A Mobile Police Department (MPD) juvenile outreach program apparently beset by mismanagement has been restarted following an investigation thwarted by poor record keeping that left investigators with little evidence of malicious intent.
Both county and federal prosecutors declined to proceed with investigations involving the alleged mismanagement of federal funds connected to the Mobile Police Explorers program, Chief James Barber said in an unrelated interview earlier this year.
The Explorers program is designed to teach children about police work and tends to focus its outreach in impoverished areas of the city. Explorer posts are often linked with public housing projects in the city and organized trips to destinations including Denver, Washington DC, New York City and Gatlinburg, Tennessee, were paid primarily through federal grants or grants that came through the Mobile Housing Board, according to records.
An investigation Lagniappe led into the program in 2013 discovered that an internal MPD memo described its administration in a state of “complete disarray.” Allegations had surfaced that MPD personnel used the funds to take friends and family members on the trips.
In February, Barber said a joint Federal Bureau of Investigation and MPD inquiry into the matter found very scant evidence to support the claims, but that was due to the program’s practice of shoddy record keeping.
“That was an interesting case in that the lack of documentation and the lack of record keeping actually worked to their advantage because they left no paper trail,” Barber said at the time.
The record keeping was such that it was hard for investigators to find out who connected to the program “stayed at hotels, who ate at restaurants, who rode a bus,” Barber said. The record keeping also made it hard to figure out how the money was spent, he said.
At the time of the allegations, Barber was in a lower position in the department.
Trying to figure out whether the money came out of drug funds or federal funds or state forfeiture funds was also difficult, because of the poor record keeping, next to impossible, he said.
“I can tell you, drug money was used to fund ski trips and stuff, but being able to show that it was used with the intent to defraud or with criminal intent proved very difficult because we were never able to show exactly who was on these trips,” Barber said. “I don’t know if it was planned chaos or what but it has been more identified as gross mishandling of funds than of criminal intent.”
He added that it was also nearly impossible to account for individuals on trips between 2008 and 2011.
“There [are] volumes of information but it said nothing,” Barber said. “There were no waivers signed by parents, there were no rosters — it was incredible.”
Lagniappe first raised questions about the Mobile Police Explorers program in 2012. The newspaper had to file suit against the police department and then-Chief Michael Williams for requested records related to a five trips taken by leaders in the program, from 2008 to 2011.
MPD and the city eventually released more than 6,000 pages of documents, many of them incomplete or duplicates held in various departments in both MPD and the city. While some documents clearly showed MPD employees and some city employees attending ski trips, the city and department would not identify whether children on the trips belonged to officers or employees. Address comparisons conducted by Lagniappe from the documents supplied did seem to positively show the children of some police officers routinely attended the ski trips.
At the heart of the issue is not only who attended the trips, but how they were paid for. The Mobile Housing Board often supplied money for trips, ostensibly for those Explorers who were involved with the program through MHB. Mayor Sam Jones’ Office of Strategic Initiatives also supplied Weed & Seed grant money meted out by Donna Mitchell, who ran the office.
Mitchell and her OSI co-worker Barbara Wolfe attended at least a couple of Explorer trips, according to documents, even though they seemed to have little direct involvement in the program.
Records recovered show internal emails between MPD and city officials discussing the suspicion that some city employees, their children and spouses were improperly attending the federally funded trips.
According to a Sept. 7, 2011, document entitled “MPD Internal Analysis and Recommendations for MHB Explorers Program,” problems with the Explorers trips first came to light a month earlier.
That analysis said the program was, “in complete disarray and warrants immediate action and correction.” It went on to add, “There seems to be no internal or external controls governing the MPD Explorer Program and its staff that requires a complete overhaul of the program at this time.”
Last week, Barber announced the department has restarted the program and has been recruiting at local high schools.
“Whereas the Explorers before was kind of used as a … I don’t know … vacation method or whatever it was, now we’re trying to get them interested in law enforcement,” Barber said. “[We want to] get younger Explorers to flow into a cadet program that will eventually lead them to the police academy and to be police officers.”
Barber said he hopes the revamped program, which began meeting again in February, will be able to touch more youth lives than before.
“The Police Explorer program, it’s a youth program but it touches so few youths,” he said. “So we have to do something far better than 25 to 35 kids at a time.”
For more information about the MPD Explorers program, visit www.mobilepd.org/youth.php.
Reporters Dale Liesch and Jason Johnson contributed to this report.