Since Harold Hurst was identified as the officer who shot and killed 19-year-old Michael Moore June 13, the Mobile Police Department has been under enhanced scrutiny and, according to Chief James Barber, the hostile environment is already affecting recruiting.
Barber said the situation has put even more stress on a department that’s already struggled to retain officers due to salary levels that rank among the nation’s lowest. Based on data obtained through the city of Mobile, the total number of officers employed by the MPD has dipped slightly over the past two years from roughly 517 to just over 500.
However, the those numbers don’t paint a full picture of the actual turnover rate. In 2014, 30 officers resigned, three were terminated and 10 retired. Last year those numbers jumped slightly, with 40 resignations, two terminations and 18 officers opting to retire.
Barber said it’s not uncommon for a force the size of MPD to see officers leave for better-paying jobs or positions at other agencies. However, he said he’s alarmed by the changing environment facing law enforcement officers across the country and recently in Mobile.
“In general, this has had a rippling effect across the country, but the biggest impact is always from the one that happens locally,” Barber said. “Last week, we did get a resignation from an officer out of our first precinct who said, ‘I’m done. I can’t police in this kind of environment with the lack of support.’”
The chief said he believes the fallout from ongoing investigations into Moore’s death have had somewhat of a chilling effect on recruitment as well. The MPD typically operates two police academy classes every year, and one is just getting underway.
Barber said 183 people had initially applied for a spot in the upcoming academy class, but when the vetting process began June 20, “114 just outright declined and changed their mind about becoming a policeman.”
“We only had 69 who took the test, and we haven’t even gotten to background checks, physicals and psychological evaluations,” Barber said. “I don’t think everybody realizes the impact this is having.”
Last week, Barber released a letter to all of the MPD’s 500-plus officers saying those “trying to divide” Mobile in the wake of Moore’s death would fail — an allusion to local groups that have expressed distrust in the MPD and others from outside the city that are already calling for Hurst to face charges.
Barber said a majority of the MPD staff has been appreciative of his support. He said he would always support any officers that are “conducting themselves properly and respectfully” in the field.
“But, when they see the chief get criticized for arresting a burglar, what kind of message are we sending?” Barber asked. “The feedback I’ve gotten from these men has been encouraging to me, but it’s basically been, ‘Thank you for the support, and can you please talk to the administration about a pay raise?’”
According to Barber, an increase in compensation for officers is something the department has been recently pursuing. According to a careertrends.com report from 2015, Mobile has the fourth-lowest average salary — $32,000 a year — for police officers in cities where the population exceeds 25,000.
Barber said this has significantly contributed to some of the department’s turnover in recent years, but he also said several high-profile cases of officer-involved shootings have increased the scrutiny of police across the country over the same period of time.
As Barber has mentioned in previous reports, the 2014 incident in Ferguson, Missouri, became somewhat of a watershed moment for policing in the United States and has since prompted preemptive policy changes in departments nationwide and within the MPD as well.
Similar to Moore’s case, that incident involved a black teenager being shot by a white police officer. Barber said if Ferguson had any effect on recruitment here, it was a negative impact on the MPD’s ongoing efforts to diversify the force.
In 2014, Mobile Director of Public Safety Richard Landolt called for more diversity in the hiring within the MPD and Mobile Fire-Rescue Department. Of the MPD’s 699 total employees at the time, 439 were white while just 249 were black — a ratio disproportionate to Mobile’s racial demographics, which are over 50 percent black.
However, he said the ongoing criticism of local police officers isn’t just aimed at white officers.
“If you look at what happened at [the community meeting at New Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church following the shooting], most of the people were just as critical of African-American officers as they are of white officers,” Barber said. “They’re under fire too.”
Despite Barber’s concerns, some in Mobile are actively working to support law enforcement, including local radio host Sean Sullivan of FM Talk 106.5. Sullivan has partnered with ABC Shirts in a fundraiser, selling shirts showing support for the MPD as well as the Mobile County Sheriff’s Department.
Others have been more direct, collecting donations for Hurst himself due to legal expenses he may incur if he’s charged criminally. The Moore family’s attorney has also openly discussed bringing a wrongful death lawsuit against Hurst in civil court, though as of July 5 no litigation had been filed.
On the other side of the aisle, more than 100 people have already signed a petition once again pushing for a Citizens Review Board that would scrutinize use-of-force incidents at the MPD. The same idea was floated by the Mobile City Council in 2014 without success, and was not well received by Barber at the time.
The petition’s sponsor, Timothy Hollis, wrote that “local taxpayers feel that they are being disrespected by some of the actions taken by law enforcement, whether it’s a traffic stop or a court date.”
The petition is directed at Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson, who as of Tuesday, July 5, had yet to comment on it.