ROSWELL, Ga. – Police officers in this Atlanta suburb did not know how to handle a 13-year-old boy they found driving a possibly-stolen golf cart down a major street just after midnight.
The young teen had told them several conflicting stories, and they quickly suspected he was ‘Code 24’ – Roswell police shorthand for "emotionally disturbed."
The incident began in the early morning hours of Jan. 2, when the weather almanac showed the temperature was around 17 degrees, headed down to a low of 12. It would end with the boy finally telling the truth, but only after he was left to freeze while handcuffed in the back of a patrol car with the windows down.
The Fulton County District Attorney is now investigating the entire incident as a criminal case as a direct result of the 11Alive investigation. The supervisor, Sgt. Daniel Elzey, was placed on administrative leave but only after we asked to see police body camera footage of the incident seven months later.
Police Chief Rusty Grant handed Sgt. Elzey an internal award as the Roswell Police Supervisor of the Year on April 26. The award was for 2017, but the internal awards committee made its decision in late January, just weeks after the incident for which the department’s top sergeant is now under criminal investigation.
Sergeant gets 'supervisor of the year' after teen abuse case
Roswell police took more than three weeks to get us any of the videos. We demanded copies of police incident report and body cameras under the Georgia Open Records Act on July 2. We didn’t receive the police report until July 23, and the first video was released to us on July 24. Internal audit records obtained by The 11Alive Investigators show police commanders watched the body camera recordings several times before handing them over to us. We now know that an internal investigation was launched during that delay.
The same internal audit records we obtained show that Sgt. Elzey’s supervisor, Lt. Bernie Holland, watched the videos more than a dozen times last January, beginning the day of the incident and continuing over the next eight days.
On the videos, Sgt. Elzey can be seen getting into another officer’s patrol car. While the 13-year-old boy was handcuffed in the back seat, Sgt. Elzey put the cruiser’s windows down and turned off the heat, according to the description by Officer Cheryl Dickerson on her body camera.
“He’s freezing him out,” Officer Dickerson told another officer who asked if it was cold in her police car.
She answered, “yeah, it’s freezing in there."
"Well, he’s got all the windows rolled down and the heat off,” Officer Dickerson said.
Sgt. Elzy could be heard describing his rationale to Officer Dickerson.
“He’s not going to say anything if back there in the back seat and it’s warm,” Elzey said. “So he can sit over there and be cold.
"That’s why I rolled your windows down,” the sergeant added.
The other officer replied, “OK”.
Later in the incident, Officer Dickerson announced that she was going to mute her body camera, right before cutting the mic. The video continued to record silently.
During that silent video, another sergeant, Greg Fryson, could be seen walking Sgt. Elzey into a nearby parking lot to have a discussion. Their most recent annual performance reviews confirm that Sgt. Fryson, the only African American on scene other than the 13-year-old suspect, “recognized that a friend and a peer had made a very poor decision.”
Sgt. Fryson was credited with “confronting/correcting a peer and a friend,” demonstrating a “commitment to integrity, professionalism, our department, and our community.”
Even though the same supervisor wrote that Sgt. Fryson “brought honor to the badge” by stopping the alleged abuse of the boy, he was given a much lower overall score than the sergeant who was caught making that “poor decision.”
Sgt. Elzey’s annual review, which was initially withheld from our records request without explanation, shows he got higher scores than Sgt. Fryson and supervisors gave Elzey higher scores than he got the year before the incident.
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Sgt. Elzey’s annual review makes reference to the freezing incident without offering details.
“During this evaluation period, Sergeant Elzey was verbally counseled regarding a poor decision that was not in line with department values,” supervisors wrote. “Sergeant Elzey accepted responsibility for his decision, and was clearly disappointed in himself.”
Sgt. Elzey’s overall performance was rated 4.59 out of five in the annual review after the incident. Sgt. Fryson was given 3.80 out of five.
There is no record of any punishment of Sgt. Elzey for the January incident. Instead, he was given Supervisor of The Year after that incident. Records show no one recommended him for the award. Instead, the police department awards committee met on Jan. 30 and chose him from the quarterly winners in 2017, public records show.
On the body camera recordings, the future Supervisor of the Year can be heard trying to get information from the freezing 13-year-old suspect, trading heat for answers.
“Getting cold yet in there?” he asked the boy through the open cruiser window. “You can take it?"
"Cool. So can I,” the sergeant said replying to one of the boy’s responses which cannot be heard on Dickerson’s body camera as the boy sits in the back of the police car.
“Yeah, I can see your breath. It’s pretty cold back there,” Sgt. Elzey said before getting an inaudible answer.
“Keep telling me,” he said to the boy.
Unsatisfied with the answers, the sergeant responds again to the young teen.
“You’re gonna hang tight right here -- since you can’t remember mom’s phone number," Elzey said. "And, if I make contact with mom, then we’ll get some heat going. Alright?”
Police stopped freezing the boy to get him to tell the truth only after Sgt. Fryson intervened. Officers apparently got the answers they were looking for because they took the 13-year-old home to his mother with no charges.
The 11Alive Investigators sent an email to Chief Grant on Aug. 7 with a single question: “When did you first become aware of the January 2, 2018 incident (RPD Case #1801-0000031)?”
We also demanded copies of memos that would prove what the chief and command staff knew and when they knew it. Chief Grant asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to launch a criminal investigation into the January incident the very next day, Aug. 8.
The GBI told us the agency declined to investigate the seven-month-old case and suggested that the Fulton County District Attorney take up the investigation since all the evidence was captured on video. The district attorney’s office told us that it began its investigation around that time.
An internal source told us a police officer not involved with the case blew the whistle and reported the January incident as a possible crime in late March. The police department’s internal affairs unit was given a written memo around that time, according to the same internal source. The 11Alive Investigators were also told the internal affairs captain notified the chief around that same time. That’s why we asked for the memos under the Open Records Act.
Roswell City Attorney David Davidson has not claimed the internal memos don’t exist, rather he has refused to release the memos because of the open criminal investigation – an investigation launched only after we asked for the videos and the memos.
So we went directly to the police chief and asked him face-to-face as he walked from police headquarters to city hall. Here’s part of that confrontation:
Brendan Keefe: “When did you first learn about the intentional freezing of a 13-year-old boy?”
Chief Grant: (four seconds of silence) “Brendan, I’ve told you that the investigation’s - that incident is being investigated, and I’ll get back to you when that investigation’s complete.”
Brendan Keefe: “With respect, sir, there was no investigation for seven months, until we asked for the video, correct?”
Chief Grant: “The investigation’s ongoing at this point.”
Brendan Keefe: “There was no investigation until we asked for the video, correct, of any kind?”
Chief Grant: “I’m not - there was an investigation. Beyond that, I’m not going to comment on that.”
Remember, the police chief personally handed Sgt. Elzey the Supervisor of The Year plaque on April 26, months after the freezing incident and months before it would become a criminal investigation.
Brendan Keefe: “Are you under investigation?”
Chief Grant: “No, I’m not under investigation.”
Brendan Keefe: “If you’re not under investigation, when you learned of this should be immaterial.”
Chief Grant: “The incident’s under investigation.”
Also, remember that the city refused to release memos that would show what the chief knew about the case before our investigation. 11Alive hired an attorney and we are considering legal action against Roswell to compel release of the records.
Brendan Keefe: “You handed Sgt. Elzey Supervisor of the Year in April. Did you know before that? It’s a simple yes or no question. Did you know before you handed Sgt. Elzey Supervisor of the Year?”
Chief Grant: “I wasn’t aware of all of the circumstances surrounding the incident.”
Brendan Keefe: “But you knew of the incident?”
Chief Grant: “I was aware of an incident, but with all the specifics of the incident, I was not aware of all the specific information of the incident.
Police Chief Rusty Grant admitted on camera that he was indeed aware of the incident, even if he was unaware of some unspecified details. The video audit records we obtained from the city show Chief Grant and other top supervisors did not view the videos before we asked for copies in July. The last supervisor to see the video before July was Lt. Holland.
Sgt. Daniel Elzey remains on administrative leave pending the outcome of the department’s internal investigation which is on hold while the district attorney explores the criminal case.
Meanwhile, Roswell City Council just approved spending $77,000 of taxpayer money for an outside review to find out what’s wrong with the department and to have consultants recommend changes.
The “top to bottom” review was commissioned after four major investigations by the 11Alive Investigators, including the arrest of a driver on the flip of a coin; the muting of police body cameras during the suspected DUI of an off-duty officer; a police K9 attack of a 17 year old suspect against the commands of the dog handler; and the case where the 13-year-old was kept cold to get him to tell the truth.