A week after the Mobile Police Department called a press conference to defend the arrest of an “upstanding citizen” on a disorderly conduct charge generated during a sidewalk “stop and frisk,” officers used the same technique to apprehended a serial burglar who was responsible for at least 21 break-ins over a 17-day period.
At the City Council meeting Feb. 18, Police Chief James Barber defended the tactic, saying it is part of the department’s new emphasis on Command-based Response and Accountability (COBRA) policing, a controversial strategy that Mobile is going to see “more and more of.”
On Feb. 1, police arrested midtown resident Tom Herder after he “became irate and started screaming profanities” at officers who stopped, questioned and briefly handcuffed him while confirming his identity. Herder, a watershed coordinator for the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program, complained that he had simply been picking trash from gutters and walking his dogs at the time of the interrogation.
Upon the conclusion of an internal investigation into Herder’s arrest spurred by Mayor Sandy Stimpson, Barber admitted that the officers involved were searching for a suspect wanted in a string of residential burglaries, who was described broadly as a male, on foot or on bike, carrying a bag.
On Feb. 17, a resident alerted police when she noticed a person matching the description. Officers from the Third Precinct subsequently made contact with 25-year-old Matthew Jamal Blackmon, who was in possession of a large amount of jewelry, some of it taken from a residence that he had just burglarized.
It was later determined that Blackmon had stolen at least $45,000 worth of jewelry and officers were able to recover dozens of necklaces, rings, bracelets and earrings. Also recovered were electronics, sunglasses and cash.
Barber told the City Council that “stop and frisk” was a small part of “multi-faceted” COBRA policing.
“It deals with hot spots and repeat offenders but requires more contact between officers and the people that live in those areas,” he told the council. “Hot spot policing absolutely does work, but it will often put officers in contact with citizens who are doing nothing. You’re going to see more and more of it.”
Justifying Herder’s arrest on disorderly conduct, Barber confirmed earlier that it was not a crime to shout at or curse at an officer, but Herder’s charge was based on “horrible profanities” that at least one resident could hear inside their own home, above the volume of their television set.
“Police officers are required to have thick skin and we take scorn and ridicule as to how we perform our duties,” he said Feb. 10, but the officers had “no other recourse but to restore the peace of the neighborhood by taking Mr. Herder into custody.”
Herder’s attorney, Josh Briskman, said he was “disappointed” with the decision and called the search and arrest “unconstitutional.”
“Theses issues are replete right now,” he said, mentioning recent backlash against stop-and-frisk tactics in New York City. “You can’t stop somebody for no reason. I’d like to talk to [the police department’s] five witnesses. I think a more credible version will emerge showing the police stopped an innocent person for no reason whatsoever and then tried to justify an arrest with trumped-up facts.”
Meanwhile Blackmon, who was allegedly on probation for previous burglary convictions at the time of his most recent arrest, has been charged with 21 counts of third-degree burglary and felony probation violation. At press time, he remained in jail and a court date had not been set.
Updated to increase the number of residential burglaries Blackmon is accused of committing.