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Opinion | Police are not above public scrutiny

Josh Moon

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Why are police above public scrutiny?

That seems to be a relatively new thing in this country, and it is a particular problem in Alabama — this notion that the general public has no right to even question a police officer’s actions.

We’re hiding body cam footage. There are very few regular citizens on cities’ police review boards. Some cities are hiding cops’ personnel files, despite that being one thing that Alabama Open Records Act laws specifically covers.

And if ever a cop is questioned … whoooo, boy! There will be shame and ridicule, and the full weight of city government will be brought down to protect the Brother in Blue.

It’s nonsense.

And it’s happening every day in this state. There are, specifically, two egregious cases active now — one in Huntsville, one in Montgomery. In both instances, city cops have been indicted on murder charges.

In Montgomery, the victim was black and walking through his neighborhood late at night. In Huntsville, the victim was white and police were responding to a mental health call.

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In both instance, the county district attorneys — who each have to work with the police departments in those cities — reviewed the evidence and determined that enough existed to seek indictments. And in both cases, a grand jury issued those indictments.

That would seem like enough reason for the mayors of the respective cities — Todd Strange in Montgomery and Tommy Battle in Huntsville — to back away and allow the justice system to work.

They have not.

Battle last week asked his city council to cover the legal expenses for William Darby, the cop accused of murder. The council agreed unanimously, although it did put a $75,000 cap on expenses — a cap Battle said he disagreed with.

In Montgomery last year, following officer A.C. Smith’s shooting of Greg Gunn, Strange implemented an unprecedented city-led review, and he promised to allow Smith to remain on the MPD payroll, receiving his full salary and benefits, as he awaits trial.

Seriously consider the facts of these two situations.

In Huntsville, the taxpayers are footing the bill for private attorneys, when they are already paying for court-appointed attorneys for anyone who can’t afford legal representation. Apparently, public defenders are good enough for poor, mostly minority regular folks — even when they are accused of murder — but not good enough for cops.

In Montgomery, even as other city employees have been immediately terminated after their arrests for various offenses — all of which fall well short on the moral scale of murder — Smith remains fully paid.

When questioned about this early in the case, Strange said he wanted to wait on more facts to come out at hearings before making a decision on terminating Smith. A couple of weeks later, at a hearing, a State Bureau of Investigations officer testified that Smith admitted in interviews that he had no probable cause to stop, pat down, chase, strike, Taser or shoot Gunn.

That was not enough for Strange.

Nor was it enough when a second Montgomery judge proclaimed after an immunity hearing last month that he didn’t find Smith to be credible during his testimony.

In Huntsville, Battle cited a clearance by the HPD Incident Review Board as his primary cause for supporting Darby so vigorously.

He should be careful, because I can’t find a single incident in which the HPD review board didn’t clear an officer in a shooting. That includes a number of shootings in which the suspect was unarmed, and several in which other law enforcement officers also engaged the suspect and didn’t fire a shot.

In 2015, for example, Orlondon “Dre” Driscoll was shot by HPD officers after he exited, unarmed, from a car he was accused of stealing. The review board cleared the officers, saying that while Driscoll was unarmed, his hand made a motion as though he was pulling a gun.

It’s absurd.

And here’s the thing: In most cases, there is body cam footage of the incident. There’s certainly footage of the Darby shooting. But these same mayors and city governments and police departments have fought like hell to hide those videos from the public — the same public that pays the salaries of the officers.

In Montgomery, while there is no video — because Smith “forgot” to turn on his body cam — Strange has refused to release the findings of the city-led investigation into the Gunn alleged murder.

His reasoning: he doesn’t want to taint the jury pool. Which is not, as far as the law goes, an accepted exception under the  

Look, cops have a tough job. Yes, they are mostly heroic individuals who deserve our praise and admiration.

But you know what, it’s not like the job’s a mystery at this point.

We’ve all seen “Cops” on Fox and watched a thousand cop shows and reality cop shows on TV. If you sign up to be a cop in 2018, you know what you’re getting into, and you know the pay.

So, let’s stop pretending that the cops who have committed horrible acts of aggression and assault — and even murder — against the citizens they’re supposed to protect are somehow overwhelmed by the toughness of the job. Because that’s insulting to the 99 percent of cops who manage to not do anything illegal or dumb every day.

 

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