On Your Side Investigation: Closer look at policing, arrest policies for Ala. law enforcement

Updated: May. 20, 2021 at 5:28 PM CDT
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - It’s been one year since George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer. His death prompted a national call for police reform. In May, WBRC launched an On Your Side investigative series examining changes in local policing prompted by Floyd’s death. We filed 11 public record requests with local law enforcement agencies to learn more about their use-of-force policies for our first installment.

Law enforcement policies are the official guidebook for officers in the field. It’s vital knowledge when they encounter those who resist arrest or want to do harm.

Retired Birmingham Police Sergeant Dexter Cunningham spent nearly 30 years on the force. He admits law enforcement often deals with a segment of society that most would never want to confront. It’s something he says the public should consider when discussing reforms that would change the way officers do their jobs.

“It’s not nice when you have to physically control or physically arrest someone who doesn’t want to be arrested,” Cunningham explained. “It’s even worse when dealing with someone who has a total disregard for the rule of law, as well as for human life or even their own. They don’t mind or care anything about hurting or even taking a police officer’s life.”

Following the death of George Floyd in 2020 a national campaign launched to end chokeholds and shooting at moving vehicles. Those asking for reform want agencies to require comprehensive reports on all use-of-force incidents, mandate verbal warnings before firing shots and to intervene if other officers are using excessive force. A number of agencies across Alabama listened to the call for change and followed President Donald Trump’s executive order addressing police reform.

WBRC submitted eleven public record requests to local agencies to learn more about their use-of-force policies. Eight agencies responded. Our public record request was denied by attorneys with Shelby County and the City of Tuscaloosa, however both shared limited information about their use-of-force policies. Attorneys with Hoover Police Department did not respond to our request.

Each policy notes an officer’s job is to preserve life and states an officer’s use of force should only match the physical resistance they’re facing. But that’s where many commonalities end. Some departments don’t expressly state whether an officer must give a verbal warning before firing shots. Some noted chokeholds are considered a form of lethal force but didn’t prohibit using it. Most agencies ban shooting at moving vehicles and indicate shooting at a person who’s running away from officers is only permitted if they’re dangerous. The Shelby County Sheriff’s Office, Gadsden Police Department, and the Tuscaloosa City Council updated use-of-force policies and ordinances following Floyd’s death.

We followed up with the departments that didn't address the following initiatives to determine...
We followed up with the departments that didn't address the following initiatives to determine if the actions are enforced. Those responses are reflected in this chart.(WBRC)

Public records are funded at taxpayers’ expenses. Eight agencies agreed their use-of-force policies were a matter of public record. An attorney with the City of Tuscaloosa disagreed and even felt releasing this information would put officers’ lives in danger.

“If made public, the policies Ms. Horton has requested would jeopardize the safety of the men and women of the Tuscaloosa Police Department as well as the public,” wrote Scott Holmes, an attorney for the City of Tuscaloosa. “These policies make up the playbook for how our officers respond in the most dangerous life-threatening situations.”

Former U.S. Senator Doug Jones, an advocate for police reform, disagrees.

“I don’t see that,” Jones responded. “If people understand [use-of-force policies] and it’s clearly out there that if someone does x, y and z, you could be subjected to the use of deadly force - that can deter people rather than incentivize people. It’s the unknown to me that creates the problems.”

We asked who’s enforcing the policies and holding the officers accountable. We learned most departments train regularly and have disciplinary review boards, but personnel actions are rarely made public.

“There are certain trainings that should take place to ensure that your officers are adhering to the policies that are in place, and that has to be constant,” Cunningham added. “It starts with the leadership. If the police chief is a stickler for adhering to protocol and policy, he or she sets the tone for the entire department. His or her captains, lieutenants and definitely frontline supervisors should have a good idea of the behavior of their officers. If they don’t then you have a disconnect, there’s a problem.”

In addition to local reform, Congress is also considering comprehensive police reform bills. Jones co-sponsored federal legislation to overhaul police policy while serving in the U.S. Senate.

“There’s a lot of talk among law enforcement across this country right now about what needs to be done,” Jones said of policing reform. “There is clearly a belief, even among law enforcement, they’ve got to make some changes and they’ve got to do some things to get the confident of the public back.”

Jones believes change should come from the top down, noting Congress should lead by example and come together to pass comprehensive police reform. The federal government cannot impose police policy on state and local agencies, however those policy changes are usually incentivized through grants. In order to obtain the funding, the departments must update their policies.

“Until you make some changes at the top, until you create the incentives to make those changes, there’s really not a lot of incentive to do it if they don’t see it that it’s a real problem,” Jones explained. “So the federal government has some leverage there and they can tie in procedures, transparency and training to the federal grants.”

In additional to policy reform, Cunningham believes it’s important to narrow the divide between communities and officers.

“I can’t put a value on people knowing the human side of police work and knowing that police officers are human beings,” he explained. “They have some of the same fears and the same dreams as everyday citizens living in the communities that they live in. Police officers have to know and understand that, too. It’s a fine line that’s attainable, but it takes work on both sides of the equation.”

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