The Mobile City Council’s recent call for a police advisory committee isn’t unprecedented. Aside from its similar suggestion in 2014, which was met with quick resistance from both Mayor Sandy Stimpson and Chief of Police James Barber, the council called for a more thorough, external inspection in 1993. At the time, Mayor Mike Dow was beginning his second of four terms and had hired the first chief of police from outside the city’s merit system.
Harold Johnson accepted Dow’s invitation in 1990 after a 30-year law enforcement career in Detroit and Highland Park, Michigan. He was Mobile’s first African-American police chief and according to a subsequent report, he wasn’t very welcome.
Facing turmoil from within the department and throughout the community, the council hired the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum to review department policies and interview employees in an effort to answer several direct questions and make recommendations for change. What resulted was a 288-page report, much of which viewed the department unfavorably, yet the report contributed to a gradual transformation of how the Mobile Police Department was organized and managed. The report, which was not distributed to the public upon its release, is currently available for review at the Mobile Municipal Archives. Its 13-page introduction accompanies this article on lagniappemobile.com.
Former Mobile Public Safety Director Dick Cashdollar said the PERF report was a precursor to modern-day accreditation, which most law enforcement agencies are subject to every three years. The MPD was initially accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) in 1994, and has maintained its accreditation since.
But in 1993, the City Council was seeking answers to underlying questions. Was the police department assigning its resources where and when they are needed most? Are additional resources needed? Is the department well organized? Are police employees receiving effective leadership? Is the police department progressive in the way in which services are delivered to the public? Are the highly visible specialty functions in the police department, such as the mounted patrol unit, an efficient use of personnel? Are the department’s take-home car assignments viable?
The PERF study team, which included the organization’s director along with law enforcement professionals from six states, answered those questions in the negative.
Is the police department hiring, promoting and retaining the best-quality personnel? Are sworn officers performing work that could be completed by civilian employees? Is the relationship between the police department and the community positive? Is there racism in the police department, and if so, does it affect the quality of service provided to the community?
The PERF report responded to those questions with a resounding “YES.”
“Racism exists in the police department, as it does in the community,” the study team reported. “There are racist police officers at almost every rank and there are some racist civilian employees. While they do not represent the majority of employees, the bigotry of these employees has hurt the department internally and externally.”
Inherently, racism is central to the city council’s most recent call for a citizen’s police review council, weeks after white MPD officer Harold Hurst shot and killed black 19-year-old Michael Moore during a traffic stop. The shooting came at time when police use of force has been intensely scrutinized nationwide.
But the 1993 PERF report, combined with ensuing CALEA accreditation, resulted in the MPD’s adoption of a clear “zero tolerance” policy against racial bias, as well as related cultural training.
“There were concerns citywide about racism,” Cashdollar recalled recently. “In a community like Mobile that is almost evenly split between white and African-American, I think there will always be those types of concerns. But at the same time, Mobile has done better than many other communities around the country. That’s not to say there isn’t friction, but I think Mobile has been better at handling it. I don’t know if those issues will ever go away.”
Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran, who was a deputy chief in the MPD under Johnson when the PERF report was released, said it wasn’t received favorably within the department.
“The police department was in quite a bit of turmoil in the years leading up to that … and there were cliques in the department,” Cochran said. “Harold Johnson was hired after Mayor Dow got elected. He was the first outside chief hired and there was a lot of turmoil so they hired PERF to come in and make recommendations.”
Cochran said the draft report was flawed, but the final version “was used as a management tool to make a number of recommendations, a number of improvements and, looking back, probably it gave value to what a lot of people thought needed to be done.”
Cashdollar, who was public safety director until 2005, said the report “mostly dealt with the organization and management of the police department as opposed to policy and policing.”
“It was more of a management and leadership audit,” he said. “We worked on it diligently for the next couple of years trying to incorporate a number of recommendations and I think that we did.”
Cashdollar also said the report, which was commissioned after several high-profile use-of-force deaths of civilians at the hands of police officers, led to the department’s acquisition of less lethal tools such as Tasers.
“At the time, the department had two weapons at their disposal, their service pistol and a little container of pepper spray, and that wasn’t a whole lot of options to choose from in a potential deadly force situation,” he said. “When Tasers were developed, we looked at them very hard and said there is another less lethal tool we can provide our officers. There are still hazards with Tasers but it’s a whole lot less than using a .40 Glock. For a good while we monitored deadly force situations and how they played out and we were firmly convinced Tasers saved a number of lives and I’m sure they still do.”
Monday afternoon, Stimpson and Barber held a joint news conference to announce their support of the proposed committee, but only if the council submits to a number of concessions. Essentially, if the council approves the proposed ordinance creating the committee in August, Stimpson is asking to appoint half of its members himself; for all of the members to complete the department’s citizens’ academy; for the committee to include two ex-officio members; for the committee to sunset in four years; and for it to be “advisory in nature and have no oversight.”
“Given the state of affairs across our nation, it has become increasingly important that we are proactive in engaging and communicating across our entire city, while improving the public’s perception, relationship and dialogue with law enforcement,” Stimpson said. “We have long sought and continue to welcome input from our citizens. In fact, I demand it. It is the only way we can build trust and confidence across the city of Mobile.”
Barber didn’t offer much comment on the PERF report other than saying the department was less organized in 1993 when the study team’s audit began. He also said the circumstances instigating the report no longer exist.
Along with dozens of recommendations for organizational change, the PERF report suggested the department “has the potential to be one of finest large law enforcement agencies in the nation,” but “leadership at the command staff level will have to change … cooperation and trust between the command staff and the chief of police is needed. Improved communication between the police department and elected officials is needed. And, a desire among employees to take advantage of the potential that exists and support positive change is needed.”
Cochran credited Johnson with making many of those changes, and said it was an effort he continues. He also commended Barber’s leadership of the department and transparency working with the City Council.
“Probably no management team wants an outside group to come in and scrutinize them,” Cochran said. “That being said, the advisory committees are not a bad thing, but they can become politicized. What they are arguing in Mobile is two things they are calling ‘advisory,’ but the news media and the City Council, they are calling it the ‘citizen review board’ and ‘oversight committee.’ I’m firmly against that and think it’s a terrible thing.
“I’ve seen it play it out in many cities only to be disastrous. That’s what you elect your mayor and/or your council for, although under Mobile’s law the council is not supposed to have direct input in the police department and it shouldn’t. That’s what the mayor is for. He’s administrative [and] the council is legislative; the mayor is afforded the opportunity to have a public safety director and they are supposed to oversee the police department. Now the advisory committee can give ideas, can make recommendations to the chief — but it shouldn’t be there there to undercut the chief.”