Former ACCPD officer Taylor Saulters.
With little notice and even less explanation, the Athens-Clarke County Commission voted Mar. 5 to settle a lawsuit filed by former ACC police officer Taylor Saulters for $250,000. Saulters was fired in June after his patrol car hit a fleeing suspect, Timmy Patmon, who was wanted on a probation violation warrant, on Nellie B Avenue.
The vote was 5–2, with commissioners Melissa Link, Allison Wright, Russell Edwards, Ovita Thornton and Mike Hamby voting in favor, and Tim Denson and Patrick Davenport voting against the settlement. Commissioner Mariah Parker abstained, Commissioner Andy Herod was absent, and Commissioner Jerry NeSmith did not vote because he was acting as mayor pro tem while Mayor Kelly Girtz was out sick.
News of the settlement sparked outrage, which spread quickly in the absence of any rationale for the decision. That night, several commissioners told Flagpole they weren’t even sure they could reveal the amount of the settlement.
“We weren’t given good guidance about what we could and could not say,” NeSmith said later.
The following morning, Wright emailed Flagpole a copy of the settlement agreement.
"As challenging as this situation is, the rollout of it did not meet the expectations of the majority of us," Wright said. "I regret that."
On the afternoon of Mar. 6, a promised statement from Girtz arrived. It said the Mayor and Commission wanted to put the incident behind them and move forward with a new Office of Diversity and Inclusion in the county government and new leadership in the police department under Chief Cleveland Spruill.
"Like we have done with past circumstances involving members of the community and members of our Police Department, we evaluated this situation based on its own unique facts and circumstances," Girtz said. "We... have made this decision in order to avoid prolonging the pain and expense of continued litigation, and further place our energy moving forward into ensuring that safe, dignified lives can be lived throughout our community."
As it turned out, ACC had a weak case. Saulters and his attorney, Philip Holloway, alleged that ACC officials had slandered Saulters and caused emotional distress by saying that he had intentionally hit Patmon with his vehicle. An internal affairs report noted that video from Saulters’ dash cam appeared to show him steering into Patmon, and that he told Patmon, “I know what I did.”
Then-police chief Scott Freeman was under enormous pressure to fire Saulters, which he did the day after the incident—before the internal affairs investigation was complete, which wound up bolstering Saulters’ case.
Later, three state investigations—by the Georgia State Patrol, Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council—cleared Saulters. The PAC was called in to decide whether to prosecute Saulters because his mother worked for District Attorney Ken Mauldin, who recused himself. (In addition, Saulters’ father is an ACCPD captain.) It went even further, though, stating that Saulters using his vehicle to apprehend a suspect was “a reasonable use of force,” contradicting the ACCPD internal affairs report, which found the use of force excessive.
In addition, GSP initially said Saulters was at fault and listed aggressive driving as a contributing factor in the wreck. But the GSP’s Specialized Collision Reconstruction Team changed the report to say no one was at fault because Saulters had popped two tires running over a curb trying to cut off Patmon.
“He really had no control over the vehicle because of the two flat tires,” ACC Attorney Bill Berryman said. “I believe that was the rationale.”
Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the settlement vote, a report emerged that Saulters, who was quickly hired by the Oglethorpe County Sheriff’s Office after Freeman fired him, had been accused of hitting another woman with his car while looking for a suspect in Crawford. The Atlanta law firm Monge and Associates sent an ante litem letter—a notice of intent to file a lawsuit—to Oglethorpe County officials on behalf of a Roshanda Lett seeking to settle the claim for $500,000. However, Saulters denied hitting anyone in a written statement, and Sheriff David Gabriel said in a Facebook post that he found no evidence to support the allegation. (Lett could not be reached, and the law firm did not return a call seeking comment.)
Saulters is no longer a full-time deputy, having taken a job as an officer manager, but continues to serve as a reserve deputy for the sheriff's department.
As for Patmon, after spending six weeks in jail, the charges against him were dismissed, and he received a $15,000 settlement from ACC. That settlement was small enough that it could be handled administratively, without a commission vote, according to Berryman.
While all of this struck many people as unfair, even Denson acknowledged that it was a tough decision. “I personally couldn’t support it, but I know why the commissioners who voted [for it] did,” he said.
Link called the decision “torturous.” But she raised the specter of a “nasty, nasty lawsuit” if it had gone to trial. Anyone who had publicly criticized Saulters could have been hauled into court to testify, she said. A trial would have drawn national attention from the news media and right-wing activists. And while a Clarke County jury might not have been sympathetic to Saulters, local judges might have recused themselves, as Mauldin did, because of their relationships with the Saulters family, and a change of venue based on a biased jury pool was a possibility as well. Even if ACC had won, the cost of hiring separate attorneys for each of the four defendants—Freeman, internal affairs investigator Richard Odum, Manager Blaine Williams and former ACCPD spokesman Epifanio Rodriguez—would have exceeded the settlement amount, according to several commissioners.
“We wanted to get it behind us,” NeSmith said. “And we did it for a price that was a lot less than if we had gone to trial [and lost].”
Link was one of those who fueled the fire back in June, saying that Saulters “might as well have pulled his gun and fired it.” Now, she hopes that the entire experience will be a lesson to both the government and the activist community not to jump to conclusions.
“It doesn’t help to retaliate against bad guys if you don’t do it in a way that will hold up in court,” she said. “We have to do it by the book.”