Despite the involvement of three police officers with multiple cameras in the arrest of Baldwin County Commission Chairman Chris Elliott for driving under the influence, no police video of the event exists, according to Fairhope Police Chief Joe Petties.
“The problem is they’re not always on, but you can turn them on when something like this happens. It would have been good if [the arresting officer] had had it and turned it on when he had to make this stop,” Petties said.
Petties said he wanted to view any video himself after Elliott was pulled over for running a red light just after midnight on May 14 of last year. The chief was told there was no video because the arresting officer was off-duty and no assisting officers activated their cameras. Elliott has claimed he has “a couple of beers” at the Fairhope Rotary Steak Cook-off earlier that evening, though the event ended two hours prior to him running the red light.
Since many patrol cars have dashboard cameras and Fairhope officers, including Petties, are issued body cameras, the chief said he and some of his staff have discussed establishing a policy for their use in light of the Elliott case. Current policy is for on-duty officers to activate their cameras when involved in a traffic stop.
Lagniappe is pursuing an investigation of the arrest and the adjudication of the case after Elliott’s original post-arrest statements outlining the events leading up to his arrest were called into question and it was discovered he had sued to keep his license from being suspended even after claiming he would, “face these consequences.”
Compounding matters, Elliott falsely told local media and a gathering of Republican women earlier this month his case had been “settled” recently, ending with a guilty plea, fines and a 45-day suspension of his driver’s license. On Jan. 12, Elliott appeared before the women’s group, along with several members of local media he had contacted, and said he faces no further legal issues pertaining to his DUI arrest and that his license suspension would be complete at the end of January, according to both printed and broadcast reports. Lagniappe was not made aware of the event and did not have a reporter present.
However, Elliott still has a pending civil lawsuit against the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency concerning his attempt to contest the loss of his driving privileges. In that suit, Elliott claims loss of his license could do harm to him as an elected official. In that case, all the circuit court judges in Baldwin County have recused themselves. ALEA also has said they are the only agency that can hand out a license suspension — with the standard being 90 days for refusal to take a breathalyzer test.
On Monday, acting Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Lynn Stuart, signed an order assigning retired Montgomery County Judge William A. Shashy to the case.
Elliott did enter a guilty plea to the charge of driving under the influence in Fairhope Municipal Court on Sept. 7, but that plea will be nolle prossed, a legal term meaning it essentially goes away if he does not have another infraction for the next two years and satisfies other court requirements.
Elliott has refused to discuss with Lagniappe either his arrest or the discrepancies in what he has told other news media.
Lagniappe also requested both the police report and the Fairhope Municipal Court file on the case under Alabama’s Public Records Law. Although parts of the arrest and incident reports were redacted, they did contain the following details:
Elliott was driving a white 2009 Chevrolet Suburban when he was stopped in the area of Fairhope Avenue and Fairwood Boulevard. [Petties told Lagniappe that Elliott ran a red light at Bancroft and Fairhope Avenue as officers were removing street barricades after a Rotary Club Steak Cook-off.]
Officer James Westbrook is listed as the reporting officer, but the incident report notes Officer Daniel Rada was an assisting officer and the arrest report notes Officer Heidi Loftis was assisting.
The report indicates Elliott’s vehicle was towed from the scene, and police also seized a Ruger LCP .380 pistol in a leather holster.
Petties and Sgt. Craig Sawyer, the department’s public information officer, say Westbrook was off duty at the time of the arrest and was working security at the cook-off. The event was over and no more than a few people with the cook-off may have still been on hand, he said. When a car ran the red light, Westbrook jumped in his patrol car and went in pursuit, pulling Elliott over, Petties said.
Elliott has admitted he attended the cook-off and left after drinking “a couple of beers.” But about two hours elapsed between the end of the event and his arrest. Multiple sources have claimed Elliott was at a local bar after the cook-off, but the commissioner has stuck with his story and has not directly answered the question of whether he was somewhere else.
Petties said he saw Elliott at the cook-off during the day, but they were on opposite sides of a crowded street and merely waved at each other in passing.
As for how three police officers in at least two police cars with two different types of cameras took no video during the arrest of a county commissioner, it appears no one thought about it.
According to Sawyer, the dashboard cameras are supposed to be booted up when an officer goes on duty. They are checked for the correct date and time, then left on standby.
“It’s on standby for the entire shift. If you flip on your belt microphone, or flip on the blue-light switch or activate the camera itself, it starts to record,” Sawyer said.
“Because [Westbrook] was working the extra event and his car was parked somewhere nearby, he never even turned it on to standby mode. So the camera was off completely when he pulled over the car, and it could not turn on.”
Petties said the officer was not wearing his body camera for the same reason: He was off duty and working the event. “The officer was working a special event. He didn’t have his body camera on, on him.”
The other two officers would have been involved in transporting Elliott to jail because they were on duty and Westbrook was not. Asked why they wouldn’t have turned on dashboard or body cameras, Petties said, “I didn’t ask that question, but I was under the impression, and I think that this is what was going on, was that he was already up under arrest, and this was a transport.”
No changes or directives in policy have been implemented as yet, Petties said. “Since then we have sat down and talked about this and I hadn’t put out a directive or anything.”
New dashboard cameras are in this year’s city budget so that all cars will have them, Petties said. But the city budget has not been passed by the City Council and remains on hold while new Mayor Karin Wilson makes revisions and recommendations to present to the council.
The chief said he usually leaves his own body camera in his car unless he is recharging it or downloading video. “The way I’ve done it for years is if I’m driving down the road and I say, ‘Oh, that fella there, he looks like he’s been drinking or something,’ and I want to get some driving history and stuff on him, I would just reach up and tap it and turn it on,” Petties said.
“Or I could turn it on on my belt. And I would get some driving history so I would have that to show to the court system. And the court, or the jury or whoever would be able to see this.”
As for Westbrook’s narrative of what happened that night, the police chief’s policy is not to release it to the public. Some Alabama Attorney General opinions back him up, but it should be noted that such opinions do not carry the force of law. An ALEA spokesperson told Lagniappe last week the decision about whether to release police reports for incidents no longer under investigation rests entirely with individual jurisdictions. No law prevents them from being released, nor do the AG’s opinions recommend not releasing them, they simply say it is legal to withhold the reports.
In fact, Fairhope’s previous police chief, Bill Press, released everything, Sawyer said. Sawyer noted that Press came from Florida, where the public records law is different. Journalists consider Florida’s law to be among the strongest in the country in favor of public access.
“He felt it should all be released,” Sawyer said. “Internally, the discussions were that we were against it because people were taking the narratives and using it to support their side of the story to kind of generate some friction within the community. Basically saying, ‘Oh, look, it’s in the police report so it must be true,’ even though it was just somebody’s statement and not a proven fact. That was the way [Press] chose to do it. When Chief Petties took over, we chose to go back to the attorney general’s recommendations.”
Some people also used the reports to try to intimidate victims and witnesses, Sawyer said.
On Jan. 21, Elliott was removed as vice-chairman of District 2 of the Baldwin County Republican Party. John Lake, a former Daphne City Council member who attended a recent executive committee meeting, said the change was made after leaders routinely called for a report from District 2 and the district had none to offer. County commissioners traditionally serve as vice-chairs for their respective districts.
Lake said people attending the meeting from District 2 held an impromptu caucus and elected Cody Phillips chairman. The decision was made because Elliott was not carrying out his duties, not because of the DUI, Lake said. Phillips said Elliott had never held a district meeting in his two years as vice-chairman and that rankled others in the group. Phillips also said Elliott’s DUI did not come up before the vote.
Gabriel Tynes and Rob Holbert contributed to this report.