The Mobile City Council’s public safety committee decided to not make a recommendation on a citizen advisory board for the Mobile Police Department, after two of the committee’s three members shared concerns over the proposed board’s effectiveness.
Committee member Levon Manzie, who co-sponsored the ordinance that would create a police citizens community relations advisory council, said the board would work to ease the level of mistrust some members of his district and others feel toward the Mobile Police Department.
Although a similar board was discussed and ultimately dropped in 2014, the MPD was again thrust into the center of this debate following the officer-involved shooting on June 13 that ended in the death of 19-year-old Michael Moore.
While Manzie reiterated his full support for the MPD, he said the board would increase communication between officers and the public for the good of both sides.
“The officers serve the public,” Manzie said. “To have an increased level of communication with the public… I think this is a progressive move.”
The proposed board would consist of seven members — each appointed by one of the city’s seven councilors to represent their district.The board would not have oversight, Manzie said, but according to the ordinance, would allow the community to participate in the review and recommendation of policies that would help the police be more sensitive to the needs of the community, among other things. The board would report to the city council.
Mayor Sandy Stimpson, in support of the item, asked the council to allow him to have seven appointments as well. He also sought additional compromises, but over the course of two meetings, the committee only briefly, and never seriously, entertained Stimpson’s alternative proposal.
The board could be used as a mechanism for both officers and residents to open a dialogue on perceived issues, Council Vice President Fred Richardson said. Richardson also raised concerns about the citizen panels Chief James Barber has already put in place in various neighborhoods
Barber has previously suggested those panels, which oversee specific initiatives in the Campground area and Maysville community, would negate the need for additional community oversight.
Richardson, however, suggested the administration has too much control over those panels.
“We don’t have a voice in it. We don’t know whether there is any diversity,” Richardson said. “If the mayor and chief want to disband this tomorrow, they could.”
Councilman John Williams, a committee member, said he understands there is distrust of the police in the city, but added that there are already mechanisms in place to ease it through community meetings and community action groups.
“This committee is available to address issues within the police department,” Williams said. “The number one connection to the chief is city representatives.”
Williams said when he asks Barber and Assistant Chief Lawrence Batiste about a situation, he gets answers. Richardson responded by saying “you do,” implying that the chiefs don’t answer all of his questions.
“How could appointees get the resolution we’re asking for? I have no issue with the intent,” Williams said. “I don’t want to look out the window, or into a camera and say we’re doing something to change the perception when it’s not going to do it. If we can’t get an answer as a body of seven with authority, I don’t think we are with this.”
Richardson argued that if a group of citizens can’t get answers then Barber’s community panels are organized “in vain.” Richardson added that there is a committee involved in many other aspects of government, including an ad-hoc committee on taxation.
“I believe we will be neglecting our responsibility if we allow our citizens to hold these feelings toward law enforcement officials,” Richardson said.
Councilwoman Bess Rich, the committee’s chair, agreed with Williams that a committee of “lay people, who would be advising council members brings very little to the table.” In contrast, she said the ad-hoc committee on taxation, which she also chairs, features citizens involved in banking and business.
She added that many issues involving the police department in her district are handled through her office and went on to suggest councilors attend Barber’s own community meetings.
Manzie said if a citizen-led effort is useless then there’s a problem with the entire judicial process, as juries are made up of “lay people.”
“Is this perfect? No,” he said. “This is what we can do. We can legislate. This is what our offices can offer, legislation.”
Williams, who has been an opponent of the creation of several council committees in the past, said he understood the concerns of Manzie and Richardson, but added that the “government is way off.”
“I don’t think we’ll fix it with a piece of legislation,” he said. “I’m opposed to other committees because of the perception we’re doing something when we’re not.”
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