Metro police chief dodges questions about her cop’s domestic violence case
Parts one and two of ‘Shielded’ uncovers a case where a metro Atlanta police officer involved in an alleged domestic dispute was treated much differently than similar suspects.
ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - Body camera recordings deleted. Warrants difficult to find. The only vacated family violence arrest by the city’s chief judge in a decade.
All of that and more happened after Union City officers were called to the home of one of their own lieutenants.
Are police officers given special treatment when they are suspects in family violence incidents? After months of research, investigations and interviews, “Shielded” is a four-part series by Atlanta News First Chief Investigative Reporter Brendan Keefe that uncovers cases where an officer in an alleged domestic dispute was treated much differently than similar suspects. When cops are arrested for domestic violence, data shows they rarely get convicted. Many keep their jobs. About half keep their law enforcement certifications – and their guns. We also look at two cases in which officers who were given their guns back killed their wives with those same guns. This series provides resources and other help for not only police and their families, but anyone who might be experiencing domestic violence.
Atlanta News First Investigates fought for seven months to uncover and access public records in the 2019 case which was resolved under unusual circumstances.
‘He pulled a knife on us and started coming at us’
The 911 call came in at 1:24 a.m. on July 5, 2019. At first, dispatchers heard only screaming, crying and banging, according to the Fulton County 911 recording. Then the phone went dead.
Dispatchers called back and a young man answered.
“My father, he got drunk, and he got belligerent,” the young man told 911. “He grabbed a knife and we ran into the back room. He’s standing outside the door and we’re holding it back. But we need somebody to come ASAP because I don’t know what he may do.”
A loud banging sound could be heard in the background.
Two Union City patrol officers were dispatched to the scene, but the response would change once the suspect’s identity was revealed.
“His name is Melvin Echols and he’s … a police officer with Union City,” the son added.
He wasn’t just a police officer. He was Lt. Melvin Echols, the department’s chief of staff.
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The two patrol officers were “canceled” from the call because of “the fact that Melvin Echols was in a command position at the Union City Police Department,” according to the incident report.
Instead, another lieutenant took over the response, backed up by a sergeant.
While police were on their way to the family’s apartment, Echols’ wife kept speaking to dispatchers from behind a locked bedroom door with her adult son and three-year-old daughter. “He pulled a knife on us and started coming at us,” Echols’ wife told 911. “The three of us ran to the back bedroom. We barricaded ourselves in.
“He’s swearing that we can open the door. But I can’t. I can’t open the door because he pulled a butcher knife — two knives — out of our butcher block,” she said, adding she hid her husband’s duty weapon.
She then handed the phone to her son after saying, “I need to call chief.” In the 911 recording’s background, the lieutenant’s wife can be heard leaving a 90-second voicemail message for Union City Police Chief Cassandra Jones.
No arrest that night
In his own report, Lt. Barry Walker wrote he “was hesitant to open the door for fear of a possible ambush.” When he did enter the apartment, Walker found Echols walking to the living room sofa where he sat down and put his hands in the air.
“Melvin Echols states he got into an argument with his son and that he told [him] he was going to f—k him up,” Walker wrote.
Walker went to the back bedroom to check on the family still locked inside. “Do you have Melvin?,” the wife asked from behind the door. Walker made sure they were safe, then went back to the living room to speak with Echols.
“Where’s the knife at, man? Did you have a knife?,” Walker asked his fellow lieutenant, according to police records. Echols responded, gesturing toward the kitchen, and said, “I went towards the knife, yes.”
The incident report shows Echols said he would “f—k up’ his son and that he went toward a knife “several times.”
Walker responded by asking Echols to go to a hotel for the night but “Echols refused stating he did not have the money,” according to the police report.
Walker offered to pay for the hotel room. Echols still refused to leave, according to police records. Walker then asked Echols’ wife if she wanted to leave instead. She said yes.
Before his family left the apartment, Echols started arguing again with his wife. “You and [our son] f—d up. Y’all really did,” Echols said to his wife, according to police records. “Now I’ve gotta answer the chief about this stupid sh-t that y’all just went through for no motherf—ng reason.”
Echols then went to the bedroom closet to hand over his patrol rifle and police shotgun. Officers on the scene allowed the suspect to retrieve his own weapons.
Walker put the weapons in his police cruiser outside. He then called his captain to the scene, telling another officer, “This sh-t is over my pay grade.”
Back inside, Echols was arguing about keeping his three-year-old daughter with him instead of her going to the hotel. He held her in his arms during the argument. “I can’t leave my baby here with him,” Echols’ wife told police.
Echols yelled back, “No. No. I know the law! I know the law.”
“You’re dragging this sh-t out,” Echols’ wife said, according to police records. He yelled back, “No, you’re dragging it out!”
The sergeant on scene took Echols’ wife, adult son and three-year-old daughter to a hotel, leaving the two lieutenants — one a suspect, the other the scene commander — alone in the apartment.
Walker repeatedly tried to calm his colleague down. While waiting for the captain to arrive, Walker and Echols sat down to watch an episode of “Stranger Things” on Netflix.
When Capt. Gloria Hodgson arrived, she had a conversation with Echols. Then Hodgson and Walker left the apartment. No one was arrested that night.
Walker’s incident report ended with, “A copy of this report was forwarded to criminal investigations division for further investigation.”
Lt. Cliff McClure with the city’s detective unit took over the case that morning and immediately began investigating his own chief of staff.
Echols’ wife and son had both signed statements they did not want to press charges, but under Georgia law, their cooperation was not necessary for possible charges to be filed. The domestic violence model policy suggested by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) tells officers not to “Avoid taking action because the victim stated prosecution was not desired.”
Cases of domestic violence are common enough in law enforcement the IACP offers guidance for handling cases where the primary aggressor is a police officer to ensure they’re treated the same as any other suspect.
McClure pulled the 911 call from Fulton County dispatch. According to a whistleblower complaint later filed by McClure’s supervisor, Capt. Mike Jones, the police chief “refused to listen to the 911 recordings.”
He added in his March 2021 complaint, “Chief Jones even went so far as to question why the 911 recording was retrieved during an investigation of domestic violence. Lt. McClure the lieutenant in question refuted, ‘once we have the evidence, we cannot act as if doesn’t exist.’”
Capt. Jones and McClure interviewed Echols and recorded the interview on video. “Echols denied getting a butcher knife from the kitchen,” according to the case file.
That same day, they went to Union City Chief Judge Ronald Freeman to swear out arrest warrants.
Echols was arrested for aggravated assault-family violence, terroristic threats and cruelty to children. He was placed on unpaid administrative leave, according to city records.
Five months after Echols’ arrest, Freeman signed a vacating order, “sua sponte,” meaning on his own without any motion from either side.
The Fulton County District Attorney has up to four years to indict for felonies. In this case, Echols was never formally charged in the months between his arrest and the city’s chief judge’s decision to vacate the warrants.
In the December 2019 vacating order, Freeman wrote, “The Court has learned additional information and believes in the interest of justice and fair play, that said warrants should be vacated.”
Echols was immediately welcomed back to the force as a lieutenant. There was no internal affairs investigation.
Atlanta News First Investigates requested an interview with Freeman to learn why he vacated Echols’ arrest warrants. He replied he would not do an on-camera interview unless written questions were provided in advance. Atlanta News First Investigates does not conduct interviews with preconditions.
Instead, Freeman provided a written statement in which he wrote, in part, “One of the officers represented that the police chief of Union City told the officers to present the applications to me, and he further represented that the Chief spoke to the victims prior to the submittal of the applications for arrest warrants.
“Later I discovered that certain facts presented to me, for purposes of the issuance of the warrant were untrue,” Freeman wrote. “When false facts, in any form, are presented for purposes of obtaining a warrant this prejudices the criminal justice process and must be addressed to maintain the confidence of the public in court related matters.”
Freeman said he vacated the warrants “after raising the issue with the police chief.” He wrote “perjury or contempt charges were available against the officers, however I did not want to further prejudice the underlying process by the antics of one of the officers.”
‘The chief later apologized for the misunderstanding’
An outside attorney was hired by Union City to investigate Capt. Mike Jones’ 2021 whistleblower complaint.
In his report, which did not sustain Capt. Jones’ grievance on several issues, attorney Theodore Meeker wrote, “The circumstances surrounding the arrest [of Lt. Echols] and later dismissal of those charges were somewhat troubling.”
Meeker told the city manager, “the chief indicated that she felt that [she] had been lied to about which judge had signed the warrants.” However, the arrest warrant had been signed by one only judge, Freeman.
“Lt. McClure had told the chief that he and Capt. Jones had traveled to East Point to have the warrants signed. The chief did not recall that Judge Freeman was also a judge in East Point,” Meeker determined.
“The chief later apologized for the misunderstanding,” Meeker added.
In April 2023, Atlanta News First Investigates again reached out to Freeman asking for a response to this newly uncovered information. Copies of Capt. Jones’ complaint and the outside attorney’s report was sent to him.
Freeman responded in May, writing, “I stand by my decision which allowed an independent body to investigate and ascertain whether charges should be brought.”
Body cams deleted
In September 2020, Atlanta News First Investigates requested the complete investigative file and all videos related to the case.
Union City Police Department’s retention policy mirrors the state’s minimum requirement for body-worn camera recordings: 30 months for videos that are part of a criminal investigation, arrest or use of force. All other videos are kept for a minimum of 180 days.
The four police body camera videos recorded the night of the incident at Echols’ home were automatically queued for deletion by the system last summer, according to an audit trail obtained through open records.
The Union City Police Department initially said it didn’t know how to retrieve body-cam audit trails. Atlanta News First Investigates sent them the Axon Body Camera and evidence.com operations manual with the section showing them how to pull an audit trail.
The evidence.com system notifies the administrator a week in advance that a video will be automatically deleted. That gives police time to delay or cancel a deletion.
No one stopped the deletion, according to the audit trail. All four body-worn camera recordings were permanently deleted on July 11, 2022.
Georgia’s statute of limitations for most felonies is four years. The body cams were deleted a full year before that, legal under Georgia law.
Many other departments, like Atlanta Police, keep videos of suspected officer misconduct indefinitely.
The audit trail showed something else: the detective unit had downloaded a copy of all four recordings before they were deleted. The investigative file obtained through an open records request shows McClure attached those copies.
“Copies of the BWC videos are attached to this case file for reference,” McClure wrote in July 2019.
The city’s retention policy adds a layer of protection for videos involved in criminal cases. It reads, “the security settings will not allow the previously recorded video to be overwritten or erased” once uploaded to the department’s intranet for a criminal case.
Atlanta News First Investigates asked Union City for those copies and video of the detectives’ interview with Echols. Hodgson responded the department had given us, “all the documents that we have,” and added, “The interview that you have requested cannot be located at this time.”
Atlanta News First Investigates asked to interview Chief Jones multiple times. She replied with “no comment” both in writing and in a voicemail. In response to one email sent last December, Chief Jones wrote, “I absolutely didn’t intervene in Lt. Echols case.”
Despite the 911 recording on which Echols wife can be heard leaving a minute-and-a-half voicemail for the police chief, Chief Jones wrote, “I NEVER received any calls.”
Atlanta News First Investigates approached Chief Jones with a camera outside an April 2023 city council meeting, seeking more answers. In response to questions about the deleted body camera footage, including from the investigative file, Chief Jones had no answer.
When asked, “How can your department arrest anyone for domestic violence in this city when members of your own command staff get a pass?,” Chief Jones hesitated before answering, “I’m not going to comment on any information you may have because, I don’t, furthermore, I don’t…believe it’s not correct. But I’m not going to say anything else.”
Chief Jones was then informed that Atlanta News First Investigates had obtained copies of the deleted body camera recordings.
A third copy of the body cams
There was another entry in the audit trail for the deleted body camera videos. The Fulton County District Attorney’s Office had downloaded its own copy in May 2021, nearly two years after the incident and long after the arrest warrants had been vacated.
The download was initiated by Amanda Bear, at the time working as an investigator assigned to the district attorney’s Anti-Corruption Unit.
In response to an open records request for those copies last fall, the Fulton DA’s Office initially responded the videos could not be released, citing an exception to the Georgia Open Records Act that only applies only to investigations that have not been closed. The DA’s office would not tell us which agency was investigating or why.
Atlanta News First Investigates refiled its request in early January, providing the DA information that we had learned the case was, in fact, closed.
The DA responded with a download link for all four body-worn camera videos.
The Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council (POST) issued a public reprimand against Echols in 2020 over the incident, which provided Atlanta News First Investigates with the initial evidence that arrest had indeed been issued for him.
POST put Echols’ police certification on 36 months’ probation. “Officer must attend Anger Management course at own expense,” the agency said. POST also required that the “officer must attend a course for persons accused of Domestic Violence.” The POST file was one of the first records Atlanta News First Investigates reviewed, and they showed both the arrest warrants and the vacating order, along with the precise dates, they were signed by Freeman.
The Fulton County Clerk of Superior Court’s office has no records of either Echols’ arrest warrants or Freeman’s vacating order
Atlanta News First Investigates filed a formal records request for the warrants and vacating order with the Union City clerk’s office. The city clerk forwarded that request to the Union City Municipal Court’s administrator, who responded in writing, “No defendant with this name exist [sic] in the Union City records.”
When asked what happened to the warrants, Freeman provided written information that included his vacating order and wrote, “A copy of the Order Vacating the Warrants is on file in the Union City Clerk’s Office.”
Atlanta News First Investigates also filed another records request for all family violence warrants vacated by Freeman over a 10-year period. The municipal court administrator responded: “This Court has no record of any order(s) vacated for arrest warrant(s) of Family Violence issued by Judge Freeman from March 1, 2013 through the present day. This Court has no record of any order vacating arrest warrants for Melvin Echols.”
‘Walker faced no consequences. McClure and I were degraded.’
Capt. Jones’ grievance filed with the city manager in 2021 made claims of “retaliation and retribution” following the Echols investigation. “Chief Jones called me and this lieutenant liars,” Capt. Jones wrote.
McClure was reassigned from the detective unit to morning patrol after the Echols investigation, according to city records.
The city’s outside attorney found, “of the officers involved in the Echols arrest, each has either been reassigned or had a later issue with the chief. Both Captain Jones and Lt. McClure were reassigned.”
Capt. Jones would not last long in his new assignment; he resigned after more than 21 years with the Union City Police Department. The resignation was spelled out in a confidential agreement signed by Jones and the city. Atlanta News First obtained a copy, as confidential settlements signed by a public agency are still subject to the Georgia Open Records Act.
The separation agreement includes a non-disclosure clause and a requirement that Mike Jones not “publish any statement or make any statement (under circumstances likely to become public or that he might reasonably expect to become public) critical of [Union City]” or its leaders.
Walker, the scene commander who did not arrest Echols the night of the family violence call, has since been promoted to captain. Initially, he agreed to an interview with Atlanta News First Investigates but did not respond to multiple follow-up messages to schedule it.
Walker was approached with more questions by Atlanta News First Investigates outside a city council meeting last December. “Read the report, and there was also a supervisor responding to the scene,” he said. “You may want to talk to her.”
Hodgson declined requests for an interview, but responded in writing she did not order Walker not to arrest Echols.
Echols did not respond to multiple interview requests from Atlanta News First Investigates. Echols’ wife told Atlanta News First Investigates she did want a story on this incident published.
Interviews were also also requested with other Union City officials. Mayor Vince Williams and City Manager Sonja Fillingame did not respond. McClure is still with the department. He responded city policy does not allow him to speak to the news media without authorization.
“Shielded” is a four-part series by Brendan Keefe, Atlanta News First Chief Investigator, on how police officers are often given special treatment when they are suspects in family violence investigations. This series also provides resources for not only police and their families, but everyone who might be experiencing these terrible experiences on their own.
If there’s something you would like Atlanta News First Chief Investigator Brendan Keefe to look into, email him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
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