To combat an uptick in violent crime in Mobile, police have returned to an old tactic of setting up roadblocks in areas known for criminal activity. These so-called “safety checkpoints,” however, aren’t new and often aren’t very popular.

Last October, when 13 homicides were reported in a single month, the Mobile Police Department announced “safety checkpoints” — commonly called roadblocks — would be used as part of a heightened enforcement initiative dubbed Operation City H.E.A.T.

Popular under the administration of former Mayor Sam Jones and former Police Chief Michael Williams, routine roadblocks conducted by MPD had largely gone by the wayside under Mayor Sandy Stimpson and then-Chief James Barber.

When the announcement about safety checkpoints was made last fall, some quickly expressed concern that they were indistinguishable from Williams’ roadblocks, which were criticized in the past for disproportionately impacting African-American and low-income communities.

However, Barber and now his successor, Chief Lawrence Battiste, have both utilized safety checkpoints, though only in locations they deem “high-crime areas.”

Recently, Battiste said he views safety checkpoints as a deterrent to criminal activity and a reassurance to the public — one that lets criminals and law-abiding citizens alike know the MPD is out in force.

Lawrence Battiste was named Chief of the Mobile Police Deparment in March 2017. (Jason Johnson)

“They know that there will be an increased level of law enforcement presence out there by way of conducting safety checkpoints,” Battiste said. “Even if nobody gets shot, just hearing gunfire is cause for people to become apprehensive and to feel unsafe. So again, with the increased presence, we hope we can drive down crime, but we also want to give individuals in these areas where we’ve seen those upticks some peace of mind.”

According to Battiste, MPD evaluates crime reports and trends before setting up a safety checkpoint in a particular area. For instance, he said, prior to an operation near Baltimore Street, police had received reports of three individuals being shot in a single weekend.

On the evening of May 24, MPD checkpoints were set up at Michigan Avenue at Duval Street and Azalea Road at Michael Boulevard. Those resulted in 10 arrests on two felonies and 24 misdemeanor charges. In all, nine of those detained were black and one was white.

The arrests were for such infractions as drug possession and domestic violence, as well as for existing warrants on things like seat belt and driver’s license violations.

In addition to the arrests, police wrote 33 tickets and towed four vehicles on Michigan Avenue, and issued 63 tickets and towed eight vehicles at the Azalea Road location.

Battiste has previously said he wants to continue his predecessor’s approach to communities impacted by violence and the illegal drug trade in Mobile by targeting those who are committing crimes and not the community itself.

When asked how a mandatory roadblock fits into that approach, Battiste said while the checkpoints might be an inconvenience for residents in those neighborhoods, so is crime.

“Unfortunately, when we go into a neighborhood, some of those people who are not involved in any criminal activity are inconvenienced by our presence, but they’re also inconvenienced by the presence of people committing illegal activity,” he said. “I would like to think that us being there is less of an inconvenience when you compare the two.”

Battiste said for motorists who have the proper documentation and paperwork, going through a safety checkpoint is “a minor inconvenience.” For those who receive tickets, Battiste said Mobile’s municipal court has flexible options.

“If there’s a vehicle equipment violation, they can take care of the equipment violation by going to one of the [MPD] precincts and having somebody inspect it once it’s repaired and pay a minimal fee as opposed to having to go to court,” he said.

While the current use of roadblocks hasn’t seen any substantial backlash from the public, the use of similar techniques has caused problems before in Mobile and other parts of the South.

In 2015, checkpoints in the Village Green community, which is also near Azalea Road, raised concerns about the racial demographics in the areas MPD was targeting. Similar complaints about roadblocks in Montgomery were made by a group of black citizens there in 2016.

This year, the American Civil Liberties Union is representing several plaintiffs in Mississippi who have sued the Madison County Sheriff’s Department over claims that it used “unconstitutional checkpoints” and other tactics that unfairly targeted black residents.

Sam Brooke, deputy legal director at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, said the law is clear that roadblocks are constitutional. However, he said that’s only true in a limited number of circumstances, most of which are centered around keeping the public safe.

“The courts have described these as an administrative search, but to be viewed as an administrative search it has to have a purpose that’s not about stopping crime,” Brooke said. “The most widely recognized exceptions are usually related to some other public safety purpose.”

Brooke said checkpoints set up to check for intoxicated drivers or to make sure drivers have a license aren’t considered a violation of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which protects suspicionless search and seizure because their intent isn’t to “ferret out criminal activity” as much as to make the public safer.

“It’s a subtle distinction but the reason that matters is because, normally, we’d insist that you can’t do a search unless you have some reason to suspect that a person did something wrong,” he added. “As a general rule, that’s what we would call a suspicionless search.”

Brooke said he couldn’t speak directly to MPD’s practices, though in general, he said, targeting an area with a checkpoint just because there’s been criminal activity there isn’t something “generally recognized by the courts as an acceptable use.”

When asked about the practice of roadblocks, MPD attorney Wanda Rahman said, “the operations are legally sound and carried out with great thought and precision.

“Driving in the state of Alabama is a privilege, not a right,’ she added. “As the city’s law enforcement agency, MPD is charged with making sure all motorists are abiding by the laws.”