The Southern Poverty Law Center is urging the Mobile Police Department to change the way it implements roadblocks, claiming recent safety checkpoints have disproportionately targeted predominantly black neighborhoods and likely violated residents’ constitutional rights.
A once common practice for MPD, roadblocks have been used sparingly since Mayor Sandy Stimpson took office in 2014. However, as a part of the recent Operation City H.E.A.T. — a multi-pronged initiative to stem violent crime — the practice returned last fall.
Most recently, roadblocks or “safety checkpoints” were set up at Michigan Avenue at Duval Street, Azalea Road at Michael Boulevard and in other areas such as the RV Taylor and Village Green communities. In May, those checkpoints led to the arrest of several individuals, including some linked to violent crimes reported in those areas.
While the SPLC does not dispute the department’s authority to implement roadblocks, the organization told MPD in June that the reasoning behind its recent safety checkpoints is “legally problematic” because it focused on specific crimes instead of public safety in general.
“These roadblocks, which targeted low-income, predominantly black neighborhoods, discriminate against people of color by singling them out as a group for criminal activity,” SPLC Associate Legal Director Ebony Howard wrote in a statement. “We understand the goal to prevent crime, but law enforcement must be fairly administered, without infringing on any individual’s constitutionally protected rights.”
In contrast to those claims, MPD has said the location of roadblocks has nothing to do with the racial makeup of an area and everything to do with where crimes are being reported. In June, Chief Lawrence Battiste said MPD evaluates crime reports and trends before establishing a checkpoint, and that some of the areas targeted in May had reported multiple violent crimes.
Still, SPLC claims the individuals arrested and ticketed for traffic violations at those checkpoints were disproportionately African-American. According to MPD, the most recent checkpoints resulted in the arrest of 10 individuals — nine black and one white. The were also 93 tickets issued to passing motorists and 12 vehicles towed from two locations over a two-day period.
While SPLC noted those purported disparities, its main concern has been the reason behind the recent checkpoints, which MPD identified as “promoting public safety and reducing criminal activity” in a press release issued the day they were implemented.
“The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the implementation of checkpoints for the primary purpose of reducing criminal activity,” SPLC’s letter to MPD reads. “Because that is precisely the reason MPD provided to the media for implementing the checkpoints, we believe the [May 24-25] checkpoints likely violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against illegal search and seizure.”
MPD attorney Wanda Rahman has previously rejected claims that the safety checkpoints in Operation City H.E.A.T. violate the Fourth Amendment, telling Lagniappe in June “the operations are legally sound and carried out with great thought and precision.”
Yet, while he believes the department is operating within the law, even Public Safety Director James Barber recently said he is “fundamentally opposed to roadblocks,” though he would never take the tactic completely off the table.
“You have to weigh the inconvenience to the public with the productivity of the roadblock, and in my experience, it has always tended to inconvenience the public more,” Barber said. “That’s why we really haven’t used them except in certain situations, because it pulls resources away from other police operations.”
According to Barber, his approach is in stark contrast to that of his predecessor and former Mayor Sam Jones. Barber said MPD wrote “thousands of tickets” at roadblocks set up as part of the Jones administration’s “Operation Impact” — something he recently said ended “with a lot of pissed off people.”
However, Jones — who is challenging Stimpson to a rematch in the Aug. 22 mayoral election — recently defended his use of roadblocks during a July 20 roundtable discussion broadcast live on his campaign’s Facebook page.
In the video, Jones’ comments were similar to Battiste’s, saying roadblocks were implemented when there were high numbers of “murders” and “shootings” or “a lot of drug traffic” in a certain area — telling the roundtable that “checkpoints kind of calmed some of that for a while.”
“It got to the point where we confiscated a lot of guns, confiscated a lot of drugs. We think, stopped a lot of killing as a result of that,” Jones added. “Public safety is not always convenient. That’s why they have TSA in the airport. When it gets out of hand, and when people are at risk, then we have the responsibility to do something to try to limit that risk.”
However, Jones did say there was never an idea that safety checkpoints would be “a form of law enforcement that was to continue forever,” and also claimed the location of roadblocks during his time as mayor were more evenly distributed throughout different areas of the city.
“The police chief, when I was there, was required to have them everywhere — we were on University Boulevard, we were on St. Stephen’s Road,” Jones said. “What you find is that the same thing happens all over the city. In some areas you’ll find more violations of things like firearms and drugs than others, but there are violations all over the city.”
According to Barber, MPD hasn’t issued any kind of a response to SPLC because roadblocks aren’t actively being used except in certain circumstances. However, no matter who ends up in the mayor’s office after the election next month, SPLC’s letter seems to indicate the group will be keeping tabs on how and why MPD utilizes roadblocks going forward.
“Our hope is that by reaching out to you, we are able to work with you to ensure that you can fulfill your law enforcement duties while simultaneously respecting the constitutional rights of all individuals,” the letter concludes. “However, if you choose to continue with the aforementioned tactics, we will consider further action against your department.”