For all the preparation and precaution taken prior to executing search warrants at the culmination of a five-month, multi-agency drug investigation, the last thing heavily-armed and synchronized law enforcement officers appeared to need as they descended on their target Feb. 27 was the element of surprise. It was, after all, the middle of the day.

As the downtown business crowd took its Friday lunch break, a convoy of police cruisers and paddy wagons pulled out of the Mobile Police Department’s administration building on Broad and St. Anthony streets for a simple half-mile jaunt to the Campground neighborhood, a few blocks north of Springhill Avenue.

A K-9 unit searches a property on State Street that was the focus of a five-month, multi-agency drug investigation on Feb. 27.

A K-9 unit searches a property on State Street that was the focus of a five-month, multi-agency drug investigation on Feb. 27.

Police had been to the location before. Last summer, the same area was the focus of a series of sweeps that led to more than 50 arrests on drug possession and distribution charges.

In August, the MPD arrested more than 20 people in and around the R.V. Taylor housing complex in a multi-phased mission dubbed “Operation ReVitalize.” A separate operation netted at least 18 arrests in the Maysville neighborhood in April. A break-of-dawn mission in February targeted a two-block area of Webb Avenue police said was responsible for 995 incident reports over a two-year period.

Mobile Police Chief James Barber and Mayor Sandy Stimpson returned to the Campground in December, canvassing the neighborhood on foot and encouraging citizens to take a stand against entrenched drug activity and crime.

But through it all, one house in particular remained a “hot spot.” Aided by undercover purchases and surveillance, officers determined a residence at 1076 State St. operated essentially as a drive-thru “drug den,” where a bag of crack cocaine was as quick and easy to obtain as Taco Bell’s new Sriracha Quesarito.

Within a few hours, “Operation Drive-Thru” had served up another 20 arrests. After the suspects were removed from the premises, public works employees used a bulldozer to clear debris from a blighted property next to the target house, while workers boarded up its doors and windows.

“Once the successful raid was made, our team acted quickly to clear the debris because it was endangering citizens’ lives,” Stimpson said in a press release afterward. “I applaud the police, public works and urban development departments for shutting down one of the largest drug rings in the city, removing dangerous debris and transforming a blighted neighborhood all in one day. This didn’t just happen. Our teams worked tirelessly across departments to make today a reality.”

Law enforcement officers and drug users weren’t the only people aware of the illicit activity on State Street. As part of a community outreach initiative, Barber recently began sharing select police intelligence with community leaders, an “unprecedented” move he hopes will build trust between the department and areas that require a heavier police presence.

While early in his leadership he rejected a suggestion to form a citizens’ oversight committee to keep the police department in check, he has since developed a less formal “citizens’ panel” to build a dialogue with residents interested in working along with the department, rather than apart from it.

Before the bust on State Street, Barber met with the panel to inform them exactly who they were targeting, when and why.

“The citizens’ panel is actually community leaders and this particular one is in the most disenfranchised part of the city,” he said. “They were the ones that I first started meeting and from there we’ve grown relationships where not only would I share postoperative information with them, but now we have reached a point where we will sit down with them before police even conduct an operation in the area and share the intelligence with them. So now they know where we’re going, who we’re looking for and why we’re doing it.”

Barber contrasts the tactic with that of his predecessor, who led a city-wide crackdown known as Operation IMPACT, which essentially arrested anyone for any infraction, no matter how minor.

Mayor Sandy Stimpson and Police Chief James Barber on the scene of a multi-agency drug operation on State Street Feb. 27.

Mayor Sandy Stimpson and Police Chief James Barber on the scene of a multi-agency drug operation on State Street Feb. 27.

“For 18 months we ran an operation with 40 to 50 officers that would saturate mostly impoverished areas and the measure of success was output,” he said. “So people were arrested for loitering, failure to obey the police, traffic attachments — really anything they could figure out to put you in jail for. Four thousand, one hundred people were arrested in an 18-month period. That’s a huge amount of people, but it’s kind of like throwing a cast net into a pond that you’re trying to catch a bass in. So you catch catfish, bream, crappie — you get a lot of bycatch that really was not contributing to any of the criminal conduct of the area. So what happens is your relationship with the community begins to deteriorate, because you’re now seen as an occupying force.”

Barber said the resulting mistrust of the department was a barrier he is still trying to overcome, but he is hopeful regular meetings and discourse with citizens’ panels will restore confidence in communities where police are often seen as adversarial.

“IMPACT was abolished immediately by me, I saw the harm it was doing and we’ve actually spent the past year trying to recover from [it],” he said. “You can imagine living in a neighborhood and walking down the street or across the street with a beer in your hand to talk to your neighbor and all the sudden you’re put on the ground, handcuffed and arrested for drinking in public. That’s the kind of operation we ran.

“Now, we specifically go in and identify the problems of the area … we identify which locations are responsible for it and which individuals are participating. And then when we do come, we’ll share the information with the community leaders ahead of time … so that’s the difference between the two styles of leadership. What we’re doing is taking community-oriented policing — which is the beat officer engaging with the community — and institutionalizing it with the leadership in law enforcement engaging with community leaders, and we’re beginning to see a huge difference.”

Down at Mobile Metro Jail, corrections officers are noticing a difference as well. During the previous administration, the facility would often swell to 40 percent above capacity and inmates would have to sleep six to seven people to a cell.

“Imagine getting up in the middle of the night and having to tip-toe over people to go to the toilet,” Warden Trey Oliver said. “We’d have a lot of incidents start by people who got stepped on or disturbed while they were trying to sleep.”

Designed for a maximum of 1,200 inmates, the population on a weekday in late February was 1,179.

“It’s great right now,” Oliver said. “We’ve been enjoying 11-year lows lately. We got below 1,200 around Mardi Gras where two or three summers ago we’d be between 1,700 and 1,800.”

Oliver cited the elimination of Operation IMPACT, as well as support from judges and the District Attorney in keeping the numbers down, adding that even federal law enforcement agencies seem to be making fewer arrests.  

“The Sheriff went to the judges a couple years ago and said, ‘there is always room for one more, we’re not about to tell you to not send anyone else,’ but he asked the judges, if there are alternatives, please use them,” he said. “The economy has also picked up … The former police chief was real big on road blocks and traffic stops and old warrant arrests and it seems the new mayor and the new chief are focusing more toward violent crimes or entrenched crime, so we’re seeing less people arrested. The female and juvenile inmate numbers are also down.”

Despite the targeted approach, the majority of suspects apprehended in the MPD’s recent drug operations were constitutionally afforded bail. Of 11 defendants arrested during a bust in Maysville last April, six spent fewer than 24 hours behind bars. Only one pleaded guilty, but the rest are awaiting formal charges from a grand jury. Three have since reoffended.

In Operation Drive-Thru, more than 50 charges were filed against the 20 individuals arrested. Of those, 31 were felonies and 20 were misdemeanors, according to a press release.

Looking at the demographics, all but one of the individuals were black, 14 were male and six were female. Their average age was 42.1 years old.

Exploring their arrest records, only one, a 19 year-old male, had no prior arrests in Mobile County. The 19 others had an average of 15 previous arrests each. Fourteen of those swept up in the operation had previous felony charges, and nine had been arrested previously for violent crimes.

Of the 20 arrested in Operation Drive-Thru, nine individuals remained in jail as of March 9, while the others had bonded out.

In February, Barber announced a 9.3 percent reduction in crime from the year before. In preliminary numbers provided to the FBI, the city reported that while violent crime (robbery, murder, assault and rape) experienced a 1.9 percent drop from the previous year, the rates of murder and rape increased by 14.8 percent and 55.2 percent respectively. The spike in reported rape cases is attributed to a more inclusive definition of the crime.

Meanwhile, nonviolent crime like burglary, larceny and motor vehicle theft all saw reductions of at least 9 percent in the city, although there were still more than 2,500 individual burglaries reported.

When the numbers were released, Barber pointed out that about 10 percent of Mobile’s geographic area is responsible for nearly 80 percent of the city’s criminal activity. Mobile’s first precinct, which encompasses the Dauphin Island Parkway and areas south of downtown, saw the most crimes per capita in 2014 report.

Barber said selective focusing on these problem areas has helped keep crime down, as well as a renewed focus on repeat offender or career criminals, which he claimed were behind roughly 60 to 80 percent of the crime in Mobile.

While he has taken some criticism for perceived heavy-handed tactics in minority neighborhoods, Barber said the statistics justify the approach.

“Most of communities that need the police the ones that feel the most disenfranchised by the police,” he said. “So they are the ones that are policed more heavily — because of a disproportionate amount of criminal activity in those communities. You have open-air drug markets, prostitution, all the way up to burglary, robbery and even murder. You have systemic violence that follows that. And so how you develop trust is through communication. And communication is probably the most important factor, being transparent and communicating with the communities that need you most.”

It led him back to the role of the citizens’ panels.

“We have laws that allow us to police, but an effective police organization asks the community for permission to police it. There is no right to govern in this country — it’s a democracy. So even though certain tactics may be legal they might be completely unacceptable to the community you serve. So you have to be able to base the values of your community, which may not be the same as anywhere else. But if the tactic is important enough that is really makes a difference to public safety, then it is up to leadership to work with leadership of the community to explain that and communicate it. And you have to do so effectively or you’re not going to be near as effective as you want to be.”

Jason Johnson contributed to this report.