An appeal to the personnel board has revealed that the Mobile Police Department’s most senior supervisor was demoted two ranks last year for ordering officers not to respond to reports of shots being fired on at least two occasions.
Cpl. Ray Robertson — a near 40-year employee of the MPD — was demoted from his position as a lieutenant after instructing officers not to respond to those reported shootings over his concerns that responding officers might have potentially been walking into an ambush.
Chief James Barber said there have been similar concerns of officers being targeted around the country, citing “the Ferguson effect” — an idea that the increased scrutiny of law enforcement following recent officer-involved shootings has led to an “anti-police” mentality, manifesting in attacks on cops in cities such as Dallas, Baton Rouge and Des Moines, Iowa.
“Obviously, we understand our jobs are inherently dangerous. We also understand there’s been indiscriminate slaying of police officers across the country, but we still have a job to do in spite of that,” Barber said. “We always encourage our officers to be alert, to be cautious and even to respond with a supervisor when they’re going to calls that might be suspicious, but not responding at all is absolutely inappropriate.”
Specifically, a charging report from Robertson’s internal disciplinary proceedings accuses the former lieutenant of ordering MPD sergeants to “telephone dispatchers and screen calls for service of shots fired before they could be dispatched” to the locations of those reports.
“Lt. Robertson’s verbal order regarding the handling of shots fired complaints caused units delay in their response, or in the case of two complaints cited in this investigation, caused units to fail to respond to the complaints at all,” the report concludes.
Barber said Robertson’s actions were a violation of MPD protocols that consider “shots fired” to be a high-priority call that merits an immediate response. In addition, the charging report indicates that screening emergency calls would violate the Communication Unit’s operating procedures.
In general, Barber said MPD rules dictate that “if somebody issues an unlawful order, [officers] don’t have to do it at all, but if it’s an improper order, [they] carry it out but report it.”
Though he couldn’t say how many times Robertson gave improper orders, Barber said on at least two occasions officers responded to local hospitals for reported gunshot wounds after reports of “shots being fired” had been ignored — both of which occurred in the Theodore area Robertson oversaw as a shift supervisor in the MPD’s fourth police precinct.
“Now, that doesn’t mean we would have prevented those shootings from happening if we had responded,” Barber added. “We also can’t say whether the shots that were reported were the same ones that caused those injuries. We don’t know because we didn’t respond to the scene.”
According to Robertson’s charging report, the disciplinary options at MPD’s disposal ranged from a 40-hour, unpaid suspension all the way up to possible termination. After an internal review in December, though, a trial board of MPD superiors opted to impose a two-rank demotion.
While the disciplinary action wasn’t nearly as severe as it could have been, Robertson told Lagniappe he believes his punishment was still “way over what it should have been” considering his employment record with the MPD and his previous service in the United States military.
“Out of 500 employees, I’ve been here longer than anyone, and in nearly 40 years, I’ve never had a major violation, and I’ve never been suspended,” he said. “I think the information that’s been put out has cast me in the light of somebody that didn’t want to do his job, but that’s not true. What I did, I did for the safety of my men.”
Though MPD doesn’t generally discuss personnel matters, if an employee appeals a case to the Mobile County Personnel Board, the allegations against them become become public. Currently, Robertson is appealing his demotion, and a hearing is scheduled on March 14.
Though he didn’t specifically say it was correlated, Robertson said the first time he recalls instructing officers not to respond to reported gunfire was in July 2016 — just a few weeks after an officer-involved shooting in Mobile resulted in the death of 19-year-old Michael Moore.
According to the charging report, which was dated Nov. 11, 2016, another instance was reported in or around the month of October, making it, with at least a dozen reported homicides, one of Mobile’s deadliest months of gun violence in recent memory.
Still, Robertson said he was “not ashamed” of the actions that led to his demotion, and cited data from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund showing the number of officers killed in the line of duty rose by 44 percent in 2016, including a 167 percent jump in the “ambush-style killings” he was concerned about last year.
“This is not something I just thought up, there’s still officers getting slaughtered every day by people who just hate the police,” Robertson said. “I backed my guys just like I’ve always backed my guys. That’s the only way I know how to police.”