Connect with us

News

Interview, Part 2: AG Strange on Immigration, Prisons and Tornados

Bill Britt

Published

on

By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

APR: Everyday we hear how the budget is straining the state government is, how is that affecting the ability of the state to fight and prosecute crime and is there any solution to this?

STRANGE: So far, I think we are doing a good job, the DAs are doing a very good job. We are going to be fighting that budget fight early on but what concerns me is when you see the forensic labs cut. That is a good example of what really happens with law enforcement, when you can’t get your results back on a crime scene, particularly getting fingerprints back. Some of the satellite forensic labs have already been eliminated and they are being centralized at certain locations in Auburn and Montgomery, that’s a killer because the longer it takes the hazier memories get, witnesses wonder off, I am really concerned about that.

APR: The unfortunate thing is any time there are talks about having to cut programs, or even look to the Education Trust Fund, people get all up in arms. Then everything is reduced to sloganeering and people say stupid things like: “Well, we’re not going to let you cut such and such from the children’s to protect prisoners.” But they are not seeing the bigger picture. This is about law-enforcement trying to protect citizens by keeping people in jail or putting people in jail. It’s complex isn’t it?

luther_strangeSTRANGE: It is a very complex issue and the people in the Department of Corrections do a miraculous job in keeping that system together with the resources that they have. You have got to give them all of the credit in the world. It’s a delicate, tough situation.

I am going to continue to work with Cam [Ward] and the judges and DAs because this is the second largest piece of our General Fund Budget.

APR: There are a lot of issues facing law-enforcement and the judiciary, two big ones are alternative sentencing and Truth in Sentencing. Recently, I was speaking with [District Attorney] Chris McCool about more judicial input in regards to sentencing and he was sharing with me that when citizens elect DAs and judges they are electing local folks. He was talking about how local judges and DAs have a better understanding of the people in that community and who needs to go to jail and never be let out and who could be put in an alternative situation without trying to jeopardize Truth in Sentencing.

STRANGE: I would say you could still have Truth in Sentencing in a scenario where you are allowing and encouraging local judges to do that.

Advertisement

It is important that once a judges says it is eight years that it is eight years, the victims want it to be eight years. They don’t want it to be, “Well, I’m giving him 15 years and he’ll be out in three.”

That’s what drives victims crazy, it drives the police crazy. Suddenly, a criminal is back in the community when they thought we had sent them away for 20 years. If the judge makes the determination on the front end that this guy should serve five years, one year or ten, then he actually gets that time. Then I think victims would be more understanding about it.

APR: Why do we have this sort of craziness where someone gets 15 years and they are out in three? Can you give me a better understanding about this?

STRANGE: You know, I’m not sure, it has been built up, it is sort of a system that has been in place. I think it sounds good to give somebody 20 years, but over the years with a system that is drastically overcrowded they just starts adding on points for good behavior and other factors that just allow it to be whittled down, so they could get them out of crowded prisons.

APR: So a lot of this does, in fact, go back to the under-funding and overcrowding of our prisons. These people are let free, in part, due to a broken system.

STRANGE: Yeah, nobody is really all that happy with it. We have a pardons and parole board, as well, which not every state has. They are very good, they are a safeguard for keeping the worst from getting back on the streets any earlier than they have to be, and so they do a good job as well. There are problems with the system but they are being addressed.

APR: Changing the subject, (and this is kind of a softball question but always a fun one) what has surprised you the most about the job so far?

STRANGE: That’s a tough question, I thought you were going to ask me an easy one.

APR: You don’t have to answer that, I just thought it was a fun one.

STRANGE: No, no. Really, there have just been so many surprises that it is hard to say. It is such a wonderful job and I believe it’s even a better job than I could have imagined. I knew it was a great job but you get to be involved in so many things.

We have been given so many interesting issues to work on.

And critical things like the tornados. Early on we were pro-active. One of the ways was to reached out very early on going after people who might try to take advantage of the situation instead of waiting until after the fact on things, for example, like price gouging. This is always a problem after a hurricane or tornado or a disaster like that. Suddenly, there are a lot of allegations out there of merchants price gouging. We didn’t wait for it to happen.

Before the storms hit we reached out to the trade associations that represent all of the service stations and said, “Look. Here is what the rules are and if we get any reports of price gouging we are going to call you up and get you to call the station, and we will tell you where it is. If it is not fixed or if we don’t have a good answer for it in two hours we are sending a police car there.” And we had no problems. Every time we got a complaint we called the association and they would call the merchant and it would get fixed.

You know we have been trying to be pro-active on some things like that. During the tornadoes the police were just fabulous which it was great to see them work the way they did.

And then there is the immigration issue. I have really been surprised at just how controversial that has been but I guess that comes with it.

APR: Certain people and the media, most often, will paint many of us in Alabama as racist. My opinion is that this is not a racist bill it is a bill about the law and doing what the federal government basically has in their law but refuses to enforce.

STRANGE: I couldn’t agree more, this law is about addressing a problem that the federal government has not addressed. As a matter of fact, it was the Bush Administration for eight years that didn’t do anything about it. Now it is year three in the Obama Administration and they haven’t done anything about it. They just got more aggressive in determining that they were simply not going to enforce the law.

But, you are right about this perception about Alabama, and I think that maybe, in part, because we have actually had significant portions of our law upheld, unlike the other states. You know, there are a half a dozen other states that are doing the same thing Alabama is, I think that has made us a little bit of a target, I think that is part of it.

And I think it is easy for people to want to try and recreate the civil rights movement to use Alabama’s history.

I don’t know if you saw the editorial in the ‘New York Times’ basically comparing me to George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door because I sent a letter to the Justice Department saying, “I would like to know what authority you have to collect a lot of information about our schools.” And they took that to be akin to George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door.

This was just kind of a typical letter in the context of litigation. The Justice Department was suing us, and I thought it was a backdoor way to do discovery.

You don’t allow the police to nail a warrant to your door unless you look it and say, “What authority do you have?” I would never have imagined in my wildest dreams that they could come up with George Wallace comparison but then I started thinking about it and that is just a perception that they have.

Even though, like you, I have traveled all around the world and recruited people like Hyundai to come to Alabama, served on the board of Talladega College and done everything possible to move Alabama to the 21st Century.

And I think we have made great strides. I mean lightyears of strides since the 50s and 60s, but they still have that same perception. And I said to someone that the ‘Washington Post’ was trying to write a story about confrontation with the federal government and I said, “I have no confrontation with them. We want to work with them. We are both in the law-enforcement business.”

I am not going to allow anyone to be profiled, singled out, discriminated against or anything else in Alabama, but we need to work with the federal government. But I thought, Alabama has had some skeletons in the closet if you go back 50 or 60 or so years ago. And I guess this journalist decided to pull one out and beat me over the head with it. But that George Wallace thing was just a classic example of that.

APR: A comparison like that certainly stops dialog.

STRANGE: If you don’t like the tone of a letter simply asking for government’s authority then, who knows. That is a typical example of what we are up against.

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

Advertisement

National

Data issue causes under-reporting of Alabama COVID-19 cases

Chip Brownlee

Published

on

An issue with the computer system the Alabama Department of Public Health uses to calculate and publicly report COVID-19 cases on the state’s public dashboard is causing delays and a temporary underreporting of positive COVID-19 cases over the past several days, Alabama’s top public health official said Thursday.

“We’re working with our IT folks and the vendor of the program to try to get it straightened out, but yes, we are undercounting the positives on the public dashboard right now,” State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said in an interview with APR Thursday.

The data issue is causing daily case counts to artificially decline, Harris said, adding that the undercounting is not purposeful. Either way, the decline may give some the false sense that the pandemic has subsided.

It does not appear that the data issue is causing the Department of Public Health to miss positive cases but rather the issue is inputting those cases into a system that then posts the data publicly.

Once the system returns to normal functionality, the case count is expected to adjust, which may cause a new spike in daily cases.

The Alabama Department of Public Health, in a tweet Thursday morning, said the issue with the program was due to the large increase in the volume of test results being processed by laboratories nationwide, causing the “national surveillance pipeline” to become overwhelmed.

The overwhelmed system, the department said in the tweet thread, is causing delays in reporting, but the department, at least on Twitter, did not specifically address whether the delay was causing an underreporting of cases in the near term.

Advertisement

Harris said the issue has affected several other states, and he hopes it will be resolved soon.

“There is definitely more than one state that has had the same problem because this is like an open-source program. There are other states that use it in public health — their own versions of it. So yeah, there’s more than one state having that problem,” Harris said.

The delays in data reporting are artificially making it seem as if the state’s daily case count is declining when it may not be, Harris said.

Over the past four days, the number of new cases per day has plummeted from more than 500 on May 31 to just 216 on Wednesday.

The 7-day average of new cases has also dipped as a result of the decrease in new reported cases.

“I’ve had several calls today, and I’m trying to make it clear to everybody that we don’t know that that’s true,” Harris said of the declining daily case counts. “The last four or five or six days, we’ve had 300, 400, sometimes 500 cases a day, and I don’t know why that would be different in the last day or so.”

Continue Reading

National

Huntsville police chief: Protesters “brought this on themselves”

Chip Brownlee

Published

on

Huntsville’s police chief and the Madison County sheriff defended the use of tear gas and rubber bullets on protesters in downtown Huntsville Wednesday evening, claiming the demonstrators “came here for the fight, not us.”

Chief Mark McMurray said Thursday that demonstrators — whom he described as “anarchists” — “brought this on themselves” after refusing to disperse following the expiration of a permit at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday evening.

“We kept asking them to leave,” McMurray said. “They brought this — this group brought this on themselves. They came here for the fight, not us.”

Huntsville police and Madison County sheriffs deputies deployed tear gas and fired rubber bullets at peaceful protesters and demonstrators Wednesday evening, injuring several people.*

Video from the scene shows demonstrators in the aftermath of a peaceful Alabama NAACP rally peppered with rubber bullets and tear gas as law enforcement helicopters hovered overhead and police with guns moved among the rooftops in downtown.

One protester who was at the demonstration described her experience.

“After being forced into the park, the police boxed in the crowd and then shot tear gas behind us,” said Kelly Jovenitti. “I was forced to run into a cloud of it. Everything was chaotic. I couldn’t see. I know someone grabbed me and a medic was called. Some kind lady told me to take off my glasses and quickly rinsed my eyes the best she could.”

She said she has asthma.

Advertisement

“I couldn’t breathe,” Jovenitti said. “My face was one fire. But the police were still coming. The gas was still coming. The rubber bullets were still coming. It sounded like a warzone.”

Jovenitti said she was not an anarchist. “I just love all people and believe we all should be treated the same,” she said.

McMurray said police felt they needed to clear the area before dark because protesters began donning protective equipment. Video shows a peaceful protest interrupted by police moving in.

“It’s darkness coming on, when we lose the fight,” McMurray said. “We have daylight, we win. It’s 90 minutes. It’s an unauthorized protest against the government. That’s what it is. That’s what anarchists do. This was not NAACP. This was a separate splinter group that took advantage of a peaceful protest and hijacked it to cause anarchy against our government. Their way is to cause damage, set fires, loot, pillage.”

He said law enforcement saw guns and other weapons among the crowd, though none appear to have been used. The police chief said two officers had minor injuries and were back at work Thursday, but that protesters threw rocks and water bottles at police cars, which he said counts as assaulting a police officer.

Protesters had bleeding wounds on their legs after being hit with rubber bullets, and a small child — less than four years old — was engulfed in tear gas Wednesday evening, according to AL.com’s Ian Hoppe.

“The whole tensions changed as they brought out more and more equipment, as they brought out the masks, the goggles and all of the bags started coming out,” McMurray said. “We didn’t change that tension.”

Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, in a statement Thursday, said he supported law enforcement’s tactics Wednesday night.

“What occurred after the NAACP event was disheartening. A second event occurred, structured by people who were not part of our community,” Battle said. “They gathered at the courthouse to block the square and protest. This was not part of a permitted event, and there were no local organizers in charge, which becomes a public safety issue. Even so, police allowed the protestors time to express themselves before asking everyone to leave. Most complied, but others did not. Police were clear in their instructions and worked with the remaining protestors for more than an hour before using non-lethal irritants. The protesters had every opportunity to peacefully leave and they chose otherwise. The leadership of this second group is not our community.”

The first sign of any offensive action by protesters came after police deployed smoke and after trooper cars sped through the area, according to reporters at the scene, when the protesters threw water bottles at state trooper cars.

“How many warnings do you give before you lose your sunset?” McMurray said.

Huntsville has so far not imposed a curfew, but law enforcement declared the event an unlawful assembly after a city-issued permit expired at 6:30 p.m.

“I think that law enforcement needs to be very, very careful about what they’re doing and not anticipate violence,” said Sen. Doug Jones, a former U.S. attorney. “I saw some people say last night in Huntsville that they were trying to prevent violence before it started, and you don’t do that, I don’t think, with gas and rubber bullets.”

Jones called for a “good, long review” and said images of snipers on roofs and children gassed were disturbing.

At least 24 people were arrested Wednesday evening, all of them from Madison County, the chief said. Twenty were arrested for disorderly conduct for participating in the “unlawful assembly.” But he also claimed that outside splinter groups agitated the crowd and “anarchists” organized the demonstration.

“The ones who stayed began donning all their protective equipment,” McMurray said. “They put on their eye protection. They put on their gas masks. They broke out their first aid kits, their water, their milk, their preparations for combat, and they stood their line, and they were confrontational with us.”

The police chief and sheriff said they were confident the protesters were an out-of-state splinter group because they saw cars with out-of-state tags.

“A lot of these people came in to ramp up the numbers of what happened Monday,” McMurray said, referring to the first time law enforcement deployed tear gas against protesters in Huntsville after a protest Monday evening. “They weren’t here for the NAACP. They were here for anarchist movements.”

McMurray displayed what he said was an anarchist poster found at the demonstration. He also showed photos of pipes and other materials, which he said were weapons stashed by the demonstrators, though none appeared to have been used.

Madison County Sheriff Kevin Turner said police “did the right thing” Wednesday evening.

“We did the right thing last night,” Turner said. “At 6:30, when that permit was over, when they came to the square, we still showed patience and allowed them to march that square — when we could have initially just ended it. There is tensions across this country. We see it every single night on TV. It is a terrible thing, a terrible thing that happened to Mr. Floyd — terrible. But we’ve got to do the right thing. By doing these acts and coming into our town, or any town for that matter, and destroying it, it takes everything away from what happened. And we’re not going to allow that here in the city of Huntsville or in Madison County. We’re not going to do it.”

*Correction: This article previously stated that State Troopers joined Huntsville police and Madison County Sheriff’s Deputies in deploying tear gas and rubber bullets. The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency says State Troopers were only present as backup support and did not fire tear gas or other dispersants.

“Huntsville is one of several Alabama cities this week requesting support from ALEA. The agency has assigned ALEA Troopers to serve as backup during protests, but they have not participated in deploying tear gas or using other such means to disperse crowds. Details are law-enforcement sensitive and not available,” an ALEA spokesperson said in a statement.

 

Continue Reading

Featured Columnists

Opinion | What happened in Huntsville Wednesday night was disgraceful

Josh Moon

Published

on

Law enforcement officers in Huntsville assaulted dozens of people Wednesday night following a peaceful protest and march. 

This is the accurate description of what took place in Huntsville. 

I don’t care what you heard on “the news” or what you read on Facebook or Twitter. That’s what happened. 

Following a peaceful protest downtown — for which the NAACP obtained a permit, because it planned to block traffic — dozens of protesters, gathered to speak out about police brutality of black citizens in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, began to march around the downtown area. 

This is their right. It is guaranteed by the U.S. constitution. 

Contrary to popular belief, and according to legal guidance posted by the American Civil Liberties Union, you do NOT need a permit to peacefully assemble. In fact, it is against the law for anyone — or any law enforcement agency — to prevent you from peacefully assembling in response to a breaking news event.  

And yet, that’s exactly what happened in Huntsville. 

Huntsville Police, the Madison County Sheriff’s Department and — for some reason that no one could immediately explain — the Alabama State Troopers began firing tear gas and rubber bullets at people who were peacefully marching. 

Advertisement

In attempting to explain why such actions occurred, Lt. Michael Johnson of HPD essentially admitted that officers acted improperly. 

He told TV station WHNT-19 that officers attempted to clear the area by telling the lawfully gathered crowd to disperse. When the crowd instead decided to exercise its right to assemble, Johnson said, officers began using force, including firing the rubber bullets at innocent men, women and children and spraying the crowd with pepper spray and tear gas. 

(Just a quick little FYI: Tear gas has been deemed a chemical agent and the Geneva Convention specifically bans its use in war. But it’s still legal for police departments to toss into peaceful crowds.)

Johnson said officers used force because they weren’t “going to roll the dice” and take a chance that the crowd could become hostile. 

Which — and while I’m no attorney, I feel comfortable going out on this limb — is not how the law works. You can’t impose force because you believe someone might break the law. Particularly when there is no evidence of that. 

And how do we know there is no evidence of it? 

Because Johnson just kept on talking during that interview, an interview led by WHNT’s Jerry Hayes, who was — and I’ll put this kindly — very police-friendly. As Hayes praised the police response and told everyone that the cops really had no choice but to clear the area by gassing children, Johnson explained just how well it had all gone. 

No officers were injured, Johnson said. No property was damaged, he said. They even had single-digit arrests/detainments, he said. 

So, again, law enforcement fired rubber bullets at peacefully assembled men, women and children who didn’t damage property, didn’t assault police officers and had every right to march on and alongside a public street. 

It’s not hard to understand why people are marching against police abuse. 

Democratic state Rep. Anthony Daniels, who represents the Huntsville area and who spoke earlier in the evening at the NAACP-organized event, compared the actions and the optics of the police attacking citizens to “Bloody Sunday” in Selma. On that day in 1965, Alabama State Troopers attacked a group of peaceful marchers because the marchers refused to disperse, and instead continued their march out of Selma towards Montgomery.

“I want someone to explain to me what the state troopers were doing at a peaceful event,” Daniels said. “What happened was a disgrace. That was a peaceful protest. Those people were following the laws and were not out of line.”

The same cannot be said for the officers. 

There are a number of videos of cops from various agencies firing tear gas canisters at people who are posing no threat, and in most cases are backing away from the officers, and randomly spraying down groups of people with pepper spray for no discernable reason. In one video that was viewed several hundred thousand times by late Wednesday evening, an HPD officer exits his patrol car, pepper spray in hand, and just starts strolling along, periodically dousing terrified people with the spray. 

It was disgraceful. It was ignorant. It was, most of all, simply wrong. 

There has been a lot of condemnation over the last few days of violent protests and criminal acts. And rightfully so. While many people understand and can empathize with the anger that lies beneath these protests, the majority doesn’t want to watch cities burn. 

I hope the same people who condemned those acts will also speak out against the violence committed by law enforcement in Huntsville on Wednesday.

 

Continue Reading

Crime

Marshall says Moody officer’s death was not related to unrest

Brandon Moseley

Published

on

Wednesday, Alabama Attorney General Steven Marshall (R) issued a statement on the line-of-duty death of Moody Police Officer Stephen Williams late Tuesday night.

“I was devastated to receive the phone call late last night that another one of our law enforcement heroes had lost his life,” AG Marshall said. “I have been slow to make a public statement today because, after a record-breaking year of law enforcement deaths in our state, words just seem so inadequate.”

“Sergeant Williams was responding to a call for help at local hotel,” Marshall said. “He showed up, ready to assist, and was instantly shot dead. At this point, we have no reason to believe that Sergeant Williams’s shooting is related to the unrest we’re witnessing across the nation. Nevertheless, our state has been plagued in recent months by a lack of respect for law enforcement—most of whom are genuinely good men and women, from all backgrounds, doing an incredibly difficult job.”

“Whether black or white, law enforcement or civilian, we are all Alabamians,” Marshall concluded. “None of us benefit from lawlessness. As I shared with Moody Police Chief Hunt last night, my prayers and deepest sympathies are with the department and Sergeant Williams’s family. My Office stands ready to assist in any way that we can.”

There are two suspects in custody, a man and a woman. As of press time their identities had not been released. A suspect is expected to be charged with capital murder today, their identity will be released then.

“The investigation into the death of Sgt. Stephen Williams of the Moody Police Department is ongoing. The St. Clair County Sheriff’s Office, JSU Center for Applied Forensics, and ALEA, along with numerous supporting agencies are currently conducting an extensive investigation,” said St. Clair County Sheriff Billy Murray (R). “I would like to thank all of the assisting agencies who are too numerous to name who responded without hesitation to an Officer in need. I also would like to thank the citizens of Moody and all of St. Clair County for their outpouring of support for all Law Enforcement.”

Sources report that there was contraband found at the crime scene. Sergeant Stephen Williams and a police trainee were called to the scene by dispatch to the Super 8 Motel in Moody. They faced a barrage of gunfire almost immediately upon arriving at the scene. Multiple weapons have been recovered. Williams was later pronounced dead at UAB Hospital. An hours long standoff at the motel followed. Investigators were on the scene all day on Tuesday collecting evidence.

Stephen Williams served with the Moody Police Department for three years. During that time he was made a sergeant and led the Department’s night shift. Moody police chief Thomas Hunt said that Stephens won officer of the year. Stephens has 23 years in law enforcement experience with Moody, Bessemer, Alabaster, and Calera. He leaves behind a wife and three children.

Advertisement

The Moody Chamber of Commerce announced that a Memorial fund has been set up for Sgt Stephen Williams at Metro Bank. You may make a donation at any Metro location.

Continue Reading
Advertisement

Authors

Advertisement

The V Podcast

Facebook

Trending

.