies, hookers, pimps and dope dealers. It was a young cop’s paradise, arresting felons every day. He became a narc and grew a beard, and then worked his way up the ladder. He was named a deputy chief by former Chief Eldrin Bell.

Arcangeli realized police were cooking the books in 1996 when a lieutenant brought him a case that was unfounded by a detective even though the victim had been shot in the thigh.

“I was just aghast,” Arcangeli said. He started going through cases and discovered there were 2,244 more crimes reported as “unfounded” in the first 11 months of 1996 than during the same period a year earlier. In January 1997, he wrote Harvard the first of several formal memos, documenting the problem. He ultimately accused the chief and Deputy Chiefs C. B. Jackson and B. J. Rocker of pressuring police to underreport crime and doctor the city’s crime statistics. From that point on, Arcangeli was a pariah. He was demoted in May 1998. A few months later, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation conducted an audit.

The GBI looked only at robberies, rapes and vehicle thefts in 1995-1997. It found a total of 930 cases that should not have been unfounded, including 56 rapes and 498 robberies -- one of every 10 robberies -- in 1996. Essentially, the audit confirmed what Arcangeli had been saying.

But Harvard celebrated the audit as a triumph. “The report clearly vindicates the police department and the city in the face of these clearly irresponsible allegations,” Harvard said. She stressed that the audit did not find any criminal wrongdoing, even though the GBI report said, “It is important to note that this audit is not a criminal investigation.” The media -- with the exception of Jess Scheer at Creative Loafing and the late Leigh Green at WGNX-TV -- bought Harvard’s spin.

Arcangeli told me over coffee one day that the GBI never asked any Atlanta cops why they unfounded the cases. If the question had been asked, he said, the cops would have replied that they were just following orders. A criminal investigation was never conducted. Why? Perhaps it wasn’t politically correct for state officials to investigate the administration of a city so full of potential Democratic votes.

The only person punished was Arcangeli, who lost $30,000 in salary over four years. Some cops even felt free to continue to underreport rape cases. Pennington has launched a probe into 34 rape cases that were allegedly put in the dead case file and never investigated.

Pennington, who was named chief last May, also began to find out some things about Arcangeli. One Sunday, the new chief hopped on his Harley Davidson and rode up I-75 to Red Top Mountain State Park with fellow Harley rider Lee New, a former Atlanta cop who is now Cobb County police chief and who has known Arcangeli since he was a rookie. “I told him the biggest hidden asset within his department was Louis Arcangeli,” New recalls. “I don’t know of anyone who is any smarter than Louis or has any higher integrity. He is just the best I’ve ever seen, professionally speaking. When Louis was demoted, I wasn’t there. But I knew the general opinion throughout the department was that he got a raw deal.”

Pennington, who cleaned up massive corruption in the New Orleans police force, promoted Arcangeli from captain to major and put him in charge of the high-profile Zone 5, which includes downtown Atlanta.

Arcangeli’s promotion was the first step toward rehabilitation. He accepted the new post, but only after telling Pennington he had decided to retire in December. Pennington gave him the new job anyway.

After 29 + years on the force, Arcangeli decided he’d had enough of the politics. He had hung around, stubborn as a mule, because he didn’t want Harvard and Mayor Bill Campbell to run him off simply because he told the ugly truth about a dirty secret. “In the rodeo, you only have to ride the bull for eight seconds,” Arcangeli says. “I had to ride it for over four years.”

The final rehabilitation of Lou Arcangeli came at the retirement party when Richard Pennington walked to the lectern at Holy Spirit Catholic Church, looked at Arcangeli and said, “When I found out he spoke out against injustice and wrongdoing and was ostracized, punished and demoted, I felt this man should never have been treated this way.” Pennington said he regretted that Arcangeli was retiring and had hoped to promote him back to deputy chief.

As Pennington spoke, 140 cops, ex-cops and people who love cops rose to their feet and began applauding because the new chief had the courage to admit what they already knew: Lou Arcangeli was right all along.

Arcangeli calmly walked to the microphone and brought the evening to an end. He led everybody in singing “God Bless America.” He sounded like he meant it.