Local law enforcement officials say they’re open to a community dialogue about acceptable policing practices for Mobile, though some top brass believe the policies in place now are strong enough.
Last week, local, state and federal officials fielded questions on the topic during a virtual town hall event called “The Talk” hosted by the Mobile County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Chapter President Robert Clopton said the name was a nod to conversations many black Americans have with their children about how to behave during encounters with the police.
While recent police killings of black citizens in cities such as Minneapolis, Louisville, and Atlanta continue to drive discussions about police reform nationally, Clopton said he believes it’s time for the citizens of Mobile County to have a “talk” of their own about what they’d like to see from local law enforcement.
“The protests we’re witnessing are a direct consequence of the racism, bigotry and violence against black people that have been seen in our country and around the world for a very long time,” Clopton said. “[George] Floyd’s death was an unspeakable tragedy, but sadly, the brutality against the black community seen among some members of law enforcement has been an ever-present circumstance.”
Clopton said over the last three weeks the local NAACP chapter has been “inundated” with questions from the community — primarily the black community — about the Mobile Police Department’s (MPD) policies and procedures and how officers are held accountable when they violate those policies.
Chief Lawrence Battiste has said MPD is willing to hear concerns and suggestions from the community, but he has also defended his department, saying the administration doesn’t shy away from punishing officers who break protocol or from even seeking criminal charges when their actions violate the law.
Specifically, Battiste noted the recent arrests of two former employees in the department’s impound lot charged with using their position for personal gain as well as recent disciplinary actions taken against an officer and patrol supervisor involved in a high-profile use-of-force incident.
He was referring to MPD officer Blake Duke, who was disciplined in February after a viral video showed him placing a detained suspect in a chokehold. Duke claimed the man was resisting arrest, but an investigation ultimately determined his actions still violated MPD’s use-of-force policies.
Because it is a personnel matter, Battiste has said “appropriate actions” were taken, but he could not disclose any details. However, he was able to confirm to Lagniappe that one of Duke’s on-scene supervisors during that incident, Sgt. Lori Alford, was demoted for failing to intervene in the situation. Alford has appealed her demotion to the Mobile County Personnel Board, making it a matter of public record.
“Supervisors have a role in de-escalating situations that occur in the field,” Battiste said. “They’re responsible for directing a culture of professionalism and for making sure every officer under their command is following the code of ethics they’re sworn to uphold.”
According to Battiste, there is an emphasis on de-escalation tactics in MPD’s training for recruits, which is revisited during annual training for all officers. He said MPD’s approach to training, as well as other matters like use of force, citizen complaints and mitigating personal biases, are all designed around standards set by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA).
Only about 5 percent of law enforcement agencies in the U.S. are accredited through CALEA and MPD is one of only 12 in Alabama. Maintaining that accreditation requires annual reviews and an extensive re-accreditation process every three years — one MPD is expected to renew later this summer.
According to its most recent accreditation report, MPD met more than 300 national standards set by CALEA between 2014 and 2017 and only reported minor issues with two standards — one related to the experience required to become a negotiator and another about investigators not attending briefings for patrol officers.
“These types of practices are pretty much the gold standard for our industry,” Battiste said. “And you can’t just say you’re doing these things. You have to provide CALEA with statistical data to support what you’re doing in these areas where they require to report outcomes.”
Those reporting requirements have led to local data being collected on a number of key issues like use-of-force incidents, citizen complaints and even demographic breakdowns of incident reports including traffic tickets. A breakdown of some of the statistics from MPD’s 2017 CALEA report is available below:
According to the report, MPD documented more than 588 “use of force” incidents between 2014 and 2017 — 45 of which resulted in complaints against officers and 15 of which involved firearms. Of nine officer-involved shootings, only one was deemed improper, though the report gives no indication about the results of the shooting or any investigation launched into the incident.
Battiste said officers are held accountable when their actions violate MPD policies or they use excessive force. Officers can also be subjected to internal reviews, disciplinary action and additional training if they display a pattern of using force too often, even if they haven’t violated established protocols.
Though MPD does not disclose much information about how many officers are reviewed through its Employee Intervention Program, it acts as kind of a refresher course on proper policies in hopes of curbing concerning conduct — whether it’s related to use of force or any other aspect of the job.
“An employee intervention review may be based on a single significant event where the behavior is suspect or based on an ongoing pattern of behavior,” Battiste said. “An officer may have a number of things occur over a short period of time and we decide, ‘You know, we may need to look at this guy.’”
As Lagniappe reported earlier this year, the former MPD officer who fatally shot 19-year-old Michael Moore in 2016 had previously gone through a similar program called the “Personal Early Warning System” over concerns he may have been “too quick to implement force.”
Documents produced as part of an ongoing federal lawsuit filed by Moore’s family indicated that former officer Harold Hurst was recommended for the program by a supervisor after he was involved in eight use-of-force incidents between December 2012 and December 2013.
The supervisor who recommended Hurst for the program in 2014 specified that he had never used excessive force nor violated MPD policy during any of those incidents but was concerned Hurst “lacked tact and diplomacy in dealing with those individuals who did not readily recognize his authority.”
Moore’s shooting has been a particular point of interest during local protests of police brutality.
Over the weekend, a small gathering recognized the fourth anniversary of Moore’s death as well as other black men killed by law enforcement officers in Mobile County including Lawrence Hawkins, who was shot by a Prichard police officer in 2018, and Ray Mitchell, who was fatally shot by MPD officers in 2013.
Because it occurred during the MPD’s CALEA evaluation period, the recent report actually makes a special note of Moore’s death — something it referred to as a “controversial” incident. As Lagniappe has reported, Moore was killed by Hurst after he allegedly attempted to reach for a gun in the waistband of his gym shorts during a traffic stop on June 13, 2016.
According to the CALEA report, the incident was investigated by the department’s Internal Affairs Unit as well as an MPD Shooting Review Board that reviews all officer-involved shootings. A Mobile County grand jury later declined to indict Hurst on any charges and — at the request of MPD — a federal civil rights investigation was conducted that was unable to find evidence of any civil rights violations.
Despite the outcome of those investigations, Moore’s family and their supporters have still argued that the shooting was unjustified and may have raised questions about police narrative from the incident.
That is primarily due to conflicting witness reports, the lack of available body camera footage and the fact police didn’t recover a weapon until after Moore’s body had been moved from the scene. Some have called for the investigation to be reopened, but there’s been no indication that’s being considered.
Though he didn’t discuss the details of the shooting, Battiste said Moore’s death was a significant event for MPD. He said the department reached out to the federal government on its own to make sure it was using the best and most current practices with regard to things like use of force and biased-based policing.
“We were able to provide revamped training on bias-based policing, not only for our officers but we also footed the bill to make that available to all of the other local agencies in this geographical area,” he added.
One interesting note made by CALEA evaluators was that the number of use-of-force incidents and the number of complaints from citizens have been declining since MPD officers started using body cameras in 2015. Battiste said about 80 percent of on-duty officers are outfitted with cameras at any given time, and those who don’t have them are investigators or supervisors that are less engaged with the community.
The department’s body camera policy, which was released publicly as part of a First Amendment lawsuit, requires officers to record all contacts with citizens except for those who are “non-adversarial.” If they fail to do so, officers have to file a written report explaining why.
While MPD has taken a strong stance against publicly releasing most body camera footage, Battiste said those captured on body cameras, and in some cases their families, are able to review that footage in certain situations. He also said supervisors regularly review random officers’ body camera footage.
“Our policy clearly states that supervisors should, on a monthly basis, be reviewing the footage from no less than 10 calls, not because of a complaint, but just to be sure officers are operating properly,” he said. “I love body cameras because they wind up clearing our officers a whole lot more than they don’t.”
While that may be true, it’s hard for the general public to verify because MPD has seldomly released body camera footage. Footage of McGill-Toolen High School students being pepper-sprayed by an officer was released because of a lawsuit, but footage from other incidents with a significant public interest — like Duke’s chokehold arrest earlier this year or the aftermath of Moore’s shooting in 2016 — has not.
In addition to questions about specific policies, many advocates have been calling for better police and community relations, with some seeking more direct public input on what tactics are deemed acceptable.
A Police Citizens Community Relations Advisory Council was created after Moore’s death in 2016, but with little to no authority over MPD’s actual policies and procedures, some of the very people who advocated for the council seemed to quickly lose interest. Some are now calling for a creation of a similar body with expanded oversight capabilities, though there’s been no formal push to move that forward.
The Mobile County Democratic Executive Committee (MCDEC) has established a new committee on police violence, law enforcement and community relations. Last week, MCDEC Chairman Ben Harris III told Lagniappe the point of the new committee is to help organize some of the existing concerns community members have about law enforcement and to work with public officials to find solutions.
“There have been cries of pain and rage in these recent protests, but there have been cries of pain and rage in the African American community about these issues for a long time and for too long the response has been, ‘Yes, but …’ and we want that response to change to, ‘Yes, and how can we help?’” Harris said. “We want to hear from the community and act on a sustained basis, because one piece of legislation, one resolution or one policy change isn’t going to be the solution. There are systemic issues here.”
Speaking to the calls for more public involvement, Battiste said his administration is willing to listen and even to take criticism, but for that to happen, he said, the community has to get involved and stay involved when there aren’t high-profile incidents like the death of George Floyd in the daily news cycle.
Battiste told Lagniappe he believes there is real value in the community getting involved to hold its police force and its own people accountable for their actions.
“We’re here to try to serve the community as best we can, but there has to be a long-term commitment from those who say they want to be more engaged,” he added. “MPD is going to be here. We’re going to be at the table because there’s a real benefit to us having this dialogue, even when we disagree.”
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