By Rhonda E. Frost
In honor of Labor Day 2023, I share my employment story.
September 10, 2023, will mark the end of my time as Deputy Director of Public Affairs with the Atlanta Police Department (APD). I enjoyed three remarkable years in this position and was mentally set to stay until I retired. I loved my job and I was good at it. But in the fall of 2022, things changed in subtle yet obvious ways, and then on November 30th, 2022, there was a seismic and abrupt change wherein, I was ordered out of my office “effective immediately”, locked out without written notice or valid explanation, and stripped of access to the public safety headquarters building where I reported to work each day. As a 59-year-old career professional, I could not comprehend what was happening.
In the blink of an eye, I was isolated, exiled, and no longer part of the team. I sent a flurry of emails to APD leadership, City of Atlanta HR, the mayor’s office, and members of the public affairs team informing them I was locked out and asking why. No one answered my email. I was confused and afraid. I felt helpless and lost. I have always been clear on the history of the police and what they have the power to do. I did not know what to expect next. It was clear this situation was sanctioned and there were no rules to protect me.
That day and the subsequent 8 months of being banished from my office without an update or information, coupled with the deafening silence of those who should have intervened, will forever be seared in my brain as a diabolical, surreal, employment nightmare.
Turns out, the targeted and unlawful treatment I endured over these long months, had nothing to do with any wrongdoing on my part, but everything to do with the power of my adult daughter’s Instagram account, and her audacity to publicly analyze the crime scene video footage and question APD’s handling of a homicide case that occurred in the summer of 2022. If I had not read the investigative report (which I obtained through an open record request a few weeks ago), no one could have convinced me this could be real.
I would be doing a disservice to myself and anyone considering employment with the City of Atlanta/Atlanta Police Department Public Affairs Unit if I did not share this story. Zora Neale Hurston said, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” I tell my story to express my pain and disillusionment and to expose the unjust, professionally damaging, and hurtful series of acts I endured. I also speak out because I’ve had two interviews in the past 10 days and it is clear to me that I am suffering continued defamation and slander and/or fallout from the APD experience. I want potential employers and other interested parties to hear what happened. What I write about in this piece can be validated in an investigative report, emails, and or video clips.
Until a year ago, no one could have convinced me this department, this police chief, this director, and their cohorts were capable of this level of conspiracy, defamation, silence, retaliation, and false narratives. I believed they were better than this. I was wrong.
Before I go any further into this inexplicable experience at APD, let me give Carlos Campos (former Director of Public Affairs), his flowers. He not only hired me in August of 2019, but he promoted me weeks later into my current position and doubled my salary. He made sure I was paid commensurate with my experience and skills. He believed in me, trusted me with the opportunity, and helped to refine my journalism and writing skills to adapt to the police environment. I admired his writing style and the effortless way he blended policing, media, and journalism. We had our moments, but we shared a mutual respect for what we both brought to the table, which helped us get through challenges. I will forever be grateful to him.
I enjoyed almost every single day working with the team I was fortunate to supervise and collaborate with. Whether it was writing feel-good stories to show the heroism and kindness of employees, writing talking points, crafting newsworthy safety and crime messaging for social media, coordinating large annual events, scheduling and conducting interviews or reaching out to celebrity athletes to help crime victims, I understood the assignment. I was successful not just because of my talent but because I had skilled and dedicated people on the team who had the same goal, that being to make the department shine and show the “other side” of policing.
There are some amazing human beings out there who put their lives on the line to keep the streets of Atlanta safe, and who go the extra mile to help in their community. I did my best to highlight them. My performance evaluations are a testament to my work ethic.
“All power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Lord Acton
Lord Acton knew then what we all know now, if power is unchecked, and if there is no accountability, those who have the power will run amok. Those involved in stripping my access to my workplace (or authorizing it), turning a blind eye to the lies, failing to intervene, and placing me on leave under the guise of some flimsy complaint of “rudeness”(which came about after my complaint on director), concocting false narratives to keep me locked out, and later showing up at my home to strip me of my work laptop, cell and ID card, while informing me my position was eliminated, are the epitome of corrupt use of power. These actions were “gangster” as we say in my old neighborhood. I guess this is what is meant when some say, “police are nothing more than a gang in uniform.” In this case, it is the chief of police holding the top position. He had every opportunity to get it right, to intervene, fact-check, and do something positive to turn this around, but he chose to try and make an example out of me. Our response to him is public.
This experience had glimpses of Frank Serpico-esque treatment all over it but from a civilian perspective. As this other video my daughter recorded while talking to a police officer seems to confirm, it is indeed us vs. them.
Never in my expansive career both as a civilian and a sworn person would I have believed this could happen to any employee, much less to me, the employee with outstanding performance evaluations, the one who shows up to work while battling a life-threatening infection with an IV still in arm, to stay on deadline for work projects, the one with hundreds of sick leave and vacation hours on the books, the one who wrote viral good news stories to show the public the “other side” of police and the one who helped this agency shine with meticulously put together award events, heartfelt interviews, and polished annual reports. I took pride in what I did and what I accomplished and yet, none of that mattered.
The stage was set. The false narrative was in place. Egos were bruised. I had to go by any means necessary. I was no longer “one of them”. Apparently, there was some truth in my daughter’s video analysis of the crime scene or there would be no need to take it personally. Just an assumption on my part. Perhaps they do not realize that people criticize the police daily, and there’s a strong likelihood that almost every African-American employee in the Department probably has a family member who is not fond of the police for one reason or another. But I digress.
This was not about me, per se. I am just the “fall guy” as they say. This was a power move, a level of intimidation to send a message that scrutinizing the actions of the Department is not allowed. And if you have family members or friends who do so, especially if they bring media attention to possible wrongdoing or real/perceived injustice, you can and will be subject to the king’s wrath.
The investigative report I obtained exposed the APD and cleared me of any wrongdoing. It also reminded me of just how dangerous these types of cultures can be when they have an agenda to get you. Who will stand up to a police chief? Usually no one. Quite frankly that is terrifying.
I was naive to think that APD leadership was different than other police agencies. I regret spending the last few years trying to convince my family, friends, and others that APD is about doing the “right thing”, and that they stand for fairness and full transparency.
No matter where you work, checks and balances must be in place. The tone about right and wrong, legal and illegal, justice and fairness, policy adherence, proper accountability, honesty, ethics, and overall treatment of people is set by those appointed and/or hired to lead. The actions of those in charge will always trump their well-rehearsed talking points and politically correct statements regurgitated at press conferences.
The leadership at APD failed me. I was thrown to the wolves without violating even one policy or work rule. How does one explain this to a new potential employer without sounding suspect? How do I answer why I cannot use my current supervisor or anyone at APD as a reference despite my solid employment history there?
I surmise, that new employees to the APD Public Affairs Unit, the City of Atlanta, or the Atlanta Police Department have nothing to worry about as long as their family members never publicly criticize any APD actions, and as long as they are OK with working in a hostile work environment, good with open disrespect by subordinate staff, fine with problems being ignored by those who are supposed to supervise, manage and intercede, and Ok with the possibility of being locked out of their workplace on a whim.
As the HR Commissioner said to me on June 6, 2023, before she too went ghost, “What happened to you should not have happened, and I apologize on behalf of the City of Atlanta.” It would have been nice if that meant something. She was right though. What happened to me should not have happened. And no employee should ever fear reprisals for speaking out against the actions of a police agency or for their family member expressing their First Amendment rights.