A citizens’ review board for the Mobile Police Department could either be an extra layer of government bureaucracy or a needed vehicle to allow citizen involvement in law enforcement, depending on who spoke at Thursday’s public hearing on the subject.
Fewer than 20 residents and police officers spoke at that hearing, which was called by Mobile City Council’s public safety committee to discuss the merits of a police citizens community relations advisory council.
The committee made no recommendation, but Chairwoman Bess Rich announced a second meeting would be held Tuesday, Aug. 2 at 3:30 p.m. for further discussion. Rich said the second meeting would contain no public input and a full council vote could be expected as early as Aug. 9.
The idea of a citizens’ review board was first entertained by the council back in 2014, but the recent shooting death of 19-year-old Michael Moore by MPD officer Harold Hurst has re-energized debate around the issue.
Among Thursday’s speakers were two Mobile police officers, Adam Austin and John C. Young, who both spoke in opposition to the committee.
Young said no systematic racism existed within the police department because such a system would not be tolerated by Chief James Barber or Assistant Chief Lawrence Batiste, and he characterized the calls for the board’s creation as an overreaction to what is perceived in the nation.
According to Young, the board would also be redundant, as Barber already enlists the help of community leaders in his policing efforts and has established a citizens’ panel of his own.
Councilman C.J. Small, who co-sponsored the ordinance along with councilmen Levon Manzie and Fred Richardson, said it’s impossible for Young to claim there is no racism in the organization because, like on Halloween, everybody wears masks.
“You don’t know what’s behind the mask,” he said.
Others in favor of the move said it would give citizens a voice in policing.
“It gives us an opportunity for a better city,” Plateau resident Daryl Pogue said. “It provides an opportunity to offer accountability. It’s not a good thing to be against progress and this represents progress.”
Levi Sims, of Louise Drive North, said he can see both sides of the debate. From the police perspective, officers may be reluctant to have a “watchful eye” over them, which may hinder their performance and decision making. On the community side, one negative would be picking people who might join such a panel for the wrong reasons.
“The pros outweigh the cons,” he told councilors. “I’m all for the committee, as long as you find reputable people for it.”
The council presented a map and a spreadsheet listing some 73 cities across the country where some form of a police citizen review board is present. In Alabama those cities include Huntsville and Birmingham.
Old Shell Road resident John Weichman said that while Mobile isn’t on the list, neither are thousands of other cities. He said the committee would have a negative impact on MPD’s communications and on how officers perform their jobs.
“The citizens’ committee has no basis for being justified,” he said.
In addition, Weichman argued Michael Moore’s case already has enough layers of review from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the MPD, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Mobile County District Attorney’s office. Instead of another layer of review, Weichman called on the council to support officers with better pay and equipment.
Mayor Sandy Stimpson has come out in favor of the proposal, but only under certain conditions. For instance, he wants seven appointments of his own to the board, in addition to the council’s seven appointments.
He has said he would like the committee to sunset after Jan. 1, 2021 and also wants every member to participate in the citizens’ police academy, as well as quarterly ride-alongs with officers. Stimpson also said he wanted the board to be advisory in nature and have no oversight.
Manzie told those in attendance at the public hearing Thursday the council doesn’t intend to give the board any oversight over the decisions or policies of police deparment.
“That’s not what this ordinance calls for,” Manzie said. “This is not an oversight committee.”
Some residents and at least one of the councilors spoke out about giving Stimpson appointing authority over seven of the board’s members. Small compared it to letting the fox watch the henhouse.
“I’m very opposed to that,” Small said.
Resident Samuel McCord also spoke in opposition Stimpson’s proposed seven appointees, arguing the mayor should only be allowed one appointment.
In addition, he said members should not be forced to participate in ride-alongs, as officers would “be on their best behavior” for those and wouldn’t give an accurate representation of their daily duties and activities.
Earlier this week, the Mobile County Chapter of the NAACP came out in support of a citizen’s review panel, though chapter president Ronald Ali said the organization was still waiting to see exactly how it would be shaped by the council’s current deliberations.
“We support the deliberation that’s taking place amongst all our city council members who are in favor of making sure the lives of all citizens are better and we have a better relationship with law enforcement,” Ali said.
Ali also serves on one of the existing advisory panels Barber has already created, which oversees the Second Chance Or Else (S.C.O.R.E.) program. That program offers first-time drug offenders a chance to avoid a non-violent criminal charge while also providing access to parenting classes, drug counseling and skills training.
While Ali said S.C.O.R.E. has been very successful in “changing the lives of young men” and their families, he said it would be inappropriate to compare its advisory board to the citizen’s review board the council is currently proposing.
“One is helping lives change in our community. The other one is being designed by our council and citizens to make a difference within our community,” Ali said. “We need it, and we’re waiting to see how it will develop.”
Lagniappe reporter Jason Johnson contributed to this report
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
It looks like you are opening this page from the Facebook App. This article needs to be opened in the browser.
iOS: Tap the three dots in the top right, then tap on "Open in Safari".
Android: Tap the Settings icon (it looks like three horizontal lines), then tap App Settings, then toggle the "Open links externally" setting to On (it should turn from gray to blue).