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Senate committee OKs raise, bonuses for correctional officers

Brandon Moseley

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Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn and members of his team addressed the Joint Legislative Committee on Prisons Thursday about the chronic understaffing in Alabama’s prisons.

The Joint Legislative Committee on Prisons is chaired by State Rep. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, and State Rep. Jim Hill, R-Odenville.

Dunn told the committee that he has been working with an outside consulting firm for six months on improving ADOC’s recruitment and retention of corrections officers. Dunn acknowledged that the hiring of more officers was crucial and said that higher pay and retention and recruitments bonuses would help in the goal.

The committee voted to support a plan to raise the corrections officers pay by five percent and to offer the bonuses that Dunn has requested.

The governor is requesting hiring 500 more corrections officers in her budget. That was part of the General Fund budget that passed the House last weeks.

Legislators have expressed doubts that that is even possible.

“I think the commissioner is anticipating that the new pay scale will up that number, but I think we all have doubts,” Ward said.

Dunn told the committee that ADOC just graduated a class of 62 new corrections officers. That is the largest class in years. Some classes have been as low as 24. Dunn said that they typically have seven classes graduate from the academy every 24 months.

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Dunn said ADOC currently has 1,200 full-time officers, plus a number of retired state workers who help meet the state’s staffing needs.

A report by the U.S. Department of Justice accused Alabama prisons of an unacceptable level of violence, including rape and murder.

The DOJ’s two-and-a-half-year investigation found that violence, gangs, drugs, weapons, a culture of sexual abuse and contraband were all intolerably high in the prison and accused corrections officers of acceptance of the violence as normal.

A federal court order has found that Alabama needs well over 2,000 prison guards. The DOJ said that the prisons are chronically understaffed and overcrowded.

State Rep. Chris Sells, R-Greenville, said Thursday that he visited one prison recently and though the staffing needs were 200 guards, they only had 95.

Dunn said that the new pay scale would allow a new hire with just a high school diploma to make $31,000 a year.

Persons with a two-year associates degree or a four-year degree would earn even more.

DOJ says that they have been unable to finish their report because ADOC has refused DOJ’s subpoenas for thousands of documents on alleged excessive force and sexual abuse by ADOC corrections officers on inmates.

Attorney General Steve Marshall is objecting to the subpoena arguing that DOJ has exceeded its authority and that ADOC does not have the resources to hand over the 68,000 documents including daily intelligence reports.

Currently, ADOC makes corrections officers undergo 12 weeks of academy training so that they are certified at the Alabama Peace Officers Standards and Training level. Dunn said that other states do not do that and proposed creating a less rigorous correctional security guard position with just six weeks of training.

“The vast majority of systems across the country, to include the Federal Bureau of Prisons, do not do a law enforcement certification,” Dunn said.

Ward said that ADOC should do everything possible to comply with Judge Thompson’s order, and that the Legislature was willing to put up whatever money was needed and to change regulations to comply.

Ward sponsored Senate Bill 303 to raise correction officers’ pay. That bill received a favorable report from the joint committee on Thursday.

ADOC shared the comprehensive “Recruiting and Retaining Correctional Officers” report, compiled by third-party consultant Warren Averett.

The ADOC contracted Warren Averett in 2017 to complete a thorough review of ADOC’s policies, practices and procedures related to recruiting and retaining correctional officers and to make recommendations for improvement.

ADOC said in a statement that it has been working closely with Warren Averett and additional third-party experts to implement recommendations for improving recruitment and retention within Alabama’s prison system.

With new strategies in place, the ADOC has seen significant progress, including the hiring of 47 new corrections officers in March 2019.

“The ADOC has been working diligently on the recommendations provided in the Warren Averett report,” said Dunn. “We are pleased to be able to share the contents of this report and are excited to announce that the current ADOC Academy class is the largest since 2015. With this momentum, recruitment efforts are projected to generate a significant increase than seen in years past.”

Dunn said that ADOC is working hard to comply with the federal court order and to present a plan to the DOJ to resolve their concerns.

“We recognize the magnitude and scope of the challenges our department faces, especially as the U.S. Department of Justice recently identified,” said Dunn. “We have been working tirelessly to implement actionable solutions to address these challenges – such as recruitment – but remain in a difficult position with limited resources that impacts the speed and intensity in which we address these systemic issues. With Governor Ivey leading the way, all stakeholders, including the state legislature and its leadership, the DOJ, and the advocacy community, must work together to form permanent and transformative solutions.”

DOJ gave the state 60 days to present a plan to address the problems found by their investigation or the federal government could sue the state for failing to comply with the Constitutional Amendment forbidding cruel and unusual punishments.

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“I’ve never felt the fear I felt then:” Demonstrators describe police action at Huntsville protest

Chip Brownlee

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Photo: Sarah Myers

Protesters gathered in Huntsville on Wednesday, first at an NAACP rally against police brutality, and later an unorganized protest downtown near the Madison County courthouse.

The largely peaceful demonstrations ended when police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators who refused to disperse after a protest permit expired at 6:30 p.m.

The Huntsville Police chief and Madison County sheriff have said they used appropriate force to disperse an “unauthorized protest against the government.”

Police claim the protest had to be dispersed because “anarchists” from out of state hijacked the gathering and threw rocks and water bottles at police.

“It’s darkness coming on, when we lose the fight,” Chief Mark 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.”

At least 24 people were arrested, all locals from Madison County — 20 of them charged with disorderly conduct. Several people were injured by “less lethal” rubber bullets and tear gas deployed by police. At least two police officers sustained minor injuries and returned to work the next day, the police chief said Thursday.

Below are some accounts and videos from demonstrators at the protest, based on their own recollection of what happened. Their accounts have been edited for length and clarity. This post may be updated with additional perspectives.

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Video: Eddie Swift


Sarah Myers from Huntsville:

We came to the protest in the park initially at around 5:30 p.m. It was so packed we could barely get anywhere near the crowd or speakers, but we came with medical supplies in case people got maced again like they did Monday.

We dispersed our supplies to various people around the park, and then shortly after headed home. At 7:30 p.m., we came back because we saw people posting about how the protest moved to the courthouse square and there was a strong police presence. I wanted to document and make sure people were okay. I had no idea what would happen.

As we approached the square at about 7:30 p.m., all the stairs to the courthouse were barred up and heavily armed, shielded officers wearing gas masks lined the entire perimeter of the courthouse.

I’ve never felt the fear I felt then. I genuinely felt as if I could be shot at any moment for any reason. They were intimidating, smug, snickering amongst themselves as we protested.

I suppose, we were blocking the streets, so we gave them a “reason.” I say that very loosely and sarcastically because the way they responded was in no way appropriate toward civilians — even if we were standing in the street.

I’ve heard about the 6:30 p.m. expiration of the permit — which I guess the NAACP agreed upon — but is public property not always fairground for a protest? Even if we, as a separate group, wanted to continue after 6:30?

Photo: Eddie Swift

Maybe I’m wrong, but what I do know is we were 99 percent peaceful. The majority SHOULD HAVE spoken. The police could have easily taken a knee with us, as many police in many cities have done, and we would have been gone by 8.

But what they did instead was wait for the clock to strike “8” (7:45) and started sounding off loud intense alarm sounds, so I fell back about a block. I’m honestly not even sure on a perfect timeline after that — all hell broke loose, time stretched and warped and still hasn’t really returned to the same.

I cannot get my mind off of that night, the feeling of terror in my own city.

They were trapping us, yet shoving us, there were people screaming blood-curdling screams because of pepper spray or tear gas being sprayed directly into their faces.

Immediately turning around to see a young boy, who looked no older than 17, with a huge hole blown out of his calf and blood covering his entire leg. He was in such shock that you couldn’t even tell anything was wrong until you looked down. We were trying to help this guy, and they still just kept shooting behind us, dropping gas on us, shoving us while we knelt down on the sidewalks, trying to aid people.

We literally just had to take off running for shelter in the parking garage on Jefferson in the middle of helping that guy because there was just constant shots approaching behind us.

Everyone I saw who was shot, was shot with their backs turned to the police. People who were trying to disperse, being maced as they ran by. A medic helping someone on the sidewalk, and police throwing smoke canisters at them.

It was barbaric, unnecessary terrorism. Someone needs to be held accountable for the absolutely uncalled for brutality that happened that night.

Even if someone threw a water bottle or yelled at them, we were unarmed. We were 99 percent peaceful and not participating in antagonizing the police, but when they decided they were over it, they didn’t care who was what or what was what. They started shooting, harassing, arresting, and gassing innocent people who pleaded with them and protested for change.

We left at the point that the riot police began advancing down Jefferson. It just seemed like there was nothing else we could do. They made it clear to leave if you can — or get brutalized one way or another.

I don’t really know what else to say other than I got a glimpse of what a black person goes through everyday … who do you call when its the police that are attacking us?

Warning: Video contains violence and profane language.

Video: Eddie Swift


Dr. Pippa Abston from Huntsville:

I arrived at Big Springs Park at about 4:30 before the start of the protest at 5 p.m. I am pleased to say that multiple medical people and first aid volunteers came. We had at least one EMT. People brought armloads of supplies and water. We had a medical area set up towards the back, and some of us walked through the crowd. I carried a medic sign on a pole.

After the speakers — which I don’t think I can do justice to describing, other than to say extremely inspiring — we were led up the stairs on the side of the park to march. There was chanting. It seemed to me that there were a whole lot more people than on Monday night. The line of marchers really couldn’t move much. We chanted.

Instead of a big march around the square, mainly people seemed to settle in the area in front of the courthouse. Everything I saw appeared peaceful in that area. Again, there were large numbers of police on the courthouse steps. This time they were holding large numbers of wrist ties, indicating to us that they planned to do a lot of arrests, I suppose. We could see people posted on top of the courthouse, and I was told they were snipers, but I couldn’t get a close enough look to verify that.

Suddenly — and again for no discernible reason — police dressed in riot gear lined up along the intersection where Fountain Circle turns into Southside Square. We heard a siren and then once again, unintelligible talking over some kind of sound system. I was roughly opposite the courthouse steps, and none of us could hear them.

Video: Pippa Abston

It turned into that game “operator” that kids play. People were passing along information that they had heard, but it wasn’t the same information. Some said we were supposed to leave in 4 minutes, others said everybody just had to get off the street and onto the sidewalks.

Toward Clinton, which was blocked also on Monday, there was no riot line of police, but there were some police cars, and it wasn’t clear to anyone standing there if that was an exit route. I asked several people if anyone had provided an exit route, as is required, and they said no.

Around that time, some people started coming up to us and reporting that first aid volunteers were being detained and ordered to remove their red cross signs made with tape, on the grounds that they were impersonating doctors. Because of this, the many medical volunteers we had were not identifiable to the crowd.

Several people came to me over the course of the night, because I still had the sign and a red cross on my shirt and backpack. I had put my medical license in with my ID, and I said “let them just try that.” But no one did.

We were also told that police on the courthouse roof were targeting medics — that they were pointing out our position. We were warned by several people to watch out because of that.

A few minutes later, people started passing down the word that they were about to start shooting rubber bullets. So the medical team I was with once again went down the stairs towards Big Spring Park, thinking likely that would be the way folks would flee again.

There was an initial rush of folks running down the stairs again, with some screaming, but this was brief and then people went back up again. We were unsure what to do but decided to stay in the park to be ready for their return. We heard chanting.

Photo: Sarah Myers

After some amount of time, which I did not note because I intentionally left my watch at home, a large crowd of people came screaming, running down those same stairs again into Big Spring Park, being chased by police and we heard shooting of rubber bullets.

We ran also. We heard several large explosions that sounded like bombs. We were told it was tear gas.

Even though it wasn’t really too close to where we were, my eyes did burn.

People passing us said that police had told them we had to leave Big Spring Park, a city park, because it was private property, and that we would be fine if we went across Church Street as long as we didn’t get near businesses.

So a lot of us — maybe 100 or so — walked over there. As we were heading there, we saw a large line of patrol cars with lights and sirens on, coming down Church Street, and we wondered if it was ok after all to go there, but they passed by. We were told they were circling the courthouse.

People milled around on the sidewalk area across near Church Street, which is definitely public property, talking, wondering what was next. Again, we stayed in case we needed to give medical help and also because we had never received any instructions from the police about where to go.

We got word that they were loading up large numbers of police into trucks and coming … to do what, we didn’t know, but we were worried, so we walked further away from Church Street toward the Von Braun Center area.

We saw a line of police advancing down Clinton and onto Monroe Street, and we were worried we were going to get trapped. A large crowd to the left of us were moving past the art museum, and suddenly there were explosions again and what looked like fireworks aimed at the crowd. I was told it was tear gas.

People were running and screaming and several of us were trying to help wash their eyes. These tear gas explosions happened several times. We thought they were trying to drive us to Monroe Street, but we had also seen troopers marching that way, and we didn’t know if we were going to get cornered.

We were still washing people’s eyes. Some people were having intense skin reactions to the gas, burning and redness.

One person had been hit so badly in the eyes that they couldn’t see to find their ride, so they walked with my group back to where we were parked and got a ride with my friends. It seemed like protesters were mostly dispersing from that end of the park. We heard there were continuing protests on Jefferson Street.

I made it home. That was like being in a war, getting shot at, having gas thrown at us. And once again, one of the scariest parts was that it wasn’t clear where to go and be safe from being shot at.

We have to keep showing up for these protests. They are obviously trying to terrorize us into staying home, but we must persist.

The Huntsville police chief is saying that us putting on eye protection and getting out first aid equipment was one of their reasons for gassing and shooting us, because it was a sign we wanted violence.

If I go hiking during hunting season with an orange hat on, am I hoping a hunter will shoot me in the head?

If I lock my car door, am I hoping to have my window broken?

If I wear a mask, am I hoping to get COVID-19?

They had snipers yesterday. If we come wearing bulletproof vests — and no, I don’t own one — are they going to shoot us and say well, look what they made us do?

Could it be that we are aware of their weapons and their history of unprovoked brutality and want to protect ourselves while we exercise our First Amendment rights?

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National

Mobile removes Confederate monument overnight

Chip Brownlee

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The city of Mobile removed a Confederate monument from downtown overnight following days of protest in Mobile and nationwide over police brutality and systemic racism.

Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson said he ordered the statue removed from its prominent location in downtown Mobile overnight.

“Moving this statue will not change the past,” Stimpson said in a statement on Twitter. “It is about removing a potential distraction so we may focus clearly on the future of our city. That conversation, and the mission to create One Mobile, continues today.”

The 120-year-old statue of Admiral Raphael Semmes, a Confederate Navy admiral, is the second Confederate monument removed in Alabama since protests gripped the nation over the police killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

“To be clear: This decision is not about Raphael Semmes, it is not about a monument and it is not an attempt to rewrite history,” Stimpson said.

Stimpson said the statue has been placed in a secure location.

Last week, Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin ordered a Confederate monument in Linn Park removed. That statue had been at the center of a years-long legal battle between the city of Birmingham and the Alabama Legislature, and Attorney General Steve Marshall has since sued the city a second time seeking a $25,000 fine for removing the monument.

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It is likely that Mobile will also face a similar fine, but in a statement to APR Friday, a spokesperson for the attorney general said there are “conflicting reports” about the nature of the removal of the Confederate statue in Mobile.

“There have been conflicting reports concerning the circumstances surrounding the removal of the historic Admiral Semmes statue from downtown Mobile.  The Attorney General is presently gathering more facts to make a determination of whether the law has been violated,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “If the Attorney General finds that a violation of the law has occurred, he will take appropriate steps to enforce it.”

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Economy

Survey shows small businesses are concerned about lawsuits over COVID-19

Brandon Moseley

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A majority of Alabama small business owners surveyed by the National Federation of Independent Business said that they are concerned about the possibility of lawsuits related to the COVID-19 outbreak, according to the NFIB.

Sixty-nine percent of owners who responded to the online survey say that they are very or moderately concerned about increased liability. Twenty-one percent say they’re not too concerned, while just nine percent say they aren’t concerned at all.

“Even in the best of times, small businesses are often the target of opportunists trying to make a buck by filing a frivolous lawsuit,” NFIB State Director Rosemary Elebash said. “It’s clear from the survey that Alabama small business owners are concerned about the potential for lawsuits to try to exploit the already devastating effects of the coronavirus.”

“During the regular session of the legislature, Sen. Arthur Orr introduced a bill that would provide civil immunity for businesses, healthcare providers, churches, schools, and other organizations in connection with the novel coronavirus during a declared state of emergency,” Elebash said.

“The reasonable measures provided in Senator Orr’s bill would protect businesses struggling to keep their doors open from the risk and expense of lawsuits associated with COVID-19,” Elebash said. “If the legislature is called back for a special session, Senator Orr’s bill will be one of NFIB’s top priorities.”

The Senate wanted to address the Orr bill; but the leadership in the House of Representatives demanded that the legislature deal solely with the budgets, the school buildings bond issue, supplemental appropriations, and local legislation. The legislature left for spring break on March 12; but returned two weeks later on March 31 to a different world. Fears of contracting the virus turned the remainder of the 2020 legislative session into a much abbreviated limited affair more concerned with social distancing than passing legislation.

In other results, the survey respondents said: 70 percent say they’re very or moderately concerned about getting customers back; 69 percent are concerned about managing the health and safety of their customers; 66 percent are concerned about managing the health and safety of employees; 69 percent are concerned with having to comply with new regulations related to the coronavirus; and 68 percent are concerned about finding an adequate supply of supplies such as hand sanitizer and disinfectant.

“This has been a challenging spring for Alabama’s small businesses,” Elebash said. “NFIB is committed to working closely with elected officials to develop strategies that allow more businesses to reopen fully so people can get back to work.”

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The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the U.S. economy lost $8 trillion in projected economic growth moving forward due to the COVID-19 crisis and the forced economic shutdowns to fight the spread of the virus and that is could take until 2030 for the economy to fully recover.

The federal government released the May jobs report and unemployment was 13.3 percent which is an unexpected improvement from April’s 14.7 percent

Many businesses are still closed down by government order in states that are reopening more slowly than Alabama. Other businesses can not reopen economically due to social distancing guidelines in place limiting their occupancy and the liability issue only adds another fear that is holding some business owners back, further slowing the economic recovery.

The National Federation of Independent Business is the nation’s leading small business advocacy organization. The NFIB was founded in 1943. 110,173 Americans have died from COVID-19.

To learn more visit their website: www.NFIB.com.

Original reporting by the Wall Street Journal and CNBC contributed to this post.

 

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Marshall “satisfied” actions taken by police in Huntsville were “reasonable”

Brandon Moseley

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Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall (R) voiced his support Thursday for law enforcement in Huntsville.

As has been widely reported, the Huntsville Police Department used tear gas Wednesday evening to disperse a crowd of protesters. Given the infrequency with which this tool is employed, the attorney general said he believed that it was his duty to examine what necessitated its use.

“The appropriateness of police actions must always be judged by the circumstances in which they occur,” Marshall said. “After talking with the Huntsville Police Department and the Madison County Sheriff’s Department, I am well-satisfied that the actions taken by police were reasonable under the circumstances.”

“After a peaceful protest, hosted by the local chapter of the NAACP — which abided by the law and should not be blamed for what came after — hundreds of hostile demonstrators ignored multiple requests by law enforcement to leave the area,” Marshall said. “Rather than leaving, those demonstrators put on gear and readied for battle.”

“After an hour and a half of warnings and with daylight dwindling, law enforcement dispersed the crowd with the least amount of force possible and using no lethal weapons,” Marshall said. “This, despite the fact that the crowd was found to have backpacks full of weapons and spray paint, and which attacked officers with rocks and bottles full of frozen water.”

“Alabama is fortunate in that most protests taking place in recent days have been conducted peacefully,” Marshall said. “At the same time, over the last 10 days—and even as we speak—law enforcement intelligence from around our state indicates the intent of some to infiltrate protests with violence, property damage, and targeting of law enforcement officers.”

Huntsville Police Chief Mark McMurray defended the tactics employed by his department and Madison County Sheriff Kevin Turner against the protestors.

“They set the precedent,” McMurray said. “They set the guidelines. They wanted to go hand to hand at that time. We do not want to go hand to hand with any citizen.”

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McMurray said that he and the Madison County sheriff acted within their authority to declare the gathering an unlawful assembly.

“We showed patience for 90 minutes, and we knew dark was coming,” Turner said. “We didn’t want anything to happen to our downtown area. We did not want anything happening to that courthouse.”

McMurray blamed “outside anarchists” for needing to use tear gas, though all of the arrests made Wednesday were of Madison County residents.

“The anarchists who came prepared and armed, they’re now going to another city to do the exact same thing,” the chief said. “They know how not to get arrested.”

“You could tell there was a fine line of the people that was in that park and the people that was on the square,” Sheriff Turner said.

McMurray said that two officers were hurt with minor injuries but were back to work on Thursday.

Authorities claim that by acting decisively they were able to avoid a riots or destruction.

The Attorney General’s Office announced that it has zero tolerance for aggressive acts against law enforcement and that taking the life of a law enforcement officer carries the penalty of death in Alabama.

Attempting to take the life of a law enforcement officer will guarantee prolonged incarceration of up to 99 years. Marshall promised to personally oversee the prosecution of any such perpetrator, in any judicial circuit of this state, if necessary, to ensure maximum punishment.

(Original reporting by WHNT TV News contributed to this report.)

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